Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Wednesday 23 October 2019

A bit more literary fun

Thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for the impetus behind this post.

As he explains, The Guardian books supplement publishes a weekly short interview with a writer in which they are asked a series of questions designed to elucidate their thoughts and opinions on the subject of - you'd never guess in a million years - books. Mr Git gives his own responses, very entertainingly, in his post. Here are, much less entertainingly, mine.

The book I am currently reading

Like most readers, I suspect, I have more than one book I'm currently reading. The book next to me on the sofa is Zadie Smith's NW - very enjoyable. I like, among other things, its Shandyean playfulness. 

Beside my bed are John Stubbs' biography of John Donne, one of my top five poets, and the first volume of Stanley Spencer's autobiography, Looking to Heaven. This was published only in 2016, though he died in 1959. He tried to write an autobiography several times, and assembled masses of notes and various scribblings, but failed to pull them together. His grandson has assembled them into almost coherent form (mostly consisting of letters), taking Spencer's life up to the end of the First World War. Two more volumes are planned. 

The book in my coat pocket is The Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a new Foreign Office, 1855-61, by Bernard Porter. Often I rely on serendipity for my book choices; this is one of them. Perhaps I wouldn't have sought a book on this subject, but I saw it in Oxfam and thought it might be interesting. It is. It's about a lot more than architecture (as the subtitle suggests), though I'd be perfectly happy to read a book just about architecture (and I quite often do).

My toilet book is Malta Spitfire Pilot: Ten Weeks of Terror, April-June 1942, by Denis Barnham. Again, the subtitle tells you enough for my present purpose. Barnham was also a painter; he has a picture in the Imperial War Museum.

The book that changed my life

I'm tempted to say the Janet and John primary reading series. 'One day John said, "Let us play shops, Janet. Come to my shop. See what I have."' Deathless prose. (Though I must say I thoroughly approve of the comma before 'Janet', a punctuation nicety that seems to be dying out. The sentence 'Let us play shops Janet' would suggest the answer 'What sort of game is "shops Janet"?') They were the first books I ever read, aged five at school. Suddenly having the world of books spread open in front of me was very exciting, an excitement I'm sometimes able to recapture. 

If you want a more serious answer, maybe I'll pick out Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I read at the age of about 15 or 16. It shook me (though I can see some of its weaknesses now). I realised that the world could be a very unpleasant place, and that it was worthwhile trying to do something to make it better. (Sadly, I'm too lazy and selfish to have allowed this lesson to affect my behaviour.)

Or another candidate would be The Merchant of Venice, which I read in English lessons  with my teacher, Ray Winch, when I was about 13. I can't claim that it was all transparent and delightful right from the first line; it took a bit of work on his, and my, part. But there were flashes of joy almost from the start. For example, I remember Ray picking out from the first scene the lines:

In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both.

My pleasure in realising that I could grasp and understand these words was, perhaps, my first conscious encounter with the thrill and possibilities of metaphoric language. Watching (and reading) Shakespeare has been an important part of my life since then.

The book I wish I’d written

I wish I'd written a book (as in a novel). Pretty much any one would do. Even a rubbish one would have been better than nothing.

So there's little point in wishing that I'd written Far from the Madding Crowd or Ulysses. But I can just about see myself having once been capable of writing something like The Diary of a Nobody (which contains the funniest sentence ever written: 'I left the room with dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.' If I could ever write something as good as that, I'd be beaming so broadly that even Brexit wouldn't burden me). So I'll choose that.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing

Another near-impossible question, because I haven't done any significant writing that could have been influenced. Nevertheless, I wish I could write with the apparent ease of Anne Tyler, who deals with the lives of 'ordinary' people with such grace and understanding.

The book I think is most under/overrated

I'm hesitant to answer this, because what do I know? I'll hazard a response.

Underrated: H.G.Wells is mostly remembered as an early writer of science fiction, but his short stories deserve to be much better known. They cover such wide territory, from comedy ('The Truth about Pyecraft') to horror ('The Cone') via social commentary ('A Slip under the Microscope') and (yes) science fiction ('A Story of the Days to Come') and many other genres.

Overrated: I think Evelyn Waugh's early books, especially Decline and Fall and Scoop, are comic masterpieces.  His later books, however, get weighed down by his reactionary views and, especially, his Catholicism. There's a lengthy chapter, during which all narrative drive splutters and fails, in Men at Arms describing the funeral of the father of Guy Crouchback (the central character) where it becomes very obvious that Waugh is writing wistful wish-fulfilment. He desperately wanted to be a part of the Catholic landed gentry (he wasn't). Nothing wrong in wanting that, but plenty wrong in letting it bog his books down. This propagandising tendency is strong too in Brideshead Revisited. That's my choice. Final answer.

The book that changed my mind

Doesn't every book we read change our minds, at least a little bit? If not, what's the point of reading them? If I must chose one, it would be a book that didn't exactly change my mind, but drew together into sharp focus and thoroughly explained many things that I'd been very vaguely aware of: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. It deals with why European and Asian cultures have been historically so dominant. (Spoiler alert: it's not because they're inherently superior.)

The last book that made me cry

Music often brings tears to my eyes (because it's so overwhelmingly beautiful). (Most recently this morning, listening to the first tune on Oregon's album Prime, 'If'' - listen to a live version of it here. Have you ever heard a more gorgeous tune?) 

I'm a softy in plays and films. More often than not I'll get a little (or a lot) choked up. 

Books? Not so much. Why? I find it hard to explain. I'm moved, certainly, but not in the same visceral way I'm moved by music or drama. One work that comes very close, though, is Hardy's Poems of 1912-13, and especially 'At Castle Boterel', with its gut-wrenching last lines:

And I shall traverse old love's domain
                 Never again.

