Namiki maki-e crane and turtle pen

I was made redundant from my teaching job this summer, and was given a small payoff. I put some of this, plus a generous birthday contribution from Mrs TD, to buy myself a special fountain pen – a Namiki with a maki-e design of a crane and turtle. (Namiki is the high-end brand name of its parent company, the better-known Pilot corporation).

I started my collection of pens a few years ago when the always thoughtful Mrs TD gave me a Mont Blanc for a significant birthday. Since then I’ve acquired about one a year: a green Pelikan, an Onoto special Cambridge University edition (see my homepage banner photo of these two pens), and a few others.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fountain pen geek, but I do love writing with a handsome instrument that glides over the paper leaving a glistening ink trail. I like the heft of a well-made pen in my fingers. It’s inspiring.

I have several beautiful Japanese pens, including a red Nakaya ‘Aka Tamenuri’ (the ‘tame’ element means ‘pool’, and ‘nuri’ refers to the lacquer-layering process: one sees the colour as it were through a pool of water) and a black Platinum ‘Kuro Tamenuri’, both made with the urushi lacquer technique – a process that dates back centuries in Japan. The lacquer is drawn from the sap of the sumac tree. The underlying ebonite base tends to discolour and wear over time, so the craftsmen of Japan applied the ancient art of lacquering to create a more durable, beautiful finish.

Highly skilled artisans painstakingly coat the barrel and cap with layer after layer of lacquer, carefully and repeatedly polishing the clear finish, a process that takes months, creating a rich, deep colour and texture through which a contrasting lighter shade is faintly seen. With use this underlying hue gradually emerges more clearly.

Namiki pen boxThis was my first pen made with the hira maki-e decoration. This involves an intricate design of gold powder and pigment being applied by a skilled artist with a variety of delicate brushes to the deep black urushi undercoat layer of lacquer (while still wet) applied to the body of the pen. This production takes place at the Kokkokai artisan workshop in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa province (midway between Tokyo and Mt Fuji).

The workshop was founded in 1931 around the master craftsman Gonroku Matsuda. It was named from the statement by the co-founder, Ryosuke Namiki: as sumo is Japan’s national sport, maki-e is the nation’s light (‘kokko’ in Japanese). With his fellow founder he travelled to the west in 1925 and began marketing this distinctive type of product; a London Pilot office was set up in 1926, and a contract made with Alfred Dunhill in 1930. The ‘Dunhill-Namiki’ pens were established.

The golden crane on my new pen is depicted with its distinctive red cap, wings Namiki craneoutstretched, as it flies over the turtle below, looking up at it. They make eye contact, showing rapport and unity. They are ancient Japanese symbols of long life and good fortune. There’s an old saying in Japan: As the crane one thousand years, the turtle ten thousand years.

namiki turtleThe water from the turtle’s pond is shown as stylised swirling waves curling around the barrel.

The 14K nib in inscribed with the outline of the sacred Mt Fuji. There’s a lovely short film about the pen-making process at the Namiki website HERE

Namiki water signature

The swirling water design with the artist’s signature underneath

Norway 2: Bergen and the coastal ferry

Following on from yesterday’s post about Oslo, I started drafting a piece for today on the complexities of the languages spoken and written in Norway, but it started to become too academic, so I’ll just stick to more pictures. As the comment from ireadthatinabook pointed out last time, there are two main variants: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive account.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour in the rarity of a sunny day

After three days in Oslo we took the long train ride to Bergen. It’s a pretty harbour town and ferry port surrounded by hills, but less vibrant than the capital – though my son, who’s in the music business, tells me it has a buzzing music scene.

Bergen view from hill

Bergen view from hill

There’s a funicular up to the top of one of them. Great views from the top, and some friendly goats. Friends on social media suggested they’re descended from central Asian cashmere goats.

Bergen goat

At Bergen we boarded the Hurtigruten ferry which was to take us over seven days right up the western coast of Norway, stopping numerous times – often during the night when we were sleeping. This was not a cruise ship, but a working ferry, used by locals as a more convenient way of travelling north when the roads have to avoid long fjords and wind around mountains.

It had more in common with a night sleeper train than a pleasure cruiser. Such a good way to see the harbours, cliffs and crags of this beautiful west coast.

