Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Election Prediction

Here we go: The Conservatives will get the largest popular vote (around 35%) and win around 270 seats. The Lib-Dems will get around 30% and 100 seats and the Labour Party will get about 25% and 250 seats. High turn out I think might favour Lib Dems. But polls always favour left wing parties. Anyway, looks like a Lib-Lab pact. How this will work God alone knows. Clegg has said no to Brown, and surely that means balls to Balls too. The Lib Dems will, in effect, be choosing the Labour party's leader, and therefore the Prime Minister. My money is on Miliband, but there will probably be a new election in October, unless of course the Lib Dems hold us all to ransom over PR (all this a perfect argument against it, i think). Come what may it is all much more exciting than usual. I wonder what would happen if we had compulsory voting?

Letters in a Book

I wrote the following some years ago, but a conversation this evening prompts me to reproduce it here. It will really be of interest only to those who know anything of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The other day I finally got around to sorting out some books inherited long-ago and I came upon one called ‘William de Morgan and His Wife’ by A.M.W. Stirling (author of ‘Coke of Norfolk’ etc). I was vaguely aware that de Morgan was a novelist of the late 1890s, but I certainly didn’t inherit any of his books. Not a name to conjure with in the Wheldon household (unlike, say, Lowry or Waugh or Lawrence or Tolstoy or Francis).

So why had this book been kept? Well, in the first place it turned out to be a copy originally belonging to its author, A.M.D. Wilhelmina Stirling, of Old Battersea House, SW11. And in the second place, it contained three hand-written letters.

The first, chronologically speaking, is dated Oct 15th, 1867, and there is no addressee. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this is a copy of a letter. It relates the details of the death of George de Morgan, William’s brother, and is written by a cousin, Eliza, Emily or Harriet (the book contains a useful de Morgan family tree). It describes William as “very much exhausted with all he has gone through… he looked very thin and wretched when I saw him a week ago”.

The second letter is from Jane Morris to William de Morgan, thanking him for sending her a copy of his novel ‘Alice-for-Short’, which she describes as ‘delightful’. Jane Morris of course was Mrs William Morris, and the letter is dated July 15, 1907 and was sent from Kelmscott Manor. Mrs William Morris is perhaps better known as Jane Burden, one of the great pre-Raphaelite models, and a particular favourite of Rossetti. She was a ‘stunner’ (Rossetti’s word) who in later life became the model for Mrs Higgins in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ (produced in 1916, two years after Jane’s death).

This second letter ends with the remark that the Morrises will be pleased to see Evelyn “in August”. Evelyn was married to William de Morgan, and she was an artist of some standing in her own right, having been, in 1877, a founder member of the Grosvenor Gallery, the avant garde alternative to the Royal Academy. The Grosvenor Gallery was a kind of prototype for modern museums. At the same time as hosting exhibitions, it laid on symposia and lectures. Evelyn was a contemporary of Leighton, Watts and Burne-Jones.

The final letter is glued to the flyleaf of the book and is addressed, in the year of the book’s publication, 1922, to the author, Mrs Stirling. It is from Margaret Mackail, who was born Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s daughter. Her lifelong friend, W. Graham Robertson, described her in a letter of 1936 as one “whose paths were always in the great waters and whose footsteps were never known if she could possibly help it… As a rule, she would die rather than tell you what she was going to have for dinner… ”. The letter isn’t very interesting, other than in its reference to the telephone as “a form of co-called civilization”.

As for Mrs Stirling herself – well, I can’t say I was surprised – she turned out to be Evelyn de Morgan’s sister, and herself a rather formidable character who wrote novels under the name Percival Pickering. She died in 1965.

About eighteen months ago I happened to have a conversation with Angela Thirlwell, biographer of Ford Maddox Brown and expert in general on the Pre-Raphaelites, and she mentioned that a chap called Frank Sharp was working on a scholarly edition of the letters of Jane Morris, so off to Frank mine went (or at least a scan of it). I don't know whether the letters have been published yet, but they may be, one day. The mystery remains, however, as to how the book came into my possession. It is possible that it is one of the books that Mum picked from the publisher Fred Warburg's library (she was one of three people invited in his Will to take a number of books; she was modest and eccentric in her choices, except for some first editions of Evelyn Waugh).

Ken Russell and Dad made a film on Stirling for Monitor in 1960.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

In the Reading Room: Titian's 'Young Woman'

Looking up, I am caught unawares,
The vault of the dome soaring upwards
To its apex, and reminding me, amid
All the whispers and the reverence
That this is a place of learning, not faith.

We are there to see the beginning of drawing:
Metalpoint and charcoal, gall-nut tannin,
Copper sulphate and vellum, indigo dye
Got in Venice, bartered from the Ottomans.
Faint reds, heightenings with white chalk.

Swift marks in one, all life, seeking the right;
Then material, caught in melted wax
To stop the folds slipping, finely rendered.
That’s the how, the why’s a quite different thing:
Studies, yes – really, though, getting to know their stuff.

And it comes in the end, from the light of Venice
And the masculine lines of Florence,
To one ordinary young familiar woman
True as flesh itself, and like you or me
Likely to be in awe beneath the dome.

Wynn Wheldon

The picture referred to is:
Portrait of a Young woman in profile to the right, by Titian, circa 1510-1515
Black and white chalk on faded blue paper

I am not going to reproduce this picture because if you go to the magnificent British Museum exhibition of Renaissance Drawings (details here) you can see it yourself, and it is much better seen in real life.

