Love made manifest

I had crossed the water meadows to West Harnham in beautiful sunlight the day before, but the rain set in early on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, and I returned to Salisbury Cathedral Close by taxi. My driver told me that, although he and his wife moved to the city several years ago, they had only recently, for the first time, walked around the outside of the Cathedral after dark, and been amazed by the effect of the lights shining from its interior.

I went to the basement of the Sarum College Bookshop, and having seen the Rex Whistler Prism in the Morning Chapel the day before, was pleased to find a booklet on the glass engravings of Laurence Whistler. He himself wrote: “After an evening concert you may see an audience streaming across a dark Close, and hardly one in fifty turns about for an experience as thrilling and exalted as Mozart.”

Laurence was born in 1912, the youngest of the four children of his parents, Henry and Helen Whistler, who according to the Census of 1911 were at that time living in Court Road, Eltham, with their children, Jessie, Denis Amor (who would live only another four years), and Reginald (Rex).

Evelyn Waugh is said to have borrowed features of Rex for his character of Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited”, and of Rex’s artistic contemporary Stephen Tennant, “the brightest of the Bright Young People”, for the character of Lord Sebastian Flyte. Rex and Laurence became distinguished in their respective fields of art, design and illustration, and of poetry and glass engraving.

In 1944, Laurence suffered two grievous losses: in July, Rex was killed on his first day of active service in Normandy; and in November, not long after the birth of their second child, his actress wife Jill Furse died of a blood infection. They had married in Salisbury Cathedral in 1939, before the outbreak of war.

In the 1980s, Laurence Whistler was given the opportunity to create a memorial to his brother in the Cathedral, and in response he created a revolving, illuminated prism which reveals a series of images of the Cathedral. In a book he wrote in 1985, he commented: “the light needs the dark to become articulate “. As another poet, Emily Dickinson, expressed it:

“I see thee better in the dark,

I do not need a light.

The love of thee a prism be

Excelling violet.”

Beyond the mallet and the chisel

Above: Regent St Colonnade c1825

Following a day’s training at Regent’s University, I left the building and regained the Outer Circle of The Regent’s Park. Instead of retracing my steps to Baker Street Station, I turned left towards Regent’s Park Station. From here it’s a stone’s throw to Portland Place, and the beginning of the great thoroughfare developed by John Nash in the early nineteenth century in his role as the Prince Regent’s favourite architect. The route ran south via Regent Street to the site of Carlton House, the prince’s residence. It was the era of the Picturesque, a concept largely created by the Rev William Gilpin, artist and writer. A guiding principle was “accidental irregularity “. Nash made a virtue of necessity and, where there were kinks in the royal route, disguised them with the Quadrant Piccadilly and All Souls, Langham Place.

Gilpin wrote of depicting architecture in a painting : “Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel; we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps.”

Today’s trainer offered the concept of the neuro-idealised self. The context brings to mind the lines of Yeats:

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The Agatha Christie Indult*

*in Catholic canon law, permission to do something that would otherwise be forbidden

Around 1970, major liturgical changes were being introduced in the Catholic Church under the papacy of Paul VI. Over fifty prominent figures in British society signed a petition to the Vatican requesting the continued use of the Tridentine rite where wished in England and Wales. The letter noted its exceptional artistic and cultural heritage. Leo Darroch, in a speech, recounted the story that the Pope read through the letter in silence, then suddenly exclaimed, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and then signed it. Ever since the granting of the Indult in 1971, it has been known informally as “the Agatha Christie Indult “.

I am standing in a short queue of genteel women of a certain age at the bar of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate. The customer ahead of me asks the barman tentatively, “Can I use money here?”. I have some sympathy . Here in the Montpellier Quarter, there is a general air, on a Sunday afternoon in January at any rate, of treating everyone as a convalescent until proved otherwise. The currency is in question.