Sadly the northern lights didn’t show up.

Arctic circle marker

Arctic circle marker

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle the scenery started to become bleaker and more brooding, with skies to match.

Here’s some of the pictures I took; I hope they convey some of the magnificence and atmosphere of this nordic world.

 

Ferry wake 2Ferry weather skyTrondheim Cathedral was built in the middle ages by British masons, which probably explains why its front and design generally look so familiar.

I liked the detail of the Norse monster decorating the edge of the romanesque arch over a doorway. A nice pagan touch on a Christian building, typical of the medieval northern sensibility.

The statue of a whaler in Tromsø is an unfortunate reminder of Norway’s history as a whaling nation. Sadly there was often whale steak on the menus of restaurants.

We did get to see some sea eagles at Honningsvåg on another sunny day.

Honningsvag sun

Evidence that it doesn’t always rain in Norway: this is Honningsvåg harbour, with out ferry in the background, with the orange hull.

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral front

Trondheim cathedral front

Ferry wake

Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

Sennen, Geevor, a tin miner and DH Lawrence

A week ago I drove with Mrs TD down to my favourite part of Cornwall, west Penwith, for one of our regular visits to these remote and beautiful moors and coasts. There’s a point on the A30 when the road crests a rise and a couple of miles below you see the magnificent sweep of Mount’s Bay, with the dark turrets of St Michael’s Mount in front, and the graceful crescent of the bay curving round to Penzance and beyond (I’ve posted about this, and St Mary of Egypt, here.)

Sennen Cove harbour

We headed further on this road, past Penzance, to Sennen Cove. We wanted to see again another lovely Cornish bay – not as spectacular as Mount’s Bay, but still lovely. It’s a popular destination for summer holidaymakers, and on a lovely August day the beach was busy with surfers, swimmers and watchful lifeguards (but not, sadly, the famous Newfoundland surf lifesaver dog, whose name I forget; there’s a book about him.)

The cliffs loom above the cream-coloured sand of the beach, giving the bay a sense of being protected by a tremendous elemental force: furrowed and fissured black granite.

We wandered through the village, heading for the art gallery: the Capstan and Round House. It’s a wonderful old building, with an ancient capstan wheel in the basement; there’s just room to walk around its perimeter and admire the artworks on the walls and surfaces.

Geevor entrance flags

Entrance to the Geevor Mine site

The owner was charming: Colin Caffell (his partner runs the gallery upstairs). He told us about his commission a few years ago to make a memorial statue to Cornish miners. He started with the clay model, then handed it on to the people who specialise in casting. He also told us about the garden in which the statue stands, at the entrance to Geevor Mine, a few miles along the coast road just outside Pendeen, which of course we had to drive on and visit (it’s only been there since 2015, and we’ve somehow never been in before).

This north Cornish coastline is spectacularly beautiful: more rugged and forbidding than the south, just a few miles across the moors of this narrowest part of the peninsula. I’ve posted before about Cape Cornwall, nearby, with its dangerous offshore rocks and iconic community of red-legged, red-billed choughs. Also nearby is the surprisingly large town of St Just, home of the gallery of one of my favourite artists: Kurt Jackson.

 On his website the sculptor Colin explains his intentions: he wanted to position the seven-foot bronze resin statue in a garden containing grasses and plants from all of the continents to which the intrepid Cornish hard rock miners took their skills: the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The colour scheme he was aiming for, the blues, oranges and reds, were intended to evoke the sunset over the Atlantic. He wanted this garden to become a ‘place for quiet reflection.’ It is.

Of course the plants had to be hardy enough to survive the salty winds blowing off the ocean. He goes on to say that the plants do better than one might expect; the artist Patrick Heron managed to create his own exotic garden where he lived not far along the coast.

The plaque beneath the statue reads:

Hard rock breeds hard men

Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living,

The dark chasm which closes around you,

Tight like a fist, draws you down

Into the mine’s gullet, the belly of the beast

Hewn out of granite, the ledger of tin,

The ingot of tradition, a labyrinth of strong voices

That still chisel the dark, the rich seam,

A stream that runs through each generation,

A lode that anchors a man’s life

From ‘The Wheal of Hope’ by James Crowden.