The last book that made me laugh

That would be the last book that I finished reading, Jane Austen's Persuasion. It's her final finished novel, and noticeably more acidic and less comic than the others, but it still caused me to chortle quietly to myself. For example, the dispute (in chapter 19) about who should travel by barouche and who by foot. 'It was discussed between them with a generosity so polite and so determined.' 

Incidentally, Austen was remarkably prescient. In her description of Mr Elliot she seems to have foreknowledge of a certain current prominent British politician.  We first see Mr Elliot from a distance and form the impression that he is cold, calculating, sly and supercilious. But halfway through the book he appears in person, and is charm itself. We (and the other characters) are persuaded that we misjudged him. However, towards the end Mrs Smith, who has known him well for many years, spills the beans about him. This is what she says:

"Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character. He has no feeling for others. Those whom he has been the chief cause of leading into ruin, he can neglect and desert without the smallest compunction. He is totally beyond the reach of any sentiment or compassion. Oh! he is black at heart, hollow and black!"

Ring any bells?

The book I couldn’t finish

Probably quite a few. But this tells you more about me than the books.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read

Again, there must be many. I've not read Don Quixote, Proust or most of the big 18th century English novels. I'm hanging my head so low I can hardly type.

My earliest reading memory

That would be Janet and John, but I've already said that. The first books I can remember being really enthusiastic about for their content (rather than the simple excitement and pleasure of being able to read at all) were Enid Blyton's Famous Five series. They're what started me off collecting books too. I loved seeing them lined up red-spined on my shelf, standing sentinel over my bed. And reading them by torchlight under the bedcovers when I should have been sleeping. There's not much can beat that for a thrill when you're seven or whatever.

My comfort read

I like leafing through the Shell County Guides, dreaming of all the places I've yet to visit - too many for one lifetime, and that's just one country. And, if I had space on my shelves, Richmal Crompton's William books and Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings series (preferably in lovely dust-jacketed editions).

The book I give as a gift

I don't give obligatory gifts (except to children). We've all got too much anyway. Spontaneous presents sometimes, yes. Sometimes that would be a book, but there isn't a particular book that I buy in bulk for redistribution.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for

I've written only one book, and that was half a lifetime ago (a study of the songs of Elvis Costello). By default, if I'm remembered for a book it will have to be that one, though I'm neither proud nor ashamed of it. (It has some entertainingly damning reviews on Amazon. 'Trees died for this book' is my favourite.)

I'd like to assemble my writings on this blog about the churches of Hertfordshire into a single work, but so far I've 'done' fewer than 30 out of about a hundred that deserve an extensive treatment (plus another hundred or so that need one brief paragraph). Clearly this would never be a commercial proposition (even if it were competently done), so I'd have to print off a few dozen copies and distribute them to friends and the odd library. This book, which doesn't exist and most probably never will, is the book I'd most like to be remembered for.

But the truth is that, like 99.99999% of all the people who've ever lived, I won't be remembered. Once, much less than a century after my death, when all the people who knew me personally are themselves dead, all memory of me will be wiped from the earth. It's okay. This is as it should be. I'm fully inured to the iniquity of oblivion.*

The only thing that will, probably, survive, are my books - that is, the books I own. They'll continue to be read and cause delight. That's a comforting thought.

* Another great line, and again not by me. This time it's from Sir Thomas Browne (Urne-Buriall, I think).

Friday 11 October 2019

Frescos in S Maria della Neve, Pisogne, Brescia, Lombardy, Italy

One sometimes has the impression that Italian Renaissance art consists solely of masterpieces. This idea is politely but firmly dispelled by a visit to the church of S Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snows) in Pisogne, on the shores of Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Italy. The walls and ceiling are covered with frescos by Giralamo Romani (c.1485 - c.1566), known as Romanino, dating from 1534. 

Their overall effect is certainly impressive when one first steps inside, but the more one looks, the more some details fail to convince. (Less than perfect restorations over the years may have played a part here.) The figures in Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and the Apostles Adoring the Virgin, for example, seem crudely painted, and the devils in the Harrowing of Hell just aren't very . . . well, devilish. According to the Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes the church is known as 'the Poor Man's Sistine Chapel', but this isn't mentioned in any of the local information that I've seen, and seems appropriate only in the same way that it's appropriate to say that American Budweiser is the poor man's Czech Budweiser Budvar. 

On the other hand, there is plenty to enjoy here. In particular, I like the background figures in the big west wall Crucifixion - the dogs, the horses, the soldiers with their armour and lances. Furthermore, I can thoroughly recommend the pear and chocolate tart in the cafe by the lake.

More information (and a less jaundiced perspective) can be found here.

West door
Looking west from the chancel


Christ's Entry into Jerusalem


Prophets and Sybils on the ceiling

Detail from Christ's Entry into Jerusalem

Detail from Christ's Entry into Jerusalem

The Harrowing of Hell

Detail from the Harrowing of Hell

Detail from the Harrowing of Hell


Prophets and Sibyls


Detail from Crucifixion

Detail from Crucifixion


Detail from Crucifixion


Detail from Crucifixion

Detail from Crucifixion

Detail from Crucifixion

Prophets and Sybils

I regret to say that I've forgotten what scene this is a detail from

Angel Gabriel from the Annunciation

Apostles Adoring the Virgin

Detail of the Apostles Adoring the Virgin

Christ Washing HIs Disciples' Feet

Detail from Christ Washing HIs Disciples' Feet

Fragment from an otherwise vanished scene

Looking east

West front

Lake Iseo