BUTLERS

Knowing my preference for wines of the Old World over the New, my son kindly obtained a licence to import French and Italian wines. Selling these wines to the world at large proved more difficult, partly because potential clients found difficulty in pronouncing the chosen name of his Lordship’s enterprise and because few understood its association with wine. The chosen name, Bouteiller (pronounced boo-tay-yea), is from the Old French Botellier, the officer in charge of the King’s wine bottles. It translates into English as butler. Both butler and bouteiller are from French botte which gave us boot and butt (a cask) as early wine containers and boots were both sewn leather sacks. A butt (or pipe) of wine (equal to two hogsheads) became the standard measure of 126 Imperial gallons (477 litres) of wine. From butt came buttery, a storeroom for liquor and still, in some of the older universities and private schools of England, the name of their eating places.

Butlers first came into view in Imperial Rome when food and wine at elegant dinner parties was served from separate buffets, the repositorium for food and the cilibantium upon which stood the oenophorus (wine container), the caldarium (warm water) and the crater (mixing bowl) , for in Roman times wine was drunk warm and watered.
In medieval times the kitchen and cellar were in the hands of the panter (from pane, bread) and the butler respectively. Apart from choosing and cellaring the wine, production of which was now firmly in the capable hands of the Italians, the Burgundians and the Bordelais, the butler would have played his part in testing the food and wine for poison. The ritual was known as ‘credence’ for it was designed to instil confidence in the diners, being performed before them on a special ‘credence’ table. Residue of this ancient ritual persists today in the Italian name for a sideboard (credenza) and the cork–sniffing activities of the sommelier.

A butler serves a household; a sommelier is a restaurant employee responsible for establishing the Wine List and advising customers on wine quality and food pairings.
In the early 20th century live-in servants began to die out as opportunities in the outside world became more accessible and the idea that a whole class of people should serve members of another class became unacceptable or as PC enthusiasts would say, inappropriate.

Famous bouteillers or butlers? The best known tend to be fictional characters such as Nestor, the butler of Marlinspike Hall in The Adventures of Tintin or Sebastian Beach the butler in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories. Jeeves, another famous Wodehouse character, describes himself as a ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’ and a ‘personal gentleman’s gentleman’, making him a valet, not a butler, as he serves a man not a household. Mr Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel ‘Remains of the Day’, immortalised in the film by Anthony Hopkins, is a famous butler as is, of course, Mr Carson, the pompous but loyal butler to Lord Grantham’s household at Downton Abbey.

Perhaps the most famous real butler in history is Sante Lancerio, Bouteiller (Bottigliere) to Pope Paul III, who produced a survey (I Vini d’Italia guidicati da Papa Paolo III dal suo bottigliere Sante Lancerio) of the best wines to be found in Rome. The finest, he concluded, was a Malvasia wine from the Island of Crete. His record, written in 1540 but only published in 1876, is remarkable for being the first occasion that the taste and colour qualities of the wines were described in similar terms used today by wine writers and experts. Lapposo (tannic), delicato (delicate), dorato (golden) and odorifero (perfumed) are some of the terms Lancerio employs. He is remembered today on the label of Melini’s ‘Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Sante Lancerio’.

Of contemporary butlers, I can only think of Mr Paul Burrel, once Footman to Queen Elizabeth II and later butler to Princess Diana. After the death of his last employer Mr Burrel chose to publish details of his life at Highgrove and Kensington Palace, including letters of the Princess. Not something Mr Carson would consider. Apart from a sound knowledge of wine, including its cellaring and presentation, discretion and loyalty are also the perceived hallmarks of a good butler.

THE CULTIVATION OF A HOBBY

‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day’. Winston Churchill.