The memorial was ‘raised and funded by the community of the St Just Mining District in honour of the courageous men who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions far below the land and sea in the mines of this district; and the women and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore. As pioneers, many of these Cornish families took this skill and expertise to the far corners of the world as new mining opportunities emerged.’ [from the same plaque]

That last point is perhaps a little romanticised. The diaspora of Cornish miners – the hard rock specialists who’d learned to extract every kind of valuable mineral from the granite under the moors of west Penwith and the rest of the county (or duchy) – had to emigrate when the mines became less competitive than their counterparts in other ‘far corners of the world.’ They had little choice, in other words.

In 2016 I wrote some posts on the Man Engine (here, and here) the massive mechanical puppet that toured the county and beyond, commemorating these hardy miners – many of whom died or suffered terrible injuries, working in dangerous, unpleasant conditions. The Levant disaster was just one such terrible event.

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

We drove on for lunch at the Tinners Arms, Zennor. I usually aim to have a pint of Tinners Ale here, the inn where DH Lawrence stayed briefly while searching for a place to rent in what he optimistically considered his ‘promised land’. He eventually found the small, basic cottage complex at Higher Tregerthen just outside the village. I’ve posted several times before about his stay in west Cornwall, trying to create a utopian community, Rananim, starting with John Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield – but they disappointed him by moving to the ‘softer’ part of the county, to less basic accommodation.

A comment on a related post last August, about the sale of this remote cottage by a local estate agent, elicited a comment today from Julie Warries (thanks, Julie), who said she’s particularly interested in Lawrence’s time in Cornwall and the letters he wrote there. She added a charming aside: when she visited the Tinners Arms she asked a barman for directions to Higher Tregerthen. He didn’t know, but added that she wasn’t the first person to ask that!

Mrs TD thinks I should start a ‘DH Lawrence tours in Cornwall’ agency…Who knows.

Virginia Woolf’s libraries

John Passmore Edwards

Earlier this month there was an interesting comment by Anthea Arnold on my post from July last year about Virginia Woolf’s essay collection The Common Reader, vol. 1, and in particular her essay ‘Lives of the Obscure’. Anthea pointed out that when picturing herself reading obscure books in an ‘out-of-date, obsolete library’, Woolf seemed to be conflating three different ones.

Passmore Edwards library facade

Inscription reads: Passmore Edwards Free…The library underwent major renovations in 2010

Anthea went on to give outline histories of all three. One of them particularly caught my attention. She said that St Ives Library in Cornwall was opened by John Passmore Edwards in 1897. This reminded me of the library in my own city of Truro. I’ve seen his name emblazoned on its side countless times, without paying it much attention. I decided to research him a bit more.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) was born in Blackwater, near Truro in Cornwall. After making his fortune as a journalist and writer, he dedicated his life and wealth to charitable and philanthropic causes. Between 1889 and 1903 he donated over 250,000 pounds to various such causes and established over seventy institutions all over the country, many of them in London, including libraries, cottage hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and art galleries – and even drinking fountains, so that the working classes would be able to drink uncontaminated water.

Edwards supported the abolition of capital punishment, the suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. He also helped direct the Political Reform Association, and published and edited various magazines, promoting among other things peace and temperance.

He was offered a knighthood twice, but declined the honour.

Edwards facade Library

Inscription: Library

The Passmore Edwards library in Truro was built by local firm Clemens and Battershill to a design by Silvanus Trevail (see below) of Plymouth limestone with Bath stone dressings on a granite base. The foundation stone was laid on May 24th, 1895, and the building was opened with a great ceremony on April 30th, 1896: ‘thousands of people thronged the gaily decorated streets’. It was described as ‘a gift of Mr Passmore Edwards to the citizens of Truro without distinction as to creed or financial status’. In a speech he stated that he was planning to open nineteen institutions in Cornwall, as there were nineteen letters in his name. The three-storey Central Technical Schools for Cornwall were built on to the library in 1899.

Edwards foundation stone

The library foundation stone commemorates Passmore Edwards

Edwards was a delegate for the London Peace Society to various Peace Conferences, 1848 -1850, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Truro in 1868. In 1880 he was elected Liberal Party MP for Salisbury, an office he held for five years.

