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Thursday, 23 September 2021

Van Gogh Alive and Medieval mysteries


Part of my wife’s birthday present was a visit to the 'Van Gogh Alive – the Experience' in London. It was our first major excursion since the pandemic, and it was strange to re-experience normality – except for those damn masks worn on the train—through half-closed eyes a carriage full of Hannibal Lectors.

The Albert Memorial
Royal Albert Hall
Van Gogh Alive

Wary of the tube, we opted to walk, eventually finding Kensington Gardens and making our way to The Royal Albert Hall, The Albert Memorial and, nestling unobtrusively in their shadow, The Van Gogh Alive experience. One wonders what Prince Albert would have made of it, for ourselves it was quite an experience. 

We stood for about an hour bombarded by music and images. It was like standing in a kaleidoscope, a ghost in Van Gogh’s head; sometimes ten or more of the same painting ranging from deep close-ups, along with doppelganger effects layered in depths. We stayed for another twenty minutes, but my legs had had enough. In between pictures, I’d been looking with some envy at those more lithesome sitting cross-legged— in apparent comfort—on the floor. I followed suit with the realisation that I was no longer so lithesome. And getting up was a bit of bugger without toppling into one of the flimsy projection screens alongside. It was done with some loss of dignity. 

Afterwards we walked briskly to the Victoria and Albert Museum just under a mile away. (The food is limited and overpriced) and just had time to amble around the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery. 

The altar-screens took my breath away and I found myself cursing the Protestant Taliban who blithely smashed their way through English churches destroying a heritage spared in other parts of Europe. I know the traditional arguments that having turned our back on the visual we focused on the written word; that religious imagery manipulated the superstitious and had done so from the depths of antiquity, but to my way of thinking, antiquity had a point. Religion is mystery, a tradition inherited and used by the Medieval Church: images in candle-flame, stained glass, incense and chanting stimulating every sense —opening the mind to wonder.  Now they’re exhibits we can wander past without seeing, but once upon a time . . .

But for us, time had run out. Just one gallery. The Victoria and Albert deserves at least a day and a half, but it was time for us to scuttle back to the train, check my app—we'd walked nearly seven miles—and relive the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ experience in a dimly lit carriage.

One final thought. Up until now, I've had my thoughts on one of those natural burials under a tree. I've changed my mind. I want to be buried under one of these babies; 

or at least in the roots of a giant Sequoia.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Thoughts on Lord Palmerston

When a French minister said to Palmerston, “If I were not a Frenchman, I would wish to be an Englishman,” he no doubt expected a reciprocal compliment. Palmerston didn’t hesitate. “If I were not an Englishman, I would wish to be an Englishman.”

He was massively popular with the public often seen, despite his high aristocratic background as ‘one of them’ and for putting British interests above everything else. In that sense, like Donald Trump, he played to the gallery and was predictably detested by high-minded Victorians for his abrasiveness and his own civil servants who accused him of working them too hard. Even queen Victoria found him hard going, confessing after his death that she ‘had never liked him.’  This is not altogether surprising, the relationship having got off to a bad start one winter’s night in 1839. While staying in Windsor, Palmerston entered the bedroom of one of her ladies in waiting, locked the door and allegedly forced ‘his attentions upon her.’ 

He was still at it in 1864 when the 78-year-old Prime Minister was cited in a divorce case by a journalist, Thaddeus O’kane. Mrs O’Kane denied adultery on the basis that she and Thaddeus were not in fact legally married. What’s illustrative is that Disraeli, the Tory opposition leader, instead of exploiting the scandal, wanted the press coverage suppressed, fearing the story would make Palmerston even more popular! And Disraeli was on the money in that.  The cry in the Music Halls was ‘She may be Kane, but is he Abel?” A more robust age.

Even on his death at the age of 80, the rumours continued. Instead of the ‘official line’ — he’d caught a bit of a chill, rumours circulated that his death was caused by undue excitement— seducing a maid on the Billiard’s table proving too much for him. Again, the stories may or may not be facts but what people wanted to believe, lecherous old goats then, having little to fear from a MeToo movement. 

I would like to believe that his last words were ‘Die Doctor? That is the last thing I shall do,’ but spoilsports insist they were ‘That’s article 98, now go on to the last.’ The more prosaic story in this case may be true. As well has having the common touch, Palmerston was one of the finest Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of the Nineteenth Century.

