Save the World, bit by bit

1 Soap. Ditch those perfumed hand washes. Those plastic containers hold mostly water, labelled trendily as ‘aqua’. Notice you never wash the dispenser’s top and then you have to throw it away. even if it is recycled, it still causes waste and unnecessary labour. A humble bar of soap is self-cleansing; you clean it each time and add your own water!

2 Public transport – start using it before it dies out completely and you are trapped into using taxis. Get to know your local bus routes and timetables.

3 Protest to your local council about the chemical spraying of grass verges, which poisons surroundings and soils. And those leaf-blowers, which merely cause windstorms and sound like a tree is being felled -plus they use either electricity or petrol. A large rake or a large garden brush does the same job and collects all leaves neatly, without any noise at all. (Much cheaper too.)

4 No decking, paving, or shingle over any soil. Any part of your garden, however small, is valuable. While the Welsh are to be congratulated in exporting chipped slate pieces, it makes a sterile surface (and the weeds do come back merrily, the in the same way as they pierce bark chippings.)

5 Flowers planted for bees, buddleia for butterflies – easy wild flowers, don’t need coddling.

6 Feed birds in winter if you like spring birdsong.

7Ask for potted flowers or bulbs instead of cut flowers for birthdays and other occasions.

8 Buy a wind-up radio. No batteries or electricity needed.

9 Buy a wind-up clock/alarm clock. You won’t need batteries.

10 Protest against fracking – a well-considered letter to a newspaper, your MP, or local council – you don’t need to chain yourself to a railing etc.

11 Try Quorn (and other substitutes) instead of meat. Less cruelty; less land needed. No abattoirs.

12 Sample non-cow milks – soya, oat, almond – there are many alternatives.

13 Why have TV or computer always on red-light standby? There is an off switch.

14 Allotments. Even if you don’t want one, defend their existence.

15 Containers of all sorts can be used to grow tomatoes and runner beans, with low-growing herbs in window boxes.

16 Bottled water. Why, just why? You’ve paid for drinkable water already at home. Why buy a more expensive version?

17 Holiday at home, where you speak the language and don’t get bitten by strange snakes.

18 Buy recycled toilet paper (not what it sounds like), one ply paper, not the thick quilted type.

19 Similarly, boxes of paper tissues disappear, but a real handkerchief will still be around next Christmastime. (The same goes for those baby-wipes that block up sewer pipes. Plain cloth can do the same function and be washed and reused.)

20 Place a plate on top of any bowl or plate of saved food. It can keep out the air. No need for cling film or foil.

21 Bring back string. It is reusable, unlike one-use sticky-tape.

Much of the items above are ‘learned’ fashinable needs, requiring repeated replenishment – batteries, constant re-buying, constant throwing away.

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Some of the Children of Albion

At this late stage, the recent death of Michael Horovitz brings up ‘The Children of Albion,’ his 1969 anthology of underground poetry. It was not really very underground at the time; it was whizzing past like an express train and soon it would be carrying poets as First Class passengers.

Most of the poets had crisscrossed each other, forming alliances as they hitched from one end of England, mostly from London, to, say Hull or Newcastle, while Liverpool/London became the major axis. There was an extra branch in the Medway towns. The roads were the nervous system of that nascent literary movement. This hitching from place to place was a barrier to female poets considering travelling alone. It was not safe even in the 1960s, it never has been.

Which leads us to the glaringly obvious gap. Even Wikipedia remarks on this, with “Only five of Albion’s sixty-three children are daughters.” They were:

1 Frances Horovitz – wife of Michael Horovitz

2 Libby Houston, wife of Mal Dean, tenants in same house as Pete Brown

3 Tina Morris, wife of Dave Cunliffe, co-editor of Global Tapestry

4 Anna Lovell, co-founder of New Departures, with David Sladen and Mike Horovitz

5 Carlyle Reedy, successful performance poet, collagist and painter

These women featured a total of 12 poems from them all, whereas the men had 251 poems in total. That’s over twenty times the number ! Did nobody notice, in all their paeans to freedom and liberty, that there were only men in the room? 58 men, 5 women = 11. 6%

Penguin Modern Poets, advertised inside the Children of Albion, was a series of 14 books with 3 poets in each publication. The series had 42 male poets, with only 3 women included. Elizabeth Jennings was in book 1, Stevie Smith in book 8, and Denise Levertov in book 9. That makes 42 men, 3 women = 14%

But worse was possible; in Ireland, the Field Day Anthology totally excluded women. It was published as three volumes in 1990. It was probably not a vicious decision – the men just did not see them at all (in spite of many publications and prizes won by female Irish Writers.) After the protests, two volumes were brought out in 2002, the Field Day Irish Women’s Writing, volumes four and five, edited by Angela Bourke. Over ten years to catch up.