Some of his major beneficiaries were the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the London School of Economics. I remember friends from my undergraduate days who lived in an LSE student hall of residence named in his honour.

Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), the Truro library architect, was born in the parish of Luxulyan, just outside St Austell in Cornwall. After training as an architect in London he returned to his native county, where he went on to design some fifty of the new ‘board schools’ as a result of the 1872 Education Act, which broadened the need for compulsory education for children. He also designed the St Lawrence Hospital in Bodmin and some of the most prestigious hotels in Cornwall, including the magnificent terracotta-coloured Headland in Newquay, and the Carbis Bay Hotel just outside St Ives. He designed many of the Passmore Edwards buildings in Cornwall and London, for he shared that philanthropist’s passion for improving the living conditions and welfare of the working classes.

He participated actively in Cornish local politics as a councillor, and became Mayor of Truro. He was elected Fellow of the RIBA, Vice President of the Society of Architects in 1896 and President in 1901 – a position he still held when he died.

He apparently suffered from depression, and shot himself on a train as it approached Bodmin Road station in 1903.

Plymouth pilgrimage again

Every summer I take the train to Plymouth to re-enact my regular trips there to meet one of my oldest friends, Mike Flay. He died in May 2016, so this was the third  time I’d made this special journey, having started the pilgrimages that summer of 2016.

Great Western Railways now operates smart new Hitachi trains, which are a big improvement on the old ‘HS 125’ bone shakers that had been in service since about 1902. They have electrically operated doors, so you no longer have to slide down the door’s window and lean out to open with the handle on the outside of the door.

Plymouth Drake statue

The plaque under the statue shows that the statue actually commemorates Drake’s circumnavigation of the earth in the 1570s, some years before the Spanish Armada – hence the globe beside him. That sword is implausibly long and must have made walking about problematic

As usual I headed for the Hoe, where Sir Francis Drake allegedly played bowls while the Spanish Armada sailed towards its intended attack on England. A slightly camp statue of him stands on a column on the highest point of the Hoe, and he looks out over the Sound, as if searching for more Spanish battle ships.

Mike and I usually had lunch at a pub restaurant down on the waterfront. He invariably had a burger and a posh Italian lager. I favour English real ale. They no longer seem to do Jail Ale, so this year it was Proper Job – named after that quaint Cornish/Devonian expression of general approbation.


In previous visits there’s usually been a ship of some kind passing out of the docks into the Sound. This year a huge vessel was being towed out by two tugs, that looked too tiny to shift it – like ants lugging a dead mouse.

After another pint at our customary final pit stop, the colonial Copthorne hotel, the bar of which is now pretentiously named a brasserie, but still has a corporate air, I headed back to the station.

On the train home to Cornwall I resumed my reading of the novel about an Irishman adrift in China; I’ll be posting about it shortly. So that was this year’s pilgrimage over. Happy memories, Mike.Plymouth ship tugs

Sex and death in Venice: post 1

I started this post intending to discuss the three books about La Serenissima [see my picture] by Brodsky (thanks to Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings blog for the recommendation), Marías and Morris. I became sidetracked – hence this is now an Aside-type post.

Venice has been so often painted, written and sung about, filmed and celebrated that I felt before my first visit there last week with Mrs TD (for her birthday) that I already knew the city; I was prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t: it’s breathtaking.

For centuries it’s been associated with decadence, sin, dishonesty and deception, ruthless capitalism, danger, sickness and death. From The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Moor of Venice to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (and the lush 1971 Visconti film with Dirk Bogarde) and Nicholas Roeg’s Du Maurier-derived 1973 film Don’t Look Now, it’s been the setting for all of the above. Don’t pursue the diminutive figure in a red cape beckoning you down a canalside alley cul-de-sac…

A few years ago, in a sequence of posts about Henry James, I wrote this on his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, one of several by him with a Venetian setting.

Twitterfolk recommended some more Venice-set reading to prime us for our holiday; I posted back in December 2018 on Wilkie Collins’ so-so ghost story ‘The Haunted Hotel’

Photo from the 1880s by Carlo Naya, ‘Panorama da San Giorgio e gondola’; the Doge’s palace and the Campanile (which a few years later fell down) in the background.