NB This poem is a first draft: all recommendations for improvement most happily welcomed.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

from Psalm 102 (Authorised Version)

I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.

The Beauty of Maps

Utterly wonderful BBC 4 series. Nothing sexy or gimmicky, just people showing us maps and experts talking about them, and then maybe a little modern twist at the end. Proper grown-up TV for people (of any age) who like maps. Wonderful. My top TV of the year so far. I wonder if it will get BAFTA's Huw Wheldon Award. Probably not. Ah well.

The website is also rather good. Find it here.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Sunday's Retreat

After his late Sunday breakfast with papers,
The poet is resting like a cat in the sun.
All the world is going to hell, and a single word
Buzzes at his inner ear, but what it is
He’s not quite clear. He has to close his eyes
And feel the heat pushing at thin lids
Insisting that he articulate, clearly.
Like a flower pollinated, it must be.

Instead, retreat sluices through the pores,
Immunity is offered and accepted.
The call for the uncaught word is ceased.
And, diminishing, he is taken, glad,
To complete the sentence of the day.
He is I and thou, traffic drone, and shadow.

Wynn Wheldon

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I am well aware of the craft involved in writing of such clarity and apparent simplicity, and the maintaining of a deliciously straightforward plot, but good god Toibin, did you have to make such an infuriating heroine! She is supposed to be reasonably intelligent, but manages to do nothing clever; she is supposed to be good but is a moral coward; and she is so damnably self-conscious - ceaselessly - that one yearns to jump into the book and tell her to forget herself for a moment and start living. Set this against William Trevor's riff on Brief Encounter, 'Love and Summer' (both these books are versions of Coward's genuine masterpiece), and you will conclude that perhaps 'Brooklyn' might have done better as a short story: Eilis would not have had time to lose our sympathies.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 2 Chelsea 1

Great match.
Great result.
Bring on United and, er, Bolton
And then bring on City.

And here's a picture of the Spurs 1967 Cup winning team, to celebrate.

Ben on the Battle Bus

Under no circumstances should anyone miss Ben Macintyre's inimitable Times Online video reports from the Cameron battle bus. Will Self - look to your laurels! April 16 (Episode 2) can be found here. Here is the grit that makes the pearl.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 2 Arsenal 1

Great match.
Great result.
Bring on Chelsea and United.
And then bring on City.

And here's a picture of Alan Gilzean, to celebrate.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Cadair Idris

This last weekend - Saturday 10th - Cal and I went up Cadair Idris. It was one of the best days of my life. It started with a breakfast that for Cal included fruit salad, full English (although of course not so called) and two weetabix. He put his almost unlimited energy during the day down to the last. The weather was a divine beam, the temperature perfect. We were damn nearly first in the car park at Ty Nant. We ascended by the Pony Track, the easiest ascent. Quite enough for me. The first hour was my hardest. I was kept going by the ravishinbg beauty of the place and by Cal's enthusiasm, After about twenty minutes we stopped and turned and looked around, and Cal simply said "This is why I believe in God", which seemed to me unanswerable. We were passed by one couple and by one girl. There was also a "ghost" girl who appeared from behind a stine wall, but whom we never saw again. We also passed a soft spoken hippie who had spent the night at the top. Cal thought he was cool, especially his long staff, upon which he leaned like some medieval pilgrim. He had a young man's beard and a benevolent gleam in his eye. I thought he was cool too. We got to the peak in about three and a half hours and then made our way east to Mynydd Moel, where we had lunch (three ham sandwiches, two apples, some sesame seed crackers and an alpen bar). We then back tracked in order to go down some frightful scree. It took an inordinately long time and messed up my knees something rotten. Cal claims to have enjoyed it. At the bottom we bathed our poor feet in the stupendously cold water of Llyn y Gadair. Cal then decided he didn't want to go back the way we were supposed to, and took the map and read it perfectly down an utterly deserted route, directly to the car park. Cal complained about nothing at all until we got back to the hotel and he had gone into the shower - sunburn. He cut himself on the scree descent and he stubbed his toes over and over again, but he was the perfect companion, high spirited, curious, determined, full of all sorts of different energy. We watched Dr Who (excellent), had supper in the bar, then watcxhed Dad's Army (also excellent) before retiring separately, I to the Masters, Cal to some idiotic American comedy movie. Absolutely bloody marvellous.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Kingfisher Blue by Wynn Wheldon

I saw a kingfisher. Kingfisher blue.
I don’t know how to describe it. Could you?
I’ll say this: it was a drear day, and dank;
I sat huddled, neckless, by the river bank.
I was brooding, as ever, on myself -
The infinity of drabs and dulls
Made the right dismal sums, and suited well
My unmediated melancholic mull -
When busy-ness shot through dead straight:
Oh it had purpose all right, mate.
Like a dart it sliced the sluggy stream,
Sleep’s oblivion startled with a dream,
The ignorant spangled with information.
Electricity zapped my inanimation.
I forgot myself, smiled, a bubble blew.
I saw a kingfisher. Kingfisher blue.

Dr Who

Well, blow me down! They've got it right. Thoroughly enjoyed the new doctor plus new assistant. The Doctor is dead. Long live the Doctor.