Poetry is homeworking – it is not a very macho occupation. It makes no demands on muscles, merely on brain. It uses problem-solving, analysing, word-skill, vocabulary, emotional fluency. It can all be done at home before any appearance on stage or broadcast, but the real power comes from networking and forming alliances, which is where the barriers were set at that time.

There was also another gap, which no one remarks on. There was no inclusion of the Liverpool poets Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, or Brian Patten. On page 328 Mike Horovitz claims that their work ‘would naturally have been included in this book, were it not already represented in the Penguin Modern Poets and elsewhere.’ Nice use of the subjunctive – and it is merely a footnote. Rather strange, as Mike Horovitz arranged Brian Patten’s first London reading, in the Ben Uri Gallery in summer 1964.

The famous1965 Royal Albert Hall International Poetry Festival, filmed as ‘Wholly Communion’ was composed of eighteen male poets. They went on and on about freedom and breaking bounds and quoted William Blake, but did not notice that half the human race was missing from the event.

As an afterthought, in 1992 the Grandchildren of Albion came out, with poems selected by Mike Horovitz from issues of New Departures. Forty poets were included and an onslaught of equality, diversity and vibrancy arrived with Grace Nichols, Ian McMillan, and Jean Binta Breeze.

There was also a Carol Ann Duffy, who became the Poet Laureate.

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Nathaniel West and Miss Lonelyhearts

Ever since I first encountered this book (courtesy of Windsor Street Library, Liverpool 8,) I re-read it almost every ten years. That’s every ten years or so since being sixteen. Each decade there is more to find in it. There’s sex, religion, violence and crisp writing – everything in a small place.

On the surface it’s a short and scathing account of a man who runs a newspaper agony column. Like all of Nathaniel West’s books this is really a novella -a scant 81 pages, published in the America of 1933. It begins by setting up Miss Lonelyhearts as a figure to be mocked, and introduces a pastiche of the Anim Christi prayer. From there on we are involved in Miss Lonelyheart’s search for a solution to his readers’ sufferings and his own.

“On most days at the New York Post- Dispatch he received more than thirty letters.” Three letters are given – a Catholic mother of seven children in twelve years who is pregnant again. “My kidneys hurt so much. I cry all the time. It hurts so much and I don’t know what to do.”

-A girl who has a hole in her face, “Ought I to commit suicide?”

-A brother writing about his deaf and dumb sister who has been raped. “What would you do if the same happened in your family?” Shrike, his boss gives him a placebo column advising ‘Art is a Way Out.’ He has a girlfriend, Betty, whom he had asked to marry him. “He had avoided her since.” He then has a desperate fling with Mary Shrike, his editor’s wife. next, he is contacted by Fay Doyle, the wife of a cripple and she seduces him.

“Don’t,” she begged.

“Don’t what?”

“Oh, darling, turn out the light.”

Betty reappears at this point and suggests he gives up the Miss Lonelyhearts column, but he says it would make no difference, he would be unable to forget the letters, no matter what he did. His Christlike persona has taken root. Throughout the book religious references, pastiches and satires crop up. The backdrop is the American Depression of 1929, when Nathaniel West would have been 26. The book compresses the problems of the time and their contrast with religious principles. The parallel with Christ is pointed out when Betty remarks “Maybe I don’t understand, but I think you’re making a fool of yourself.”

There is even a trip out to the country with Betty, a reference to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He ran to kiss her. “As they went down, he smelled a mixture of sweat, soap and crushed grass.” each time the writing advance into any image which is positive or beautiful, it is knocked back by sarcasm or irony. “By the time they reached the Bronx slums, Miss Lonelyhearts knew that Betty had failed to cure him.” Shrike has already made fun of the entire set-up by dictating a letter to Christ on Miss Lonelyheart’s behalf.