In 1926 this hotel was known as the Hydro. At the end of that year, which had seen a General Strike in the UK, Agatha Christie was not petitioning anyone. In particular, she was not petitioning for divorce, despite her husband’s affair with a woman he was eventually to marry. On the evening of Friday 3rd December, she in some way reached her emotional limit, and fled to the stately cosiness of the Harrogate Hydro. On Wednesday 8th December, the Daily Sketch carried the headline, “SAID SHE WAS GOING FOR WEEKEND VISIT TO A YORKSHIRE SPA”. The line beneath ran: “No evidence that she went there”.

As late as February 1928, Agatha’s disappearance (she left staff to manage her 7 year old daughter), was a byword for duplicitous conduct. During a libel action, reference was made by the prosecuting counsel to “a woman who played a foolish hoax on the police”. Dame Agatha’s biographer, Laura Thompson, explores exhaustively the circumstances around Agatha’s disappearance from her ordinary life. She writes: “Her eleven days in the wilderness are a myth, a poem. They exist in a different sphere from that of theories and solutions.”

As a child, Agatha feared for the soul of her father, who played croquet in the garden on Sundays. By the time she was 36, and in desperate need of healing for her wounded heart, one feels she would have granted him the freedom to negotiate the hoops in any way that lay open to him.

A Far Cry From Islington

(With apologies to Muriel Spark)

Of the six sestieri of Venice, Dorsoduro is one of the less “touristic”. It attracts artists, designers and writers. Walter Sickert, “the godfather of modern British art”, worked in Venice on and off for ten years, and , after his first few years of painting its most famous buildings, painted lesser known views such as that of the 16th century church of the Carmini in Dorsoduro.

Ever since former psychoanalyst Salley Vickers made the Dorsoduro church of Angelo Raffaele central to the action of her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, it has become something of a pilgrimage destination for her readers. (I can testify from my own visits there at intervals of a few years that it has grown sprucer and more available for visits.)

Salley Vickers underpins her story of Miss Garnet with the ancient tale of Tobias, who travels to Media unaware he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael. She also tells, on her website, of the Cima altarpiece – in Carmini – of the Nativity, where Tobias stands with his dog and his fish, holding a kindly Raphael’s hand. It’s useful to know that Raphael, who is identified with healing, was associated with Dorsoduro as the totem of sailors arriving from the East bringing silk, spice – and the Black Death.

This week, I made my own little pilgrimage to 1, Highbury Place, North London, where Sickert ran his painting and engraving school in the 1920s and 1930s. He drew his initial full-size sketch for The Raising of Lazarus on the studio’s papered wall. After a brisk walk of twenty minutes or so, I was back at the Northern Line’s Angel Station. This is where Dorsoduro and Islington collided in my mind.

On the evening of 1st October, 1946, five minutes before six o’ clock, the driver of a Northern Line tube train was obliged to stop two hundred yards short of Angel Station. He saw ahead of him a large white dog, which began to trot towards the station. As the train followed slowly, through the next ten stops, the dog loped steadily ahead. As the train approached Clapham Common, the dog stopped at the side of the tunnel to let it pass. Then, as the train pulled out of the station, the dog jumped onto the platform, passed through the exit and up the escalator, and out into the street.

Professor Michael Gilmour, on the Huffpost Blog, declares himself an animal lover and dog owner, and explains in scholarly fashion that the dog in the Book of Tobit appears for each leg of the journey undertaken by Tobias and Raphael. In neither instance is the dog introduced or explained. Professor Gilmour entitles his post: “Is that Biblical Dog an Angel? “.

– sed magis est amica veritas

Isaac Newton apparently paraphrased a well-known Latin phrase traditionally ascribed to Plato when he said: “Plato is my friend- Aristotle is my friend – but my greatest friend is truth.”

I was walking away from Paxton & Whitfield at 93, Jermyn St, with my purchase of pungent Epoisses, when I learned from an LCC plaque at no. 87 that “Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1727 lived here”. Newton gave up the residence at the Tower of London accorded to him as Warden of the Royal Mint to live in this house. It may simply have attracted him as having the more salubrious environs of the western side of the city.

However, Newton lived in this street from 1696 to 1709. That was the year when Queen Anne made Samuel Clarke the Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, the church which has one side on Jermyn St. And when Newton died in 1727, Clarke was offered the place of Master of the Mint. In fact, Clarke was probably Newton’s most trusted confidant, and espoused the superiority of the Newtonian system over the Cartesian tradition.