Last month it was Hemingway’s rather unpleasant late novel Across the River and into the Seaduck-shooting and execrably written gondola sex with the 50-year-old protagonist-narrator and his fantasy teenage lover. This seems to take place under cover of the ‘felze’ – the curtained or solid canopy-cabin that used to be common on gondolas to maintain the privacy of the passengers. Gondolas today all seem to be open, like punts, with no such concealment.

This is where I start to digress. Hemingway’s Colonel’s gondola tryst with his seductive young Contessa reminded me of Byron, one of Venice’s greatest advocates (perhaps because he indulged in such unbridled debauchery there; Hemingway namechecks the poet in the narrative with approbation about his popularity in ‘this town’).

Soon after his wife Annabella finally left him, taking their newborn baby Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace, the pioneer mathematician to whom the notion of the computer is often ascribed) with her. He thought it expedient to leave England in 1816. He never returned.

I’ve written previously about the first parts of his trip, including the stay at the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys (her stepsister Claire Clairmont had thrown herself at him by this time. She was soon to be abandoned, as was their ill-fated daughter Allegra, who died aged five – a familiar pattern emerges). He travelled on to Milan, arriving in Venice in autumn 1816.

Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899)

Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899). Gondola with ‘felze’ clearly seen

He was immediately smitten. He also threw himself vigorously into sexual profligacy. When not debauching, swimming or riding, he took to visiting the Mechitarist order of Armenian monks on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where he redeemed himself somewhat by learning (or trying to learn) Armenian, helping translate several of the order’s texts into English, and with the compilation of an Armenian grammar guide and Armenian-English dictionary. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the exhibition at San Lazzaro on this aspect of his contribution to Venetian culture during my stay; maybe next time. [Jan Morris has a lovely account of this island monastery and the Byron connection at pp. 272 ff.; more on her book in a later post.]

After several passing references in earlier poems to Venetian matters, he wrote a Venice section in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817) – where he informs us that unlike in the time of Goethe’s visit in 1786, the gondoliers no longer sang the words of Tasso and Ariosto to tunes of their own composing.

Beppo (1818) is set during the Venice carnevale; the garrulous narrator describes with gleeful ribaldry the potential for decadent sensuality during a gondola ride:

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly but compactly,

Row’d by two rowers, each called Gondolier,

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

 

And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe, –
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done.

He celebrates in this poem the looser, more pragmatic morals of the Italians, especially in their liberal attitude towards adultery, which he compared favourably with the more hypocritically puritanical (as Byron saw it) English. He gave prominence in this poem to the figure of the cicisbeo or cavalier servente: a gentleman who’d escort and protect a married lady in society, with the collusion of her husband. This ‘escorting’ might also include a sexual element – the part that Byron found particularly exhilarating: here’s his account of Laura’s response when her husband goes missing on a voyage, feared dead:

And Laura waited long, and wept a little,
And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might;
She almost lost all appetite for victual,
And could not sleep with ease along at night;
She deem’d the window-frames and shutters brittle
Against a daring housebreaker or sprite,
And so she thought it prudent to connect her.
With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her.

In June 1818 he moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, beside the Grand Canal (the length of which he liked to swim, when he wasn’t doing so off the Lido).

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

I thought I’d taken a picture of this grand palazzo from a vaporetto, but on checking online I found I’d mistakenly framed the building next door. His ménage included fourteen servants, a menagerie including several dogs, monkeys and a fox. In his letters he loved to present a raffish image, claiming he’d bedded over 200 women and spent a fortune – such services didn’t come cheap in a city where sex was widely for sale. Shelley’s account of his friend’s amorous activities is less poetic; he claimed Byron made extensive use not of elegant courtesans but of the lowliest women in the city. Like John Addington Symonds and Frederick ‘Baron’ Rolfe in later years, he appears to have indulged in a squalid kind of sexual imperialism, not romantic trysts.

Here’s how he presented, with mock sobriety and restraint, in a famous letter of 1819 to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, what happened during this sojourn in the palazzo [link to online source, which contains the hyperlinks]:

I have been faithful in my honest liaison with Countess Guiccioli — and can assure you that She has never cost me directly or indirectly a sixpence — indeed the circumstances of herself and family render this no merit.  — I never offered her but one present — a broach of brilliants — and she sent it back to me with her own hair in it (I shall not say of what part but that is an Italian custom) and a note to say she was not in the habit of receiving presents of that value — but hoped I would not consider her sending it back as an affront — nor the value diminished by the enclosure. — I have not had a whore this half-year — confining myself to the strictest adultery.