“I am a twenty-six years old and in the newspaper game. How can I believe, how can I have faith in this day and age?.” But Miss Lonelyheart now becomes involved with Peter Doyle, a cripple and pays Mr and Mrs Doyle a visit. Mrs Doyle flirts outrageously throughout the meal and the chapter ends with poor Miss Lonelyhearts trying to avoid another crude seduction – “He kept hitting her until she stopped trying to hold him, then he ran out of the house.”

In a nightmare scene Shrike takes him off to a party and yet again makes fun of both the writers of the agony letters and the answers given by Miss Lonelyhearts and the belief behind him. The penultimate chapter – like most of them, only two-plus pages – has hope in it, where Betty tells him she is pregnant and he asks her again to marry him. Knowing this is page 77 of an 81 page novella, you realise more is going to happen.

Overtaken by a fever, Miss Lonelyhearts has a religious experience -“He submitted drafts of his column to God and God approved them.” Now the crippled Peter Doyle, calls at the door and Miss Lonelyhearts, on a religious high, thinks he can perform a miracle and cure him. “He was running to succour them (all) with love.” But -it is not clear exactly -the cripple has a gun and Miss Lonelyhearts is shot, both rolling part of the way down the stairs in a huddle together. Betty enters the front door as the story ends.

I thank my mother for being broadminded enough to let me read this so long ago. Its contrast between hard-bitten New York life and the standards Miss Lonelyhearts tries to keep give it a constant forwards energy. Nathaniel West tries to wipe away the vision of suffering humanity by using every trick – comedy, irony, satire but ultimately this book is about religion. It has layers and layers of meaning. Stanley Edgar Hyman called Miss Lonelyhearts ‘ one of the three finest American novels of our century.” It is what Jonathan Swift would have written if he had seen New York in the 1920s.

There are only four books by Nathaniel West -this is the second one.

1931 The Dream Life of Balso Snell 59 pages

1933 Miss Lonelyhearts 81 pages

1934 A Cool Million 111 pages

1939 The Day of the Locust 162 pages (this was later turned into a film)

There is a wonderful and enjoyable Lit Crit book, “Nathaniel West: The Ironic Prophet by Victor Comerchero, 1964 Syracuse University Press and 1967 University of Washington Press. This adds even more ingredients to the recipe. “Comedy is superimposed on its tragic structure.”

And, The Fiction of Nathaniel West, Randall Reid, University of Chicago Press, 1967 and 1971 covers all the four novellas and adds more viewpoints including Fyodor Dostoevski and James Joyce.

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Memories of John Lennon’s Art School Days

Life at Liverpool School of Art and College for the Area, 1957

We all gathered at the front hall that September morning, and John Lennon, Tony Carricker and Jeff Mohammed were sitting together on the marble steps. John and Tony were wearing their old school blazers with the pocket-badge removed, while Jeff, already about 25 years old, was wearing a speckled tweed jacket. The office window had the register for us to sign, and a small selection of art materials to buy.