‘Only artists produce for each other a world that’s fit to live in’. D H Lawrence

In the late 1760s a young Frenchman , Noel Desenfans, arrived in London to teach languages, later marrying one of his pupils, who came with a fortune that her new husband used to acquire important works of art. Such was Desenfans’ success in the field, that King Stanislaus of Poland appointed him Polish Consul General in England with a mandate to collect pictures for the formation of a National Gallery in Warsaw. In 1795, when Desenfans had already acquired a substantial number of paintings, Poland was rudely partitioned by its neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria and Stanislaus was invited by the Russians to be a permanent houseguest in St Petersburg. In 1799, Desenfans, whose art collection now included all the unpaid works he had acquired for King Stanislaus, offered the whole to the British Government. Fully occupied with another war with France, the Government declined the offer. On his death in 1807, Desenfans left all his pictures to his friend, Sir Peter Bourgeois, a Royal Academician, who in turn, in 1810, bequeathed them to Dulwich College, a South London school founded in 1619 for the purpose of educating twelve poor scholars of the parish, but which, by 1950, was almost entirely focused on teaching the sons of the better off.

A gallery to house the collection was designed by Sir John Soane and built in Gallery Road, Dulwich. It opened its doors to the public in 1817, seven years before the National Gallery began business in Trafalgar Square. For several years I lived in the same Gallery Road, a boarder at the school that owned the picture gallery.  It was too convenient not to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and on wet, weekend afternoons, when the cricket was called off, we formed a crocodile and marched to the gallery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the collection was still mostly Desenfans’ original, largely Baroque, collection and the gallery was not the ‘vibrant, cultural hub’ it is today with its glass-encased cafeteria, shop, website and colourful, outdoor installations for children. It was heavy duty for a ten year old, but among the grim Velasquez portraits and dark, classic landscapes there was the odd, saucy work by Rubens and there was Van Dyck’s titillating ‘Samson and Delilah’ to store in the memory and take back to the dormitory. The gallery was a pointer as to how I would spend my future leisure time; art would come before sport.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

At school most of us drew and painted in our leisure time. At home my mother was an unhelpful critic – ‘Very nice, dear’, she would say as I presented her with another page from an endless portfolio of spaceships and dragons. How do life-long passions for a particular pastime originate? If you are a painter, is it from the covers and illustrations of our earliest books, or the pictures on the walls of our childhood bedrooms? Ideally, a hobby needs to get you to the very end. Keeping fit is not a hobby. I take heart from those photographs of Renoir and Monet in old age, sitting at their easels in their gardens, Renoir with his arthritic hands bound with rags, Monet half blind, both kept alive by their hobbies. Two of the more minor criticisms of my character that popped up frequently on my school reports were ‘needs to try harder’ and ‘gives up easily’. Recently, it came to me that after all these years, in spite of countless failures, I’ve never given up hoping that one day I will paint a picture that more or less lives up to my initial expectations.

Dulwich College, (1871) by Camille Pissarro, a refugee from the Franco Prussian war.

At my next school art was discouraged, buried in small print in the curriculum and listed after every sport and every dead language known to man. Those interested in art were treated like vegans at a Texas barbeque. Schools think their job is to prepare us for a career and forget that we have all that leisure time to fill, especially the lengthy, post retirement bit at the end. Not all of us are interested in a career. In spite of the lack of encouragement, my interest in painting was consolidated by three events, all independent of the teaching staff.