The nineteen-year-old Contessa Teresa Guiccioli had only been married a year to a count in his late fifties (how Byron would have loved reading that Hemingway Venice novel with its similar liaison). She and Byron were to spend the next four years together in various Italian cities.

He composed the first cantos of his ‘Epic Satire’ Don Juan in Venice’s stimulating environment. When the first cantos (unsurprisingly) provoked as much opprobrium for their immorality and bawdiness as praise for their comic genius, he defended himself with characteristic flamboyance that same Kinnaird letter:

As to “Don Juan” — confess — confess — you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English?  It may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing?  — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? [my emphasis] against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? — on a table? — and under it?

Venice gondola BL 16CToday in my Twitter feed I came upon this lovely image from the British Library: what appears to be a double-prowed Venetian gondola in an image from a 1588 ‘friendship album’, publicising a free exhibition at the BL, Friendship Before Facebook, that’s running until May 12. Click the link to (hopefully) access the BL’s gif in which the felze cabin covering is cheekily removed to reveal the seduction taking place inside.

Clearly it would have been easy to conduct illicit dalliances in such a vessel. Like Madame Bovary in her curtained carriage – but on the canal waters with an indulgent gondolier turning a blind eye – and deaf ear – to what was going on inside the felze. (I’m indebted to Jan Morris’s fascinating account of gondolas for the Venetian terminology).

More on Venice next time.

One of my first posts here was about some lines from Beppo cited by TS Eliot (dining on ‘becaficas’) and Byron’s ingenious, audacious rhyming practices.

Previous posts on Don Juan here (where that notorious Kinnaird letter is again quoted) and here

Posts about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, the visit with Byron by the Shelleys and Byron’s physician Polidori at the Villa Diodate (before Byron reached Venice), and related matters here

[All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Happy 2019

Just back from a long drive west from our dear friend’s house (and her delightful miniature schnauzer Caspar) in Somerset. I’d like to wish any readers of this blog a very happy and peaceful 2019.

Coming from the vicinity of East Coker on New Year’s Day, heading towards the drooping sun in an England at odds with itself, put me in mind of TS Eliot:

Each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling…(from East Coker, the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets [1940 – a dark time for Europe])

We in England today slouch towards the unknown, divided, possessed only of the certainty of our uncertainty. But it’s a new year, and there will, we hope, be new opportunities. As Eliot says elsewhere, ‘success is relative:/ It is what we make of the mess we have made of things’ (The Family Reunion [1939 – another dark time for this country and Europe]).

So I’m sipping a glass of champagne, surveying the increasingly overloaded bookcase in my study (there are more in other rooms). Scattered among the shelves are some of the unread – so there’s the hope for the coming year: from Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries to Dorothy Richardson. There’s Mrs TD and our now long-deceased, much-loved dog Brontë in a photo there somewhere, too. Another beacon of hope.

May your own reading be enjoyable, and your experiences in the year to come rewarding and fulfilling.

And all shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well.

Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.

Rail trip, pt 2: Grindelwald and the Swiss Alps

First cablecar trip

View from above the First cable-car station, high above Grindelwald

After London and Colmar (see previous post) Grindelwald in Switzerland was our base for another week. It’s a beautiful village clustered under the Eiger and other peaks in the Alps, served since 1890 by BOB, which we eventually discovered was nothing to do with an English builder, but the Bernese Oberland Bahn: the local railway.

When we were travelling across Europe by train Mrs TD and I struck up a friendship with a charming couple, H and M, who’d run a school for years. M has a wicked sense of humour (offset by a baffling love of golf) and enjoyed setting challenges for us. His first: what’s the meaning of the name Grindelwald? (Nothing to do with JKR and the annoying Potter person). I knew that ‘wald’ was forest or wood, so ‘Grindel’ must be a version of Grendel, the monster dispatched by Beowulf in the Old English epic poem – so ‘monster-wood’. No, said M. Nothing to do with monsters. It’s from old German-Celtic for ‘a piece of wood serving as a barrier’ – so it’s the valley blocked off from the rest of the world. Suggests the source of Grindelwald’s other-worldly tranquillity (despite the tourists).