            We were never taught how to draw, how to create or handle a line, construct shapes via pencil, pen &ink or charcoal or the dreaded Conte crayon which we bought every Monday from the office by the front door. Two colours of Conte – black or terra cotta. Everyone preferred the terra cotta as it made any scratch look as though it was something by Leonardo da Vinci.
         We were plunged into the Life Room, Room 73, with no preparation, just with half-imperial sized paper, 2b pencil or crayon. I conscientiously went round the outline of the model (Mrs Dornan , or June Furlong?) We were all skating on thin ice, unassisted, only criticised by the lecturer, Phillip Burton, a small Welshman. Most of the lads were embarrassed, they said later, (as Tony Carricker told me.)
So I went carefully round the model’s edges and produced something like pale tramlines, week after week. Phillip Burton eventually brought me some of John Lennon’s drawings, bold black simple lines.
          “Look at these definite statements. this is what you should be aiming at. See, here and here,” he pointed out how one dashing line completed the top of an arm or the slope of a hip – all in one flow, finished. I looked at them and saw the difference. John was not present, he could have finished and gone down to the canteen.
       Students invented their own styles – some (always men) dropped perpendiculars, putting little x’s here and there and later joining them up, so that any life drawing looked like a structurally accurate architect’s drawing.. Someone covered his entire paper with pencil-grey and then bit into it with a rubber, producing something nearer to a black and white painting – but I stress that no one had taught us that and I was so ignorant (like many others of us!) that it never occurred to me that it might have come out of an early how-to-do it book.
           We were trained to pass the Intermediate Certificate in Arts and Crafts at the end of the second year; the National Diploma in Design at the end of the fourth year; and a fifth year for Art Teacher’s Diploma. The lectures -Wiffen’s drawing lessons or Phillip Burton’s and Arthur Ballard’s classes – were ongoing experiments, where we produced drawings and paintings which were then criticised and suggestions made, but we never started out knowing what to do or how to do it. (Unlike, for instance, woodcarving or lithography or jewellery-making or pottery, etc, where the methods were demonstrated first by the lecturers)
      Mr Wiffen’s weekly subjects started off with a cup and saucer, then a teapot, a humpback bridge, painted in black and white special poster colour. We were out drawing the Protestant Cathedral on the 4th October 1957, a Friday.(The Catholic one was not yet built.) Thursday 17th October we were in Princes Park , hugging trees, to learn that trees -especially winter trees, were not just flat silhouettes. We each had to put our arms round a tree. It was hilarious. It looked like something from the Goon Show. This was ‘Elements of Drawing’ with Mr Wiffen, who always  wore a white overall like a scientist.

After the Intermediate Certificate, there was a type of seal cull and we lost about a quarter of the students. They were replaced by entrants from Birkenhead College of Art, which only had two year courses. One painter, Tony Byrne, had been to the Tate Gallery show of American abstract painters. He bought sheets of hardboard and decorators’ paint, and started painting on the floor. John Lennon made fun of him (as he did of many people,) and watched Tony painting on the floor. The next evening, John did one perfect floor-based painting and left it at that. He was quick to absorb whatever was new, and then move on.

When we returned in the autumn term, John was wearing a smart black corduroy jacket and I remarked how good it looked. “I’m wearing it because of my mother, the daft git walked between a tram and a car and got squashed,” he said sharply. I did not know if he was being his usual sarcastic self, or if it could possibly be true – no one else had mentioned her death. So I said, ‘What a pity, that was really awful’ and other sympathetic remarks, being puzzled about what he meant. It was never discussed again at all.

The college suddenly had also had a sort of investigation about our productivity, and John gave me his more outlandish drawings to hide in my locker on the top corridor. “They won’t find them here, I’ve got to show them all my sketchbooks,” John said. They turned out to be the foundation of his book, In His Own Write, 1964.

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Home -Bio details

Born in the centre of wartime Liverpool, Pat Jourdan’s family lived at the edge of Notre Dame Convent grounds, where her grandfather worked as caretaker. (The book “Maryland Street” covers those years.)
She went to Liverpool College of Art, in the same class as John Lennon and Cynthia Powell. With several solo and group exhibitions, her paintings can be seen on
Life in London, Norwich and Galway followed, settling in Suffolk eventually. Divorced, with two sons.
Winner of the Molly Keane Short Story Award and second in the Michael McLaverty Short Story award. Prizewinner in Second Light, Poetry Pulse, Women’s Quality Fiction etc, with broadcasts on Radio Norfolk, Radio Eireann and Radio Suffolk.
Four Novels: Finding Out; A Small Inheritance; Maryland Street; One Hundred Views of NW3.
Five Short Story collections: Average Sunday Afternoon; Rainy Pavements; Taking the Field; The Fog Index;; Hotel Curtains.
Six poetry collections: The Bedsit Girl; The Bedsit; Ainnir Anthology; Turpentine; The Cast-Iron Shore; Citizeness.