The first was the decision to abandon watercolours and switch to oils. It was like parking the Vespa and slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Watercolours are tiny, the domain of lavender scented, Victorian ladies; they prohibit the bravura brush stroke and lack the colour intensity and oozing beauty of a coil of oily pigment. Squeeze out some paint from a tube of New Holland and you will understand why Vincent liked to occasionally tuck into a tube of ultramarine. Watercolours are odourless; oils appeal to our senses. Although the smell of pigment is quite subtle, a good quality turpentine, distilled from the resin of Mediterranean pine trees, a heat-thickened linseed oil or a fine varnish deserve to be sniffed as you would an ancient cognac. Over time I have become addicted to resin and its Greek wine derivative, Retsina. Watercolours only require water, maybe a little gum arabic and a sable brush while oil painting requires a fascinating array of paraphernalia. My spare bedroom studio resembles Merlin’s cave, with its rows of bottles of siccatives, thinners, varnishes, glazing materials and gessos, forests of flat, round and filbert brushes, bundles of charcoal and selection of palette knives. Then there’s the romance behind the oil paints themselves, in tubes since 1841 when American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible, screw top tube, without which, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no impressionism. JMW Turner was a technical advisor to Winsor & Newton when they opened for business in 1832 but today their paints seem a trifle industrial compared to another, new British art supplier, Michael Harding. Charvin opened its doors in 1830 on the Cote D’Azur and has a very South of France spectrum. Try their Veronese and Prussian blue and you will be using the same paints that Cezanne used in his landscapes in Provence and around the Mont Sainte Victoire. Bonnard also squeezed his paint from Chardin tubes. Being French, Charvin likes to be different, using poppy oil instead of the cold pressed, extra virgin linseed used by most other suppliers. The Rolls Royce of oil paints is Old Holland, created in 1664 when a Dutch painters’ Guild began manufacturing its own paints. Rolls Royces don’t come cheaply and the more expensive pigments come at the same price as a box of Monte Cristos. Acrylics are an attempt to bridge the divide between oil and water, but the finish has a plastic, artificial feel and the colours lose the vibrancy as the paint dries.

Leave it to the French to sum up the subject in a few lines:

La peinture a l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beacoup plus beau
Que la peinture a l’eau.

A second epiphany occurred while reading a biography of Toulouse Lautrec, my first experience in linking a painter’s life with his work. As soon as I had put it down my future suddenly seemed bright and the road ahead clear. I no longer had to agonise over whether to seek a career in the army or join a sea of clerks in the City; I was going to be a painter and live in Paris. The Place du Tertre, a sort of open-air, art supermarket near the Sacre Coeur, seemed the ideal spot to set up an easel. The quality of the art work I had seen there was conveniently poor, mainly pictures of the façade of the Moulin Rouge or the old windmills that still stood in Montmartre. Most importantly I had a career objective that didn’t require the sort of swotting needed to become a brain surgeon or actuary.

Lastly, there was a visit to the National Gallery. At the end of one term, taking the special train that the school laid on for the sons of those parents too busy to collect their children, I left Charing Cross intending to make straight for Soho but instead, for motives I have forgotten, crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the National Gallery. Three paintings I saw that day I have never forgotten. The first was by El Greco, the Mick Jagger of Renaissance art, whose swirling lines and rebellious colours resurface in the later works of Van Gogh.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal, El Greco, 1614. Said to be the prime source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Next was a peaceful, Dutch, 17thcentury landscape and the last an interior by Fujita, a Japanese artist and print maker who joined the international brigade of Modigliani, Soutine and others in Post Impressionist Paris. Epiphanies mainly happen while you are young.

Years later, still determined to live dangerously, I planned to enroll at St Martin’s School of Art (located conveniently on the edge of Soho), but doubts soon entered my mind when I explained my intentions to my flat mate who had just signed up to become a Chartered Accountant. Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time, and still is, but listening, I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. Plus, I still wanted to shop at Harrods. My mistake was thinking that accounting was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk.

The day came when I was freed of my accidental clerkship and transferred to the firm’s Paris office as a newly minted Chartered Accountant. I knew the instant I emerged from the Gare du Nord just how Vincent must have felt when he arrived in Paris, fresh from the dung-coloured potato fields of Belgium. Out with the Sepia, the Burnt Ochre and Van Dyke Brown, in with the Ultramarine and the Cadmium Yellow. Clerkship in Paris was not unpleasant and I was both unhurt and unsurprised when occasionally clients or new acquaintances were stunned into incredulity or laughter when I announced my profession. And then, while painting one weekend in my apartment, a thought suddenly struck me – Is this not what I had planned all those years ago at school, to paint in Paris?

