Sunday, 28 May 2017

Brightness

Continuing my progress through the (hard-to-find) novels of Elizabeth Jenkins, I have just finished reading Brightness. Though not in the same league as The Tortoise and the Hare, it's a fascinating piece of work and well worth a read, if you happen to come across it.
 Published in 1963 and set in the then present (unlike the fact-based Harriet and Dr Gully), Brightness portrays a fairly tight-knit Home Counties community with a pen as sharp as and often more brutal than Jane Austen's. The first chapter is a masterclass in skilful scene-setting, deftly introducing the key characters, telling (or rather showing) us just what we need to know about them, and placing them precisely in the social milieu of New Broadlands, a pleasant town set on a high ridge, its earliest houses 'built in the Edwardian era by a community of high-minded cranks'.
 What unfolds over the first three quarters of the novel seems to be a fictional study of parenting, good and bad, of youthful rebellion and delinquency and the 'generation gap'. The Tortoise and the Hare, you might recall, included a vitriolic portrait of a couple with modernistic progressive views, especially on the raising of children - views that amounted to an abdication of all parental responsibility. A background element in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins's loathing of progressive thought, in particular in relation to the upbringing of children, comes right to the fore in Brightness.
 The most conspicuous representative of progressive thought in general is the frightful old humbug Mortimer Upjohn, 'a figure in the tradition of the town's Edwardian past', with his knitted waistcoat, grass green jacket, sandals and thick white woollen socks. Pursuing his self-imposed mission in life as a thinker and speaker in the progressive cause, he carries considerable weight in local affairs and is 'a man of no vices, unless a combination of bumptiousness with meanness could be called so; he was genuinely devoted to things of the mind; no sensual pleasures, to him, could compare with the interest he took in the discussion of social and psychological theories'.
 Upjohn's ruling idea, based on popular psychology, is that the blame for criminal actions 'rested entirely on those who tolerated the environment that had conditioned them'. He believed that 'the young were the only section of the human race that could be considered interesting and worth talking about. Of the young, the most sacred were the young criminals. From their double claims Mr Upjohn appeared to derive an extraordinary stimulation; he never tired of descanting upon them, as their exponent and defender; yet these subjects had nearly all to be drawn from hearsay and the public press. There was disappointingly little juvenile crime in New Broadlands...'
 Good knockabout stuff, but more central to the novel is Jenkins's withering portrayal of the nouveaux riches Sudgens, he a successful businessman, his wife a selfish and silly woman who cannot forgive or forget anything she regards as 'criticism', the pair of them engaged in bringing up their now late-teenage son with a toxic combination of unrestrained indulgence and non-existent discipline. As a result, the loathsome son is interested in nothing but the pursuit of his own massively subsidised pleasures - girls, money, jaunts to London and abroad, and fast cars.
 As contrast to the terrible Sugdens, we have Una Lambert, a widow with a beloved - and not indulged - son who is at Cambridge and, having got through a period of adolescent sullenness, is turning out to be a remarkable young man, a credit to his mother. We see much of the action through the eyes of the sympathetic Una, a woman more interested in the possibilities of Christian faith (though not a conventional 'believer') than in the inanities of progressive thought.
 As the novel progresses, a good deal of broadly theological discussion and speculation enters the picture, making the reader wonder: where is all this going? Is it a satire on progressive thought and parenting, a study of parent-child relations, a reflection on the nature of faith? It is all of those, but where it is going is towards a shocking and tragic event, about three-quarters of the way through the story, that changes everything in the most profound way, and puts all that came before in an entirely new perspective.
 It's hard to say much more without giving away the plot. Suffice to say that in its last section Brightness becomes a very different, stranger, sadder and more interesting novel than it seemed to be in its early stages. I'm not sure that it works, but it's certainly a remarkable piece of writing.
 The title, by the way, comes from St Bernard of Clairvaux, as quoted by Una's son:
'He said: "Bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright", and he described mystical experience as "an immersion in the infinite ocean of eternal light and luminous eternity".'

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Found

Having visited one local nature reserve that I'd located but failed to enter last year, I thought I'd chance my arm with one that I last year failed even to locate. This time, I'm happy to say, I found it, and was rewarded with an abundance of that dusky little beauty (our smallest butterfly), the Small Blue. It can reasonably be described as 'rare' and is certainly 'threatened', but if you find it at all, you're likely to find it in considerable numbers. That was certainly the case today; in an hour or two's wandering around this (un'improved' grassland) reserve, I saw scores of them - sometimes a dozen or more in view at one time amid the grass or nectaring on flowers, some fluttering about, some mating, many contentedly settled out of the wind, doing nothing. I also saw my first Small Copper of the year, feeding eagerly on an umbel of Ground Elder, that beautiful, much-maligned 'weed' - and a single Brown Argus and an early Large Skipper...
 Every year, the miracle begins again - the butterflies appear, first the hibernators that have survived the rigours of winter, then the newly emerged spring fliers, then the great surge of summer butterflies, and finally the late fliers of autumn, the last we'll see before the great winter disappearance and the bleak butterflyless months. And every year the butterfly season unfolds in a different way - no two years are the same. That is one of the things that makes butterfly watching in this country, where so many species have but a tenuous hold, such a particular bittersweet delight.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Two Ascensions