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Hay Harvest, by Patrick Reginald Chalmers 1872-1942

My favourite poem.
The style of this poem is everything that I abhor. The left margin has capital letters on each line and the line-ends are a strict dum de dum masculine rhyme. this leaves the actual sense of the poem squashed in a rigid, tight corset.
But cutting right across that is the lyrical and poignant portrayal of this early-morning incident. As Patrick Chalmers was born in the nineteenth century,I am guessing it has the gentle cadence of a pre-1st World War England, the agricultural landscape that is long lost. The poet manages to turn the lone haymaker into a contented hero, unlike Thomas Gray’s weary ploughman wending his weary way home at curfew time.
But this is five o’clock in the morning on a summer’s day:
“The morning came leaping
T’was five o’ the clock,
The world was till sleeping
At Hambledon Lock -” Its high detail about the collie dog guarding his coat catapults us right into the moment. We are no longer outsiders, we are right there with this man and the dog. The language becomes vivid –
“A yellow eyed collie was guarding his coat –
Loose-limbed and lob-lolly, but wise and remote.”
And suddenly, it is over – we are exiled. It is gone, and becomes a clear memory, a treasured incident. The writer-observer has carefully kept this moment – and, from this far off, it becomes poignant, with a heavy load of emotion. Romanticism; it is an Impressionist painting brought to life, a landscape which has disappeared after two World Wars.
” I think of them still –
Mead, river and mill;
For wasn’t it jolly
With only us three –
The yellow-eyed collie,
The mower and me.”

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Leigh Hunts’ Crowd

The Vale of Health Peter Davey ISBN 97807223 44460 price £9.95 320pp

Let us start with John Keats and in less than six degrees of separation, James Leigh Hunt appears. In fact he is at the centre of what turns out to be a delicate (and famous) spider’s web. At times Leigh Hunt seems to be the controller and supporter of all young writers in the early 1800s – John Keats, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Charles Lamb,Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, with an on-off friendship with Lord Byron.
It is a literary establishment which arises out of connections forged by Leigh Hunt and John Hunt as editors. Starting with John as editor of The Statesman, thebrothers brought out the weekly The Examiner in 1808.Their outspokenness led to various cases being brought against them, beginning with The King v Leigh and John Hunt in 1811. Prison terms for both brothers followed but Leigh Hunt still contributed articles to The Examiner. From hereon his life becomes full of high-flown gossip, with artists and literary figures flitting in and out of his various houses, especially in Hampstead’s Vale of Health
At other times, Leigh Hunt becomes the fugitive, the hunted victim, running to Italy, like his hero, to mend his health and escape from debt.
Peter Davey has nimbly followed all these travels and drawn the threads that link all these people who have become mainstays of English poetry, literature and journalism. This 320pp book is the third in his series A Poet in Love and Spellbound, researching John Keats and his circle. James Leigh Hunt deserves this detailed study, which takes us back convincingly to the problems and perils he faced. At times it reads more like a film script, with a large cast, than the biography of a staid writer’s ninteenth century career.This amount of research is amazing and shows devotion to Peter Davey’s subject, which he manages to convey to us too.
Mostly unknown these days, it is surprising how much influence -and connections- Leigh Hunt had in the early nineteenth century. And where have we met Leigh Hunt?
We all have a faint memory of
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold

and we have a far more vivid memory of his Rondeau
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

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How to Become a Famous Writer

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Chapel Lane



Chapel Lane

For some time now Jim Grogan had been worried about his field which was increasingly edged by houses. He did not own the land at the top of the slope and had to put up with all the diggers and contraptions that mulched up the soil as the housing estate grew day after day. New house-owners rapidly moved in and from then on he felt as though every window, curtained, or with French blinds, Austrian drapes or whatever, held someone watching him as he walked across his land with his dog.

For several years now he had rented it out to Eamon Keogh, who grew onions for a food factory in Sligo, manufacturing chutneys and crisps. By the time of the autumn harvest the entire district smelled like a large bag of crisps.

“Who’s eating crisps on this bus/” a pernickety pensioner would ask as the four-a-day local bus sailed past the field. “Why don’t they take the empty packets home with them! Litter louts!” And so it would go on, year after year. And then old man Keogh died and it turned out that his son was not interested in farming any more.

“Yes, I know it’s a surprise. Sorry, won’t be renewing the contract on the field, I’m going in for tropical fish, that’s always been my hobby. Just tagged along with dad, had to. Sad he’s gone and all, but there’s Mum to think of as well, she’s in a bit of a state too, you see.” Jim Grogan had not made any specific leasing arrangement and so it looked as though he would have to find a new tenant for next year in a hurry. No one was interested in renting a single field surrounded by new houses. Even the advantage of having Cleary’s pub right at the corner of the lane made no difference .