Having clerked and painted for many years, I have learned that art requires courage, clerkship a clean set of numbers. ‘I believe to create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage’ said Georgia O’Keefe, echoing Churchill who claimed the first quality needed in a painter is audacity. I still sit in awe of each clean, new canvas, convinced the first mark will eventually condemn the whole project to the dustbin. When you get going fear can make you hesitant; agonising over a brush mark will result in loss of spontaneity and will show up in the finished work. To show a completed painting to others is to risk exposing a lack of taste; exposing a lack of talent is less damaging. I start off each painting with a clear idea of how the finished work will look but with the certainty that I will not be able to attain the perfection of the original conception.

There are artists, like Gauguin and Van Gogh, who pursue their own feelings and own self satisfaction and expect audiences to come to them. And artists, such as Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, who exploit the desire of the audience to be wooed, amused and entertained. Vettriano, one of the world’s richest contemporary artists, only began painting in 1987 when he was 36, channeling Gauguin by leaving his wife and job in educational research to apply himself fully to his art. Success came in 1992 with The Singing Butler, which last sold in 2004 for US$ 1,340,640.

The Singing Butler. 1992

Reproductions on posters and greeting cards are reputed to earn Jack a similar amount annually. Called ‘the Jeffrey Archer of the art world’ and ‘a purveyor of badly conceived porn’, Jack’s paintings are shunned by the galleries but popular with the public and celebrities with taste like Jack Nicholson and Elton John. So satisfy yourself before others. Still, Vettriano does follow one rule and that is to attach a story to a painting. You do need a point of view.

What is the purpose of art; does it need a purpose, by what standards do we judge it? Is graffiti an art? In the Gaza Strip it’s politics, in London’s Mayfair it’s vandalism, in Hamburg it’s an art movement. John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), who knows about these things, writes in The Aristos that it is the artist’s job to describe the outer world, to express his feeling about that outer world and to express his feelings about himself. The explanation of self by the expression of self. At least that was the old way of looking at it; the principal gauge of art is now STYLE. Style is acquired by painting subjects about which you have a point of view, trying different techniques until you find one that you are comfortable with. If you spend your life copying you will never find a style and you will never experience the pleasure of composition or choosing your own palette.

Has my painting suffered from not going to art school? Yes, because some important techniques like paint mixing and draughtsmanship need professional instruction. Many may disagree, but if you can’t draw you will never produce great art. Rothko with his two fields of intense colour, Jackson Pollock and his whirligig drippings, both began as master drawers. Dribbling liquids haphazardly onto a ground, swirling them around until you find, by chance a likeness of aurora borealis will produce no more than a bit of harmless fun.

I have also learned to avoid sport as a subject to paint; it has never been a topic for great art. A notable exception is the Panathenaic Amphora depicting athletes at the Panhellenic Games in 530 BC.

Amphora 530BC

If horseracing is a sport, paintings on the subject by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec may also be exceptions. It’s the horses that tip the scales; men and women engaged in sport present too trivial a subject to be represented in bronze or oils. Honey bee draws my attention to the mosaics in The Room of the Gymnasts in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Art, like the Amphora, it undoubtedly is -and I put this anomaly down to time, the length of survival of an artifact, which becomes a factor in its beauty: survival in time seems to add beauty and interest.

‘Movements’ are a convenient way to study art history and satisfy our urge to categorise everything. What movement are we in now? There have been countless art movements over time, but most are short lived. Take Dadaism, an attempt to intellectualise art by adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Duchamp had the sense to resign from the movement and take up chess after The Society of Independent Artists unsurprisingly rejected his urinal as not being art. The urinal was not art but a statement about art and a forerunner of those future statements featuring a pile of bricks or an unmade bed. Dadaism and all other movements are mere footnotes to the two ‘big bangs’ of art, the Renaissance and Impressionism. ‘Art requires the right space’ claimed Rothko and we are fortunate that most Renaissance art is to be found in the places intended for it by its artists, that’s to say the churches and historic palaces of Italy. In the Uffizi I came across a painting of Madonna and Child. It was a circular canvas, freshly restored and sitting on an easel, just where Raphael, the Prince of Painters, would have wanted me to see it. It is the first painting in my collection.