Until I looked up these details, I will confess, I could have told you two things about Isaac Newton.

1. The young Isaac Newton was sitting in his garden when an apple fell on his head and he suddenly came up with his theory of gravity.

2. Later on, his dog Diamond accidentally set light to the manuscript he was working on, setting his work on gravity back by a year.

However, Newton also claimed that his dog (it’s not even clear that he ever kept a pet) discovered two theorems in a single morning. He added that “one had a mistake and the other had a pathological exception.”.

All this suggests to me that a great man can be a mathematician, astronomer, theologian and physicist, and still hone a good anecdote over time. His apple story , for instance, fitted with the idea of an Earth-shaped object being attracted to the Earth, while also having resonance with the Biblical account of the tree of knowledge.

Apple Tree Yard lies very close to Jermyn Street. Go on, make something of that.

mono no aware*

*from the Japanese (n.) lit “the pathos of things”

William Lever built his fortune on Sunlight Soap, and he built Port Sunlight (work commenced in 1888) as a model village to accommodate the workers who powered his commercial success. It’s also the site of the Lady Lever Art Gallery – and therein lies this tale.

The collection is based, reasonably enough, on Lord Leverhulme’s personal taste and collecting interests. It includes Bubbles, by John Everett Millais. This was famously used by the rival soap firm of A & F Pears to promote its products. In the Dutch tradition of vanitas imagery, which commented on the transience of life, the picture of a young boy blowing bubbles symbolises the beauty and fragility of life. The painting found its way here in the wake of Lever Brothers’ acquisition of A & F Pears.

In his early days as a collector of art, William was guided by any given image for its potential as a poster. So elsewhere in the gallery, you can see The Wedding Morning by John Bacon (still popular for greetings cards). Lever bought it from the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1892 and adapted it for advertising by painting in bars of Sunlight soap where there had been a clock on the mantelpiece and a cup and saucer on the table.

A couple of decades on, and Monday 7th September 1914 found 700 Lever employees, the biggest group of volunteers from any workforce in the country, travelling to Chester to enlist in the 13th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. As the First World War continued, readers of Punch could have seen in their issue of 25th October 1916 an advertisement for Sunlight Soap which urged them to “include a Tablet in your next parcel to the Fleet or Front.”. By that year, William Lever had commissioned Goscombe John to design a war memorial for Port Sunlight.

(The parents of the architect Joseph Sunlight, whose name in Belarus had been Schimschlavitch, probably chose their new name on immigration to England in 1890 from Port Sunlight.)

Bacon’s Wedding Morning had received mixed reviews at its first showing. It was described by critics as both “an essay in lighting” and as being “hackneyed “. The two comments do not rule each other out, of course. I hear more, since my Monday visit to Port Sunlight, in the simple request to the bus driver at Chester Station: “Return to Port Sunlight, please”.

The Swedish Nightingale

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered with others in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner for a talk by Professor Michael Slater on his biography of Charles Dickens. As I listened, my gaze wandered about the wall of tablets opposite and lighted on the white Sicilian marble monument to Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt, the great Swedish coloratura soprano, whose famous trill led to her being compared to a nightingale.

(The note on the Westminster Abbey website says in passing of her memorial that “the monument to Sir Thomas Robinson was cut down to accommodate it.” It’s tempting to interpret this as a concrete expression of an institutional wish to cut the memory of the tall, eccentric and extravagant amateur architect down to size. He had a partiality for the – baseless – Roman Doric column. He employed an organist to play for him while he fell asleep.)

Back to Jenny Lind. In 1843 she toured Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen, according to popular legend, met and fell in unrequited love with her. Robert Lepage has a different take on this, and points out that her touring schedule made a relationship out of the question. This, Lepage implies, made her an ideal love object for Andersen, who maintained lifelong celibacy.

Thank you for your talk, Professor Slater. My “take home message”? Notice the fascination Dickens has with the glass eye, the false tooth, the wooden leg – what lies between animate and inanimate.