Cleary said he did not mind if the field was used for keeping horses, they were more picturesque to look at than any onion sets.  But the weeks flew past and no one appeared. While quite abstemious, Jim still needed some income and was getting desperate. The first snows arrived and the field was wiped clean with just the rim of houses breaking the skyline. So when the phone call came one evening he was only too eager to agree to a new tenant moving in.

“It’s the field at the edge of the main road, isn’t it? Just interested to see I’ve got the right place after all.”

“Yes, just past the bus stop and Cleary’s pub is on the corner, you can’t miss it.”

The new tenant, Basil, had no quibbles about the rent and paid three months’ worth in cash as deposit right away. He arrived with his wife, a black-haired beauty dressed in a flowing multi-coloured dress. In fact Basil and Rhona were both hippyish, but all the better, Jim thought, as people like them were always interested in anything to do with land and agriculture.

“Not sure yet which crop to set, lots to think over before spring, you know what it’s like,” Basil said breezily, “Sugar beet’s  been rather overdone round here and I noticed that there’s not as much rapeseed as there was a couple of years ago, fashion or trade, you never really know. We keep a few horses over Fortfield way too, and Rhona’s family have small market garden, they supply a few of the farm shops in the county. This is amazing, we’re lucky it’s such a convenient situation, couldn’t have asked for anything better.” And so it was settled and Jim ambled into Cleary’s and had a lone celebratory drink, not telling the few locals there that evening anything about the new arrangement.

Nothing happened until summer approached, when a faint red bloom spread across the field. But soon one further red bloom showed up after another and it was obvious the field was becoming covered with poppies. Its  shocking  bright scarlet splash of colour stood out from the plain humble green of other surrounding crops in the district and the houses sited on the skyline were like toys left out after a child’s bedtime. People started to talk about it. The bus driver was surprised at first, then he noticed more passengers and more hikers appearing. News spread about the scarlet field and photographers and then artists flocked to the scene. They stayed for drinks in the pub and swapped tips about paint techniques. Various artists’ groups arrived from nearby counties by the coachload.

Local publicity magazine journalists turned up too. One of them contacted the local radio station, who had to admit it was wasted on mere radio and it was definitely a made-for-TV spectacle. Prizewinning photographers took photos for  future calendars and birthday cards. Soon the poppy field was on Facebook and established internationally. Local artists had a new impetus and many previously bored painters came out and started to paint enthusiastically again. Exhibitions showed walls full of brightly-hued poppies in close-up or as a wide sweep of red. Only Jim Grogan was angry. He knew the field was ruined, not just by this invasion of tourists to Chapel Lane, but because the poppy seeds would be in the ground forever and could turn up again in the midst of another crop.

The art supplies shop in the nearest town had soon run out of vermilion, cadmium red and had even managed to shift tubes of the less safe  carmine, scarlet lake, crimson lake, geranium lake and even rose madder and magenta.

“And you know,” the shopkeeper said, “Red is a fugitive colour, it can change dramatically and it’s not always stable. It can fade, the hue will completely disappear and ruin a painting if you’re not careful. It’s  almost the same cycle, really, you could say it’s like a poppy field in a tube.”


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Walking Towards Vermeer

Even the marble was warm to the touch. As I struggled up two long flights of pure marble, white steps without blemish, I thought of poor  Cardinal O’Fiaich, come to plead for the hunger strikers, struggling up a similar flight of stairs, as Margaret Thatcher stood at the top, looking down, waiting, watching him struggle but never forfeiting her prestige to come down to the landing and meet him halfway. Marble stairs have that effect on some people.

The Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna ? What was I doing there in this heat?

Looking for Jan Vermeer’s The Studio, after years of reproductions.

But there were obstacles, other paintings hung on the way there. Primarily Wolf Huber (1485 -1553) Erlosungsallegorie, (after 1543,)  or The Allegory of Salvation.