Which, I suppose brings me on to the issue of privilege. Palmerston was born in an age of privilege, when to be an ‘Englishman’ was to have won the lottery of life—a belief that was ironically shared by both rich and poor. But—unlike today—with privilege came duty, an expectation also shared by rich and poor. It had long been a feature of landed society and in time adopted by the great Victorian capitalists in works of philanthropy. These two aspects of privilege made for cohesion at a time of immense social transformation. 

Today, in a less cohesive age, I too am privileged, though not on a Palmerstonian level. To be born and bred in Liverpool is my glittering prize. To be born when so many are not, is another. And finally, to live most of my life in the past is one more. It allows perspective denied to many exhorting others to ‘examine their privilege.’ In Palmerston’s words: 'What is merit? The opinion one man entertains of another.'

And my favourite Palmerstonian quote, along with the too brief privilege of teaching in America:

‘The Schleswig Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who went mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.’ A nice Palmerstonian deflection.

I once had the dubious privilege of explaining the Schleswig Holstein Question to a class of sophomores st St Agnes High School for Girls in College Point, Queens. By the end of it, some wished that like Prince Albert they were dead, others looked vaguely deranged, and I realised I had forgotten it myself. 

Friday, 10 September 2021

The Devil Rides Out for Dinner

One of the finest biographies I've read

Dennis Wheatley was at one time a colossus of British popular fiction, best known for his Gregory Sallust series, the Roger Brook books, and of course the series featuring the Duke de Richelieu and the Satanic series brought to life in, ‘The Devil Rides Out.’ 

And yet, almost up to last breath, he bemoaned the fact that he had never made it in America, a fact waspishly celebrated by a fellow writer, Sam Youd: “If, in America, you cannot reach Wheatley, thank once again the deity who created your native land, for we, in England, cannot get away from him.”

In this respect, Wheatley shares the fate of W.E Johns, for Biggles never made it to America either, both perhaps too peculiarly English to survive the transatlantic voyage. 

As his biographer Phil Baker explains:

"Wheatley was English, and his whole character embodied the archetype. He believed in an orderly, cohesive and benevolently hierarchical society. He had a grain of eccentricity, a code of good form, allied to a sense of fairness; a sense of voluntary service; a respect for amateurishness; a lasting boyishness…”

The boyishness is, perhaps, the key to it all: romanticism, idealism and sense of adventure, the tendency to simplify and see things in black or white. Small boys are acutely aware of pecking order, and they also tend to collect the weirdest things in their pockets. 

The man was the boy, obsessed with penetrating the highest echelons of society (King George VI loved his books), a member of all the most prestigious clubs and involved in operational planning during the war, where he rubbed shoulders with Admirals, Generals, and key members of the establishment. With it came all the trappings of an aspirational schoolboy, one now with vast and capacious pockets. 

Wheatley wrote on a mahogany desk, sitting on an Empire armchair, surrounded by Chippendale furniture, a gilt mirror, a Louis XV bookcase, Georgian silver, Dresden china and a plate from Marie Antoinette’s dinner service. There were china figures of Napoleon’s marshals on top of his bookcases. He had a bronze of Napoleon on horseback, ivory figures of French kings, Marie Antoinette and Madame Pompadour and a bronze of Charles I. The list goes on and we haven’t yet touched on his collection of Chinese porcelain include a Ming or two. And yet, pictures of him in his velvet smoking jacket behind the desk upon which he wrote all his novels, you do not sense a soul at ease, rather disappointment, the sad expression of a schoolboy wanting more. 

Wheatley was the child of empire, a toddler during the Boer War, a serving officer during World War I who kept a log book of various prostitutes and their proclivities, and an enthusiastic strike-breaker during the 1926 General Strike, who, like many of his class, feared and abhorred the Russian Revolution. 

His early years explain much too; the grandson of a ruthless street trader who moved into wine, the Wheatley family climbed the social ladder. Eventually their wine business serviced royalty and great aristocratic houses of Britain and Europe. When family wine business went bust in the Great Depression, Wheatley took to writing and the rest is history.

And, sometimes turning in 16 hour days, the books continued to flow

Family aspiration brought with it emotional insecurity, accentuated when he was shunted to a minor public school (Dulwich) and HMS Worcester a harsh nautical training school. 

Like later comedians who survived school bullies by making them laugh, Wheatley’s strategy was to tell exciting stories and, wherever he went, formed ‘secret societies’ as a small and exclusive praetorian guard. 

