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

Rail trip, pt 1: BL, St Pancras, Colmar

I’ve just returned with Mrs TD from a wonderful holiday by rail to Switzerland via London and Colmar. As I prepared a narrative with pictures I realised it would need more than one post.

After travelling from Cornwall by train to London we checked into our hotel in that literary hotbed, Bloomsbury (home of the Virginia Woolf burger), then walked to the British Library. I’d worked often in the old home of the BL in the British Museum, usually in the manuscripts reading room or the old, domed Reading Room, now an exhibition area and café. This was the first time I’d entered the new place.

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi in the square in front of the BL

The outside of the building is rather forbidding and prison-like, with a huge number of red bricks and very few windows. Inside is airy and bright. We looked in the Treasures room and marvelled at some beautiful manuscripts and books. Must go back and have a proper look. There are some interesting touches and humorous details, like the bench in the shape of a book, chained to a huge cannonball to stop it being stolen – a witty take on medieval chained libraries, like the one at Hereford.

BL chained bench

We had to move on to St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where we were to meet old friends for a drink prior to a meal at the new Ottolenghi restaurant near Oxford St (delicious).

I remember this imposing Victorian Gothic cathedral to the train from my student days when I often passed through the station on trips to London from Luton, where I lived for a few. Like the BL, it’s a brick structure, but of contrasting colours. It was designed by Gilbert Scott and opened as a hotel and rail terminus in 1873. It was refurbished, restored and reopened as a sumptuous hotel in 2011, having narrowly escaped demolition.

St Pancras Renaissance bar

The bar where we had our g & t, in the splendid old booking hall of the station

Who was St Pancras? A Roman Christian convert, martyred at the age of 14 during the Diocletian persecutions around 304. He’s known as one of the ‘ice saints’, a trio whose feast days fall between May 11-13, dates which in northern Europe are traditionally believed to bring the last frosts of spring.

St Pancras old church, further along Euston Road, is one of the oldest Christian sites in England.

Often confused with St Pancreas.

Next morning via Eurostar to Colmar, and old town in Alsace, France. We stayed with our group in the hotel opposite the station, another fine example of the late 19C fashion for grand statements of steam power.

Colmar station at night

Colmar station at night

Colmar station in daylight

Colmar station in daylight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d never been to this part of Alsace. It was part of Germany from 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, then returned to France after WWI in 1919. The old town is lovely, full of wooden-framed and gabled houses, very Germanic. The central area around the canal is known justifiably as Little Venice. Breakfast on the terrace outside the old covered market, where farmers would land their produce for sale, boated in from the country farms. Nowadays electric-powered punts ply tourists along the tranquil canal. The bridges are so low they all have to duck their heads when passing under them.

Colmar timbered houses

Colmar timbered houses

At lunchtime we boarded another train and headed for Grindelwald, Switzerland, via Basel and Interlaken.

I took with me to read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (I posted on her novel Carol last year HERE ) and a collection of prose pieces by Swiss author Robert Walser, both of whom have featured here at TDays. Our days were so full, however, I didn’t get much time for reading, and only finished the Highsmith earlier today, back in Cornwall. More on that another time, too.

Here’s a taster of what we were about to experience in the breathtakingly beautiful Swiss Alps. More on this part of the trip next time…

Hotel view: the Eiger

This was the view from one of two terraces to our hotel room: the Eiger

View from the hotel room's other terrace

And this is the view from the terrace at the side of our room: another mountain – I think the Wetterhorn

Catalunya one year on

Exactly one year after my long road trip with TD jr and two cats from Berlin to his family’s new home at Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, Mrs TD and I revisited the new house to which they moved a few months later. It’s in a community called La Floresta, some kms nearer the city, on the other side of the mountain that looms over Catalunya’s capital.

Early in the week we drove into Sant Cugat to the Mercantic antique market. There is found the most amazing bookshop: part of it is in what must once have been a cinema or theatre: the curtains are still there, and some of the seats. Next to the main store is a buzzy bar, also lined with books.

Theatre bookshop Sant Cugat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day we went to the seaside resort of Sitges, some 30 kms down the coast from Barcelona. Flags were draped everywhere to celebrate the Fiesta Mayor the previous week. Then the town goes crazy, in honour of the town’s patron saint, Bartomeu. Here’s a link to a site with images of the celebrations, including a trailer for a documentary on the week’s festivities

S Bartomeu flag

S Bartomeu’s flag, with that of the town of Sitges (presumably: it was seen on nearly every balcony)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later this month is the slightly less elaborate fiesta of Saint Tecla:

S Tecla flag

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later we were on the way home when out of the forest and on to the road round the corner from TD jr’s house came a mother wild boar and her family of babies. My snap was taken hurriedly through the car’s rear window, and quality has suffered where I’ve enlarged the image:

Family of wild boar

 

 

 

 

 

 

Near the end of the week we took the local train to the city and on via the R line to Sant Pol, 30 km north. The railway line skirts the coast all the way, with sandy beaches right next to the line:

Line outside Sant Pol station

Line outside Sant Pol station

There are some lovely old buildings in the town; the bougainvillea tumbling down the side of this one was glorious, and the hibiscus put to shame my own puny plant at home, which produced just two blooms this summer for the first time in four years.