It was everything at once. Right there was the same grey snake that swished past the window here last month (a hot day in Suffolk)  at the left, hung over its own wooden cross. No trace of the Good or Bad thieves; not essential for this story. The donor of the painting, a Prince Bishop no less, Wolfgang Graf von Salm, was  ‘depicted kneeling in the foreground as patron.’ He took up nearly a quarter of the painting and anyone from De Valera’s Ireland would have felt the psychological truth here; priests were more important than the religion they were supposed to be about, or propping up.

However, the really shocking thing, once you had got over that, was the loin-cloth wound round Christ’s nether regions. Usually just a bind of white cloth, this one furled across the painting like sheets hung in a gale. It fluttered and spun, there was almost an entire white cherub flying away from him, like sperm taking shape, a white baby without any need of a female.

The baby’s head, foremost, and its hands, hovered over a castle, where, at the entrance, St Peter was busy healing a lame man. Moses was somewhere, apostles were somewhere. No Mother Mary or Magdalene girlfriend; no puzzled young St John. Only the Prince Bishop and an almost dancing Christ, his ballooning banner, and the gigantic priest, kneeling, looking right at you, dressed in virgin white. God the Father, already an old man in 1543, sat in the sky on a glass world globe, a film director absolute, a TV symbol , a logo so far unused.

The religious rooms filled with writhing bodies, fig leaves falling diplomatically on men and sudden chiffon wisps around the women’s groins. Only cherubs were allowed to have real penises and even they were rationed out, with most of the babes left in strange contortions to solve the modesty problem.

A wonderful sado-masochistic portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation of Christ, of Mary and St John mourning the dead Christ showed a delectably-torsoed Christ, bruised face, eyes akimbo, lusciously lying in their arms. The young John, loyal as ever, looked embarrassed, a puzzled and sad teenager. Mary, however hard she tried to be like a distraught mother looked, instead, that she could have been John’s girlfriend, as she was apparently  younger than her own son.

I had forgotten that special tint of green that is used wherever any part of skin needs moulding towards the shadows. It was everywhere; it was the only proper way out of hot flesh tints; it was Terre Verte.

It was a relief to enter a room of landscapes for a rest, with skies, sailing-boats and trees. Nearby, the still lifes were still eatable after several centuries, the zing of lemon-peel still gave out its acid spurt. the silver also had not tarnished nor the blue and white china or the glass been cracked or broken. Here was Abraham van Beyeren 1620-1696 inviting you to lunch. The raised-crust pie (blackberry? surely not?) had a good slice cut, making your mouth water. Accompanied by white wine or cider; a good midday break for any painter or patron. As these was food not flowers, the usual Dutch ladybird was not present.

And there was Vermeer, as always. And, like INXS, you were there.

After all the centuries, the studio was still quiet, he was still painting, the girl was still not quite sure if she had the right pose. Other things showed up better here – the sharp line of the curtain at the left, its cascade of dark colours. Most of all what came through was the painter’s intent, his concentration. He is just at the beginning of the portrait, the euphoric part, where nothing has gone wrong yet. His dynamic black outfit, black velvet beret and the straggling spaghetti blacks streaming down his back were like sharp stabs of music, breaking (or expressing?) that tension. Filling in all his back with black would have deadened it all into one gigantic silhouette, plonk, black.

People drifted, strode up to it and took photos. If, as native Indians and other sensible tribes believed, in taking someone’s photograph you stole part of their soul, then somehow Jan Vermeer’s soul kept giving and giving and giving. I had come here especially to see him. Love would not be the right word ; it was more specific than that. His black and white floor-tiles zoomed out at us, saying ‘ binnenkomen’ and though even a friend had the same black and white lino tiles in her kitchen, it was not the same. This perspective was perfect, magical.

We could never get in. He would never turn round and the girl would never shift from one foot to the other. The prancing gold chandelier would never be lit. But I was here, eyes filled with tears.

After that the walls of worthy burghers and their apple-cheeked wives, the writhing fleshy allegories, obsessive compulsive disorder flower-paintings and the straitened religious tracts said very little. For all their stated energy, they were more concerned with the onlooker, the patron. There was only Rembrandt to counterbalance him, with his strange mixture of arrogance and humility. Siennas and umbers, the low warmths.

But the space Vermeer gave us stretched further, even as far as into these words written with a Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien pencil, Sunday 21st July 2014.





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