We taught M and H to check the number of steps they’d taken each day on their phones – another challenge: who could do the most steps each day? It all became very competitive. On one occasion I noticed M doing a little circular jig on Grindelwald station platform as we waited for a train, just to increase his step count. Shameless.

Bachalpsee

Bachalpsee

Our first trip took us up via a scarily vertiginous cable-car to First ridge, where we hiked up to the lake of Bachalpsee. Resting by the lake we were stirred by the haunting melody of an alpenhorn. It took a few minutes to locate the source of the music; eventually we spotted a man with his alpenhorn, standing on a peak hundreds of metres above us, playing. The sound resonated round the natural mountain amphitheatre – magical.

Eiger North face

Below the N face of the Eiger.

Most of the people on holiday around Grindelwald were from S. Korea, Japan or China. I know this because another of M’s challenges was to interview as many of these tourists as we could to determine where they were from.

Eiger trail

Looking back down the Eiger trail towards Alpiglen

Backfired on one occasion; I asked a couple who looked Chinese (and were talking in what I took to be Mandarin) where they were from. ‘Actually, London,’ they said.

Another day we took the local train to Alpiglen and walked as far as we could up the trail that’s at the foot of the infamous north face of the Eiger. When the going became vertical we chickened out and retraced our steps, but not before Mrs TD had to resort to humming and singing as we walked through a meadow full of tranquil, handsome cows of a curious shade of grey-violet, with long white eyelashes; she’s very scared of cows. They all wore huge cowbells that could be heard for miles. I suppose that’s the point.

We had coffee one morning on a terrace by Brienzersee, waiting for the little steam rack train to take us up to Rothorn mountain. By the entrance to the hotel was a statue of Goethe, and a plaque saying he’d stayed there.

Alpine cow

Ferocious Alpine cow

I was slightly disappointed to see little local wildlife on the trip. Marmots and ibex were seen by some in our group, but all I managed was the ridiculously tame alpine choughs, which scrounged food at Jungfrau and most other popular tourist spots, like importunate sable Cornish seagulls.

I did see an albino deer with splendid antlers near Interlaken, but it was made of wood.

We often saw signs for a St Petronella route in the mountains. She was an early Roman virgin martyr, said to have been so beautiful her father (possibly St Peter) locked her in a tower to keep her safe from potential suitors. A pagan king wanted to marry her (how did they meet? Did he break in?) so she starved herself to death. It’s more likely she met a traditional martyr’s death.

Jungfrau view from top

View from Jungfraujoch

So why the trails and chapels in the Alps? Because she’s the patron of mountain travellers. I haven’t been able to establish why. Maybe the ‘rock’ element of her name.

We’d never travelled as part of an organised group of 40, with a tour guide to shepherd us. We’d always gone independently. We were a little apprehensive when we first met our fellow travellers at St Pancras. But all went well, and we had a great time, meeting some lovely people.

Jungfrau: Alpine chough

An alpine chough scrounging for titbits from the Jungfrau tourists.

One chap of 86 was perhaps the most intrepid among us. He took a sort of go-kart down from the First summit, and later a zipwire over a precipice. He’d regularly hike off on his own for hours, fitter and braver than us all. Hope I have even half of his energy if I reach his age.

Eliot has a character in his 1922 poem The Waste Land called Marie, probably the Bavarian countess Larisch; recalling a sled trip, presumably in the Alps south of Munich, with her cousin the arch-duke, she’s at first frightened but he tells her to ‘hold on tight’ and ‘down we went’. She exclaims: ‘In the mountains, there you feel free.’ I’d always taken this as an indication of what Eliot took to be her vitality (after the boring social coffees and smalltalk in Munich’s Hofgarten) but also perhaps her

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

superficial gushing and aristocratic sentimentality – or even a sexual frisson as she and her cousin embraced on their exhilarating descent. Whatever Eliot meant, a rousing sense of awe and freedom is something we all experienced in the Swiss Alps.

Lake Brienz

Brienzersee seen from the top of Rothorn range. The water is turquoise because of the ‘rock flour’ sediments washed down by glacial rivers