Today is Ascension Day (and, as it happens, my late father's 108th birthday).
 The Ascension of Christ has proved a challenging subject for painters, involving as it does a two-tier composition, with Earth and astonished disciples below, Heaven and the ascending Christ above. This posed no particular problems for artists working in the Byzantine tradition of flat, two-dimensional picture space. But to present the scene naturalistically, in the three-dimensional world of Renaissance and later art, was more difficult.
 The picture above, by Perugino, tackles the problem by presenting what is essentially a static, two-dimensional image of the scene, but with each element painted naturalistically, the figures rounded and lit as if in three-dimensional space. The image is so patterned and tightly structured that it could almost be a stained-glass window. Note those formal, symmetrical angels and that mandorla of cherubim heads around Christ. But note too the shadows on the ground and that lovely Umbrian landscape in the blue distance.
 For a completely different approach, consider the picture below, a modello by Tiepolo (probably G.B. and his son G.D. working together, as they often did). Air was Tiepolo's element, and skies - skies peopled with dramatically posed figures in ravishing colours - were his forte; no one painted ceilings with such convincing pictorial depth, or rather height, and his clouds are as eloquent and perfectly placed as his figures. Jesus ascending into clouds, to his disciples' astonishment, was a subject that came naturally to him (as did the Assumption of the Virgin, which he painted many times). His version of the Ascension might lack religious intensity, but as a piece of masterly painting there's no arguing with it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Pontormo


Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), one of the great Florentine Mannerists, was born on this day in 1494. This is his Portrait of a Halberdier, probably painted during the siege of Florence. A typically intense and edgy psychological portrait, it shows a refined young man, who has clearly seen little of life, posing with all the swagger and arrogance of a seasoned soldier. The pose, boldly filling the picture space, is entirely convincing, but the unease and vulnerability in the young man's face are what hold the eye and give this beautifully executed painting its extraordinary force.
It lives in the Getty Museum in California, having been bought at auction in 1989 for an eye-popping (at the time) $35.2 million. Earlier this year, the National Gallery sadly failed in its bid to buy another Pontormo portrait, Young Man in a Red Cap, from an American billionaire for £30 million.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Godot: Leaves and Hats


Until I saw it on the shelves of my favourite local charity shop, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Folio Society edition of Waiting for Godot - Beckett's play seemed an unlikely candidate for the Society's list. But it exists, and I have it in my hands. Very handsome it is, too - designed and illustrated by the great Tom Phillips (creator of A Humument).
 There's a preface by Edward Beckett, Samuel's nephew and executor, devoted chiefly to the surprisingly complex textual history of Godot. And there's an engaging Illustrator's Note by Phillips, who recalls drawing Beckett at rehearsals of the play at the Riverside Studios. Chatting with him during breaks, Phillips wisely decided to talk only of cricket and smoking, but he did share some memories of the dying days of music hall, and mentioned that Godot reminded him of the double acts from those times (toffs and tramps, comics and stooges, etc). 'All those bowler hats, you mean?' asked Beckett. 'Yes, mmm, yes... something in that.' The play, suggested Phillips, felt like watching one such double act being invaded by another. 'Mmm, yes,' said Beckett, '... something in that.'
 All those bowler hats, indeed - at one point there are five on stage. This gave Phillips one of the motifs for his illustrations. And the other was the on-stage tree with its 'four or five leaves':
'I enjoyed speculating as to what the particular leaf was like that may or may not have been there. I assume that somewhere in a learned paper there exists a thesis on this Berkleian leaf which might also discuss the parallel numbers of leaves and hats. Fortunately I have neither seen nor read it. Thus I am happy to think in Beckett's words, "Something in that... yes, mmm, yes."
 This is very little by way of visual ammunition to be armed with, but it is enough to go on. And so, like Lucky, I rest my case.'
 The lithograph below, of Beckett watching Godot rehearsals at the Riverside Studios, forms the frontispiece of this splendid edition.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Dream Dinner Party?

Mrs Nige is of the opinion that there is something deeply, seriously weird about Theresa May (leader of the personality cult formerly known as the Conservative Party). Having seen Mrs May's guest list for her dream dinner party, I'm beginning to think Mrs N might be right... Stanley Spencer, for heaven's sake!? At a dinner party?!
 My own dream dinner party would ideally have no guests. Failing that, Anton Chekhov might be fun - I like his conversational style, as recorded in V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free:
'He had become notoriously an apparent listener who... was given to uttering apparently irrelevant yet gnomic or fantastic comments that killed the subject. He had once interrupted a wrangling discussion on Marxism with the eccentric suggestion: "Everyone should visit a stud farm. It is very interesting."'
 And Samuel Beckett could be counted on for plenty of silence too, and would be unlikely to want to talk about anything but cricket. To make up the numbers, perhaps I'd extend an invitation to Fernando Pessoa, knowing he would be unlikely to turn up...
 I know, I know - I should have Dr Johnson and John Keats and Oscar Wilde and... But a dinner party! Round one table? Really, it would be insufferable. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Piper Church and a Way Forward for the Book Trade


I was off church-crawling again today, with walking friends, on Romney Marsh - big cloud-filled skies, wide horizons, sheep pastures and claggy arable, isolated churches with strangely bare interiors, skylarks and swans, chuntering warblers in the reeds, burbling marsh frogs... The largest of the churches - St George, Ivychurch, the 'cathedral of the marsh' - was fortunate enough to receive the John Piper treatment: see above and below this post.
 On the evening before the walk, we dined in Hastings in an excellent second-hand bookshop that at night becomes an even more excellent Thai restaurant. The surroundings are of course perfect for any book-lover, and all those books lining the walls, floor to ceiling, have the welcome effect of damping echoes, so that you can actually hear what your fellow diners are saying - in contrast to most restaurants, too many of which seem designed with the opposite aim. This dual business model surely represents a way ahead for bookshops, so many of which are today struggling to survive - good books, good food and audibility. What could be more agreeable?