Impressionism began in France and spread like a tsunami both into offshoots (Neo, Post and Fauvism) and geographically into, among other places, Bloomsbury where it spawned the Omega Workshop and ended up in its textiles. A hundred years later forgotten pockets of Impressionism were still popping up. The works of the Scottish Colourists, like a rare Bugatti found in a barn, were rediscovered the 1990s.

The Founding Fathers of Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro and Cézanne gave us those illuminated and brightened landscapes which were partly due to their research into the physics of colour. They also gave us a new painting method, alla prima, a quick, wet on wet technique that opened the door to we amateurs. I have chosen a Cezanne for my collection, Still Life with Onions, which I thought made a nice change from apples. Impressionism was all about the outdoors and still life paintings were unpopular at the time but Cezanne said ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’ and he did.

Still Life with Onions. Paul Cezanne. 1898

Cézanne set the stage for the Fauvists, a group of wild beasts comprising the Dutchman, Kees Van Dongen and the Frenchmen, de Vlamink, Marquet, Matisse and Derain. I’m choosing a Van Dongen portrait – Woman with Large Hat (and bare breasts).

Woman with Large Hat. Kees van Dongen. 1906

Some painters fail at the end, something goes. Van Dongen had the chance to go out on a high when he painted the portrait of French Goddess, Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte fed it to her cats. One wild beast, Georges Rouault, set me off in the direction of the German Expressionists and to the work of Ernst Kirchner. I’m finding a spot for his deeply disquieting ‘Self-portrait with Model’, painted in the atmosphere of insecurity that preceded WW1. When the Nazis launched their ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ in 1933, Kirchner was one of the first to have his work deemed ‘degenerate’; a few years later 600 of his paintings were destroyed to protect the morals of the German people.

Self Portrait with Model, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, 1907

To be a collector with money and taste in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury must have been Heaven. Most painters then seemed to congregate in two Montparnasse cafés, La Rotonde and Le Dome where, for the price of a glass of absinthe, you could take home a Modigliani sketch. There were so many wonderful artists in Paris at that time – Soutine, Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Vuillard, Utrillo and two very talented ladies, Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. I’m not adding a Picasso to my collection; he did remarkable things and stood against fascism but he was unkind to his chauffeur and to his women. The sheer ubiquity of Vincent has cooled much of my former enthusiasm; I’ve seen his art on too many coffee mugs, tea towels and mouse pads.

Tourism had yet to be invented when I arrived in Paris. There was no waiting three months for a table at Maxim’s and if you were visiting the Louvre you needed to wake a sleeping attendant and ask him to turn on the lights. In the department of the museum devoted to the Romantics you will find The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827 by a 29 year old Eugene Delacroix.

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix, 1827

Based upon Byron’s 1821 poem of the same name, it depicts the death in 876BC of the last king of Ninevah, who, to avoid humiliating defeat by his enemies decides to kill himself after destroying all his prized possessions, including his concubines and horse. There are references to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the painting blazes with the sensuality and colour of a Rubens. You can feel the heat and excitement coming off this canvas; you won’t need central heating. Delacroix also provided the cover art for Coldplay’s album ‘Viva la Vida’.

Delacroix’s Spanish counterpart and fellow Romantic, Francesco Goya was caught up in the twin horrors of the Inquisition and the invasion of his country by Napoleon’s armies. The result were Goya’s breathtaking pictures of bandits and succubi, devils and dwarfs, witches riding on cats and women trying to pull out a dead man’s teeth after a hanging. I would like one of his macabre etchings but it might frighten the children so I’m choosing La Maja Desnuda, painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.

La Maja Desnuda. Francesco Goya. 1800

Famous for the insolent way the little minx stares out of the painting at you as if to say ‘so what’ and the whisper of pubic hair (reputedly the first artwork to show this), La Maja was hung in Godoy’s ‘boys room’ alongside Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus and a score of other paintings of female nudes until it was raided and closed down by the Inquisition.