Old house Sant Pol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a week with two small grandchildren we spent our last days in the city having grown-up time. This was the view from our hotel window – the magnificent Gaudi house, Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

While on the trip I finished reading the last in the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope – post coming soon. I then started a history of the Spanish Civil War, Hell and Good Company, by Richard Rhodes. It doesn’t just relate the usual sad story of the fascist coup in 1936 that ground on for three terrible years, but focuses on the developments in medicine, technology and the arts at that time.

Book haul: Trollope, Eliot, Dundy, Rhodes, Quimper

Just been into town for the last time before a trip to Catalonia, and couldn’t resist the allure of the books in charity shops. Here’s what I came back with:

Book haul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m taking Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset with me; have got to p. 500 or so, but 400 pp. remain, so I need another one to follow up with – I have a whole week, with plane trips to fill with reading. So that Glendinning biography will come in handy, maybe when I get back. Too heavy for plane travel.

I posted with muted enthusiasm on Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado recently, and Jacqui (Wine) wrote about it just a week ago, so am interested to see what The Old Man and Me is like. One of the better new VMC covers, I think.

I used to have a copy of that Eliot prose collection – it might still be lurking in a box in the cellar or garage – but I noticed there’s an essay on Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, so had to make sure, as I’ll be teaching it this year again.

The book on the Spanish Civil War will be appropriate for where I’m going; sounds like an interesting take on the subject. The blurb says it focuses on the impact of the war on writers and artists, and on technology – military and medical. This summer I’ve reread Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and read a fine French-Spanish novel on the subject: Cry, Mother Spain, by Lydie Salvayre, so it’ll be good to see what Rhodes has to say.

When I got home that Quimper ARC from those fine people at QC Fiction (Québec City) was in the mail. I have a bit of a backlog of their titles to post on here; another task for when I’m back. I’ve found all of their backlist stimulating so far.

Now to finish packing – and a few more pages of Trollope.

Plymouth pilgrimage 3

For the past two years I’ve made a visit to Plymouth in memory of my old friend Mike Flay, who died in May 2016. We used to meet a few times a year there and talk about books, football, family, education.

Here’s a link to the two previous posts, each of which has photos of the zones we frequented in the city, bombed heavily during WWII because of the Devonport naval shipyard – still a military base. The brutalist reconstruction has not been entirely picturesque, but the waterfront is still lovely.

The Waterfront restaurant bar from the Hoe. Kids were having great fun jumping from the harbour wall into the sea.

The last two years I went in July. This summer I’ve been away in Mallorca and otherwise engaged, so this year’s sad pilgrimage is a month later than usual.

I did my usual dérive along the commercial bleakness of Armada Way and on to the Hoe. No bowls match in progress this time – locals nor ghostly Drake awaiting the Spanish Armada.

The customary pint of local brew ‘Jail Ale’ (named presumably for the famous Dartmoor Prison nearby) at the Waterside bar we used to patronise – where Mike would always have a burger, having started his journey earlier than me.

No Brittany ferry passed by this time, either. A gaggle of Italian school kids perched on the wall nearby, legs dangling over the water, trying to look cool and largely succeeding, as Italian kids do.

The attractively restored Tinside Lido, when I walked on, was much busier than last time. The sun had finally emerged after a rare cloudy start to the day; it’s been an unseasonably hot, dry summer in the west country, where we usually get more than our fair share of rain, even in summer. Now the fields look parched and brown – an unusual sight in this green land.

On to the ‘colonial hotel’, as Mike called the Copthorne, close to the station. He was thinking of Conrad, though the comparison was ironic, for there’s not much of the Far Eastern exotic about it. A business couple talked earnestly about mortgages and financial deals. The young woman serving at the bar wore a name badge: Jelena. She’s one of so many who will unfortunately find Britain less congenial after the Brexit negotiations finally come to their dreary end. Not our finest time.

The doors to the hotel are now locked and one has to press a button to gain access after speaking through an intercom. The bar now calls itself a ‘Brasserie’ – an unconvincing development. The toilets are also locked and it’s necessary to get a code number from the bar staff in order to get in there. Clearly the proprietors are expecting invasion of some kind.

The layout of the lounge had changed, and the customary Sky News on the TV is now playing on a side wall, on a much bigger screen. Sports news was on: football transfer news (Mike would have enjoyed that, and grumbled about the state of Man Utd), cricket.

As I sped back through Cornwall on the train home I felt the usual pained sadness of loss. The usual doubts about these trips: but I’m sure they’re not a wallow – they’re a celebration of his life.

 

Bristol visit

Last weekend Mrs TD and I spent in Bristol, where I’d been an undergraduate many years ago. Our hotel was in the city centre, next to the cathedral, so on our first morning, Saturday, we went inside. To my shame I don’t think in my three years there as a young man I ever entered it.