And finally, the two books he adored most as a child: The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Mix these three elements together and you have the formula for every one of Wheatley's best-selling books, whether it be the three-some of Gregory Sallust, his faithful batman, Rudd and Sir Pellinore Gwayne Cust,—or the Duke de Richeliu, SimonAron, Richard Eaton and the stout-hearted American, Rex van Ryn. 

Instead of rescuing aristocrats from the guillotine, these heroes rescue souls from villainous Nazis, Bolsheviks, and the Devil himself —but always, always with the finest of wines, food and cigars.

The bulk of the Sallust and Duc de Richeliu novels were written during World War II, a conflict Wheatley saw as a conflict between light and the forces of darkness. The propaganda was hard-core and well received by the establishment. Maxwell Knight, Britain’s key spymaster, told him upfront that his novels contributed more to the war effort than anything he could do in uniform.

Reading them now is occasionally accompanied by a wry smile, especially when Gregory Sallust lambasts Nazi gauleiters for feeding off the fat of the land while lesser people struggled with ration books. Whilst working in the war office, Wheatley never gave up on the finer things of life and assiduously climbed the social ladder accepting every luncheon invitation that came:

“Lunch at Rules with Eddie Combe was a great invitation” Wheatley remembered. It would start with two or three Pimms before moving on to harder stuff; Combe liked a dash of absinthe or ‘Chanel No. 5’ as he called it. Lunch would consist of smoked salmon or potted shrimps, then Dover sole, Salmon, jugged hare or game, with Welsh rarebit as a savoury to finish. After their wine with lunch, they would end with a port or kummel. Nazi empire or Imperial Britain, different rules applied for those with money. *

In his ‘Gateway to Hell’ Wheatley opens the story with Simon Aron having the Duke de Richelieu and Richard Eaton round to dinner, where he serves them smoked cod roe on toast with a glass of very old Madeira’ Lobster Bisque fortified with sherry, with a 1933 Marco-Brunner Kabinett; partridge with foi gras, with a 1928 Chateau Latour; and finally, a fruit salad of iced oranges laced with crème de menthe. Refreshing their palates with a small cup of cold China tea, they move on to a bottle of 1908 Imperial Tokay and end with Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. An aphrodisiac, before I knew what an aphrodisiac was to a Liverpool boy munching crisp sandwiches, sometimes with ketchup.

*Fish and crustaceans were unrationed there being no shortage. Game was unrationed too. Hotels and clubs could source such luxuries from private estates for those who could afford them. Similarly, wine stored in deep cellars

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Four Thousand Weeks

Based on the average lifespan we have a mere 4000 weeks to live. That would make a butterfly ecstatic, a tortoise disgruntled. I found it merely depressing. On the that basis, I have about 1000 weeks of life left – and that’s if I’m lucky. 

What to do with my thousand weeks? Better than ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ perhaps, and at least ‘Mike of a Thousand Weeks’ isn’t going to end with a sword to the neck, unless I’m very unlucky. Perhaps we should all wear expiry dates on our foreheads—bank cards on legs, though I suspect we already do on anonymous servers.

For those curious and busy now ‘checking their privilege’ this news of good cheer comes from ‘Four Thousand Weeks’ by Oliver Burkeman, only I clearly don’t have time to read it. The columnist Craig Brown has read it for me and provided the salient points. Perhaps that will be the future of my reading from henceforth: precises, digestible gobbets consumed while cleaning my teeth—although who can be thinking of teeth with just a thousand weeks to play with?

 Another thought struck; the one thousand weeks remaining must include sleep. So, in real time, I have perhaps just under 700 weeks to look forward to. That’s barely enough to cover my unread books – many of them impulse buys on kindle. 

The book touches on other, lighter but equally thought-provoking topics. Taking as a fact that many people live to a hundred, Burkeman points out that based on this, only 35 ‘lifetimes’ separate us from the Golden Age of Ancient Egypt, twenty ‘lifetimes’ separate us from Jesus, and a mere five ‘lifetimes’ separate us from Henry VIII and ‘Anne of a Thousand Days.’ (142.8 weeks)

Seven hundred weeks. Maybe I should spend less time on social media, in Burkeman’s words: ‘a giant machine for getting you to spend your time caring about the wrong things.’ Or maybe I should just stop worrying. 

Burkeman quotes a line in Tom Stoppard’s play The Coast of Utopia: “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child."

It could of course be turned on its head:  Because people die, we think the purpose of people is to die. But a person’s purpose is to be a person, or in my case a bit of a mildly worried grump.