Whether you are painting, collecting or just looking, your choices will be bound up with your childhood memories. Mine are of the artwork of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and later of painters Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin:

and David Hockney:

Portrait of an Artist, David Hockney, 1972

In 2018 Portrait of an Artist sold at auction for US$90.3 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a work by a living artist. Thankfully it is a painting that replaces the previous holder of this distinction, one of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which to me always give off the same message – ‘Look at this trashy world we live in’.

If you are an Aboriginal artist your palette consists of charcoal, kaolin ochre, white and black because you’ve grown up with Nature in its dead, burnt and crispy state. If you grew up in the lush, English or Irish countryside your palette will be green, blue and yellow. The mood is peaceful and nostalgic, as in Constable’s The Hay Wain painted in 1821 and left unsold at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It had better luck in the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a medal and was praised by Gericault. The house on the left is still there today. The wain stands stationary in mid-stream to cool the horse’s legs and to soak the wooden wheels that can detach from the metal rims when dry. This is a painting about those ‘blue remembered hills’.

The Hay Wain, John Constable,

In 1999 English artist, Tracey Emin entered an unmade bed for the Turner Prize. My Bed failed to win the prize, pipped at the post by Steve McQueen and his home made video, but the fact that it was short listed caused a sensation. In 2014 it sold at auction for 2.5 million pounds. I didn’t bid as I was sure Honeybee would want to change the sheets. Between 1984 and 2019 only 6 winners of the Turner have entered paintings, the other 29 a mixture of videos, sculptures and installations prompting the question ‘Is painting dead, replaced by pseudo technology?’ In 1830 it was assumed the arrival of photography would kill off painting but it merely pushed artists, like Vincent, into distorting nature and using unnatural colours. Dadaism was once thought a brief threat but perhaps it’s back; maybe painting is not a medium that can express the amount of existing discontent. I’m quite unconcerned; I can always look at my own, un-made bed in the morning before I get behind my easel.

And then one weekend in Norfolk we lunched at the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, an 18thcentury estate, once used by Edward VII for naughties with Lillie Langtry and now restored and converted for hospitality by art dealer Ivor Braka. Ivor has decorated his hotel with an art collection that saves the locals a trip to London’s Tate Modern. There are David Bailey prints in the bathroom, a Lucien Freud painting in the TV room, a Damien Hirst hanging in the bar and in the corridor a Tracey Emin painted sculpture. Avoid this if you are about to go into the dining room for lunch.

Tracey Emin. Cockwork

Later I came across an exhibition of Tracey’s drawings at the Musee D’Orsay – think Egon Schiele in monochrome – convincing me that, out of bed, Tracey is a talented drawer.

The mention of Lucien Freud makes me think about how life imitates art:

 

The Venus of Willendorf. 25,000BC

The Venus of Hollywood, 2019

 

Venus Reclining (Big Sue) Lucien Freud, 1995

We only have a small apartment but I can squeeze in one more painting and it will have to be a Gauguin.

Breton Calvary, Paul Gauguin, 1887

What stories exist, both in his own quest to find some nobility in life and in the paintings themselves! Hardworking, eternally poor Gauguin was only 54 when he died. If you wish to get near him you should visit the small Breton town of Pont Aven where he, Emile Bernard, Paul Serisier and others painted in the mid 1880’s and where cloisonnism was born. He also had some important advice for us amateurs: ‘L’art est une distraction. Tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus a la création qu’au résultat’.

In 1916, thirteen years after Gauguin had died in the South Pacific, Somerset Maugham travelled there to research the exotic life of the French artist. The result was ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, published in 1919, which tells the story of a bank employee who, in middle life, abandons career and wife to devote his life to painting. After struggling for years without recognition he sets out for Tahiti, settling down with a young Polynesian woman in a hut whose walls he covers with astonishing paintings. Before dying of leprosy he instructs his companion to destroy his work after his death. Only on the discovery of the canvasses he had tossed aside in Europe does the world of art realize that it has lost a genius. It’s the story of a painter who was a clerk.
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VIOLET, TRILBY AND NINA

Not a Cirque du Soleil act but three remarkable, independent women, two real, one fictional, two English, one Scotch- Irish. All born in the last decade of the 19thcentury; all long departed but kept alive in my bookshelves.