Bristol cathedral

The rose window in the west end of the nave

It was founded as an Augustinian Abbey in the twelfth century, and traces of this original building can be seen today. There’s a fine Chapter House with intricately carved walls.

The east end, according to the guide leaflet a kind lady gave me, is one of the world’s finest examples of a medieval ‘hall church’: the vaulted ceilings in the nave, choir and aisles are all the same height, creating a lofty, light space with a series of elegant arches.

Henry VIII began to dissolve the monastic houses in 1532 for reasons too well known to go into here, and the abbey church became a cathedral in 1542, but the incomplete nave wasn’t finished until the 1860s.

The altar

The altar

 

As a medievalist I was particularly interested in the carvings in the side chapels, dating from the 13C, and the tombs of the abbots, 15-16C.

Abbot's tomb

Abbot’s tomb

Abbot's tomb with decorative head

 

 

 

 

 

Abbot's tomb

Abbot's tomb with dog

Abbot’s dog lies curled at his feet. Not a sign that he’s been on a crusade.

I liked the touches of decoration around the peacefully reposing figures of the abbots: peasant-like heads, solicitous cherubs straining like Lilliputians to levitate the giant figure; a snoozing dog…

There’s a lovely tranquil garden outside, where pigeons pick among ancient tombs and flower beds.

We left to walk up Park Street, now unrecognisable from how it was in my days there: no George’s bookshop or student-thronged tearoom whose name I forget.

I did go in a charity shop and bought three books: more on that another time.

Then into Clifton and a pilgrimage to my former flat. I’d thought last time I was there a few years ago the whole terrace had been gentrified, but this time I looked more closely, and my building is as shabbily elegant as it was when I lived there. Even my top floor window looked to have the same  sash window that needed propping open with a piece of wood.

We had no bathroom or hot water; I’d  go to the SU building round the corner to shower and swim.

I felt a hankering to live there again, but a look in estate agents’ windows and at websites confirmed that it’s way out of my price range.

But it’s good to revisit these places that are so full of memories.

 

 

 

Detail of a head

Detail of a head of a woman in the archway above a tomb

Student flat

I lived here for two years on the top floor.

 

Penzance, Egypt, Denis Johnson and Gandhi

Mrs TD and I stayed Saturday night after our visit to Tate St Ives in Penzance, seven or eight miles away across the ancient granite-boulder-studded West Penwith moors (see my posts on DH Lawrence and this part of Cornwall), just a few doors down from one of the most extraordinary buildings in the southwest, if not in England: the Egyptian House, Chapel Street –

Egyptian House Penzance

The façade

Early C19 stucco Egyptian extravagance. 3 storeys. 3 windows Battered half round corded pilasters, windows and glazing bars. Lotus bud columns flanking entrance. Coved cornices above windows. 2 obelisk caryatids. A coat of arms crowned by an eagle. Heavy coved crowning cornice. [Historic England website description (it has Grade I Listed status – for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’)]

 

It was built ca 1835 in the Egyptian Revival style – which became popular after the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, and his defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, bringing the culture of ancient Egypt into the European consciousness. Napoleon had taken a scientific investigative team with him on his campaign, and they began publishing the results of their studies into the sites and artefacts of Egypt in 1809. But Egyptian style had been imitated in European architecture and design to a lesser degree ever since the Renaissance. Here’s a detail of that amazing façade:

Egyptian House Penzance

The main central façade

The Landmark Trust, which owns the building, rents out three apartments there as holiday accommodation. The house was built originally as a museum and geological repository. The Trust is a charity ‘that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost’ (their website).

Egyptian House portico

The portico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at Artist Residence hotel, ‘a slice of eccentric charm’ as it describes itself, 22 rooms designed in eclectic taste, full of quirky features like a cobbler’s last acting as toilet roll holder in the en suite bathroom, or ‘distressed’ ancient French-style wooden window shutters which serve as the wardrobe doors. There are several hotels in this group across England; the first was started in Brighton, and was named because the young owner couldn’t afford to renovate the place, so invited the thriving local artistic community to come and decorate in return for board. This principle is what gives each location its own individual, innovative and engagingly idiosyncratic identity.

It was a delightful place to relax in after the rigours and excitement of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives during the day on Saturday, about which I wrote here yesterday.

I took with me to read Denis Johnson’s last book, a collection of short stories published in 2018 posthumously (he died last year). I’m about halfway through, and the style and subject matter are very like the gritty realism of Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection whose title from the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’ says it all.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

I wrote an elegiac piece for him here a week after his death, with a brief note on the four of his works I’d read at that time.

This new collection has his usual lyrical and hypnotic style and strung-out characters. I hope to post about it fairly soon, once I clear the backlog of posts on books already finished: there’s a May Sinclair and the Miklós Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy.

Just to finish, I’d like to illustrate the lovely bookmark Mrs TD brought me back from her recent trip with her sister to India. She bought it at the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Delhi; it’s a delicate filigree representation of the great man in his loincloth, walking with his long stick.

Gandhi bookmark

It’s a humbling and inspiring way to mark my progress through my books.