How Does A Poem Mean?

Image: Catalpa, Staple Inn

This book on how to read, write and teach poetry was published in 1959 by John Anthony Ciardi. He was raised in Massachusetts by his Italian, unlettered mother, who had been widowed when he was three. A critic wrote that as a poet and professor , “he is more like a very literate, gently appetitive, Italo-American airplane pilot”.

His 1966 poem, “The Catalpa”, came to my mind as I sat in the church of St James’s, Piccadilly, on this Sunday which is both the fourth in Advent and Christmas Eve. The “CatalpaNativity” currently standing in front of the altar was carved by Clinton Chaloner from the wood of a Catalpa tree which stood in the courtyard of the church for over eighty years. At one time, participants in baptismal services spent part of the ceremony beneath its branches.

When I looked the poem up to check my memory of it, I found myself unwilling to quote any line without another, and here it is:

The catalpa’s white week is ending there

In its corner of my yard. It has its arms full

of its own flowering now, but the least air

spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall

whole coronations. There is not much more

of what this is. Is every gladness quick?

That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before

the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,

Will start to shed. And every year one limb

cracks without falling off and hangs there dead

till I get up and risk my neck to trim

what it knows how to lose but not to shed.

I keep it only for this one white pass.

The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;

All else, the world remembering what it was

In the seven days of its visible miracle.

What should I keep if averages were all?


George Bernard Shaw’s 1909 play of this name, subtitled A Debate in One Sitting, can be seen on stage in Richmond on Thames into the New Year. Happily, I found myself in the audience this Saturday afternoon, at the sign of the Orange Tree, as the cast played out the drama set in a Surrey conservatory on a Saturday afternoon. Act I closes with a plane crashing into the garden outside. Earlier, the character Bentley Summerhays had burst out: “I’m sorry I intruded : I didn’t know.”

In the interval, my neighbour reminisced to me of how he had once arrived at this theatre to find his seat was in the middle of an otherwise occupied row. He thought he would cause less trouble if he climbed into his seat over its back. This was trickier than he anticipated, and his efforts drew attention, so that his eventual success was greeted with a small round of applause.

As I left the theatre, I looked up to see the familiar sight of an aeroplane beginning its descent over Richmond into Heathrow. I walked past seven shop fronts, including the theatre box office and the pawnbroker’s, before passing the head office of Not on the High Street. It was here, in June 2015, that a stowaway met his end on the roof of the building after falling from the undercarriage of a plane arriving in London from Johannesburg .

Says the character Tarleton to the Polish acrobat who escapes from the doomed light aircraft with its pilot:

“I’m in a difficulty. I can’t understand a lady going up in an aeroplane for family reasons. It’s rude to be curious and ask questions; but then it’s inhuman to be indifferent, as if you didn’t care.”

“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’e bisogna che tutto cambi.”*

*“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

When Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote this in his historical Italian novel, “The Leopard “, he may just have spared a thought for his travels in Europe in the 1920s and his frequent visits to London and the Great Central Hotel. It is now known as The Landmark- simply step out of the back door of Simply Food on Marylebone Station, as I did yesterday, and you will find yourself beneath its magnificent “Porte cochere”.

Then as now, this architectural feature undiscriminatingly shelters those who arrive from the elements. The advent of the Roaring Twenties saw the inner courtyard transformed into a dance floor. In earlier times, carriages reached the heart of the hotel before their occupants descended in privacy and comfort.

On the 19th March, 1908, one such party arrived direct from Holloway Prison and comprised Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragettes, and other newly released comrades arriving for a “Welcome Back from Prison” breakfast.

On the 18th October, 1902, the fear of civil unrest was such that police guards were posted outside the hotel’s Wharncliffe Rooms. Inside, 300 people were attending the first service of the Jewish Religious Union. Miss Lily Montagu had laid the groundwork for this by arranging the first meeting of this Union “for the Advancement of Liberal Judaism ” at her sister’s house. She was influenced by the reform-oriented Biblical scholar, Claude Montefiore, and it was he who delivered the address at this inaugural service.