VIOLET CRESSY-MARCKS

Not so long ago, travelling in China, I came to the ancient city of Dali, situated on the shores of Lake Erhai and in the shadow of the Cangshan mountains and it was here that I came across a bookshop, something that I was beginning to think did not exist in the whole of China. I can forgive Chairman Mao for the chaos and death caused by the ‘Great Leap Forward’; that was just a bad decision, like Prohibition. But I cannot forgive him for the lasting catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution when he replaced all poetry, art and craftsmanship with himself. In China Chairman Mao IS culture. His statue is the principal work of art in the lobby of my hotel and in this rare bookshop the shelves are lined only with various editions of the little red book, yellowing maps of the Great March and treatises on Communism.

The owner of the bookshop, who spoke English, invited me to sit down, share the ritual egg-cups of tea and listen to him eulogise a man who had disposed of fifty million of his fellow countrymen. When asked if I knew of an English lady called Violet Cressy-Marcks, I admitted I did not and, when I arrived home, I looked her up.

Information on Violet proved to be quite thin. There is no autobiography or biography and only the barest of outlines in Wikipedia, which told me she was born Violet Rutley in South East London on 9th June 1895. She was twenty two when she married Captain Maurice Cressy-Marcks with whom she had a son, William, in 1921. In 1925, freshly divorced, she discovered her true love while crossing Africa from Cairo to Capetown – the pleasure of travelling alone. The next winter she spent north of the Arctic Circle, travelling across Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lapland by sled drawn by reindeer and ending in Baluchistan. In 1929 she rode the Amazon by steamer, surveyed its upper reaches by canoe and crossed the Andes into Peru by horse. Afghanistan, Russian Turkestan and Siberia followed. In 1935, just as the Italian army was attempting to add Ethiopia to its African Empire, she travelled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, stopping to visit the war fronts in Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is no record of her meeting any Ethiopian officials, but it cannot be by chance that a year later Emperor Haile Selassie, forced into exile, became a temporary guest at Hazelwood House in Hertfordshire, a home Violet then shared with her new husband, Francis Fisher.

In 1937 came the journey that brought Violet to the attention of my bookseller. It was Violet’s sixth visit to China and, like Honeybee, she made a list of objectives before she set out:

  1. To enter China from Burma. This was more by necessity than choice, although I feel it suited Violet to make her journeys as difficult as possible. The Japanese, already occupying Manchuria, were continuing their invasion west, while the centre of the country, from North to South, was a battleground between Mao’s Red Army and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. Skirmishes between various war lords and the presence of bandits added further danger to the journey.
  2. To visit the Communists and speak to the leader of the Eighth Route Army. Violet was not the first or only foreign journalist to interview Mao in his mountain stronghold at Yenan; American correspondent Edgar Snow had done that as well as Agnes Smedley, later accused of spying for the Russians. A photograph shows Violet looking a little like a housewife as she poses with Mao. But the mere fact he met with her shows he took her seriously.
  1. To study the war and the morale of the troops. I skipped most of this section. The request in her will that her biography should be shown first to the Head of MI5 suggests that the British government may have sponsored some of her travels. Alas there was to be no biography as the chosen writer, who had spent three years working for British Intelligence agencies in Constantinople, died before writing the book.
  1. To visit Lake Koko Nor in Tibet. Finally some sightseeing! At 4,300 square kilometres, the largest lake in China, Koko Nor is situated high on the Tibetan Plateau. As night falls and the yak drivers sleep in their warm tents, Violet sits by the side of the desolate lake, watching, till dawn. ‘Still, I liked the solitude, which is to me the kindest of all travelling companions. Sun, moon and stars, wind, rain and snow never fail to woo me more ardently with her by my side. ‘

When war became global two years later Violet was back in South West China, a war correspondent for London’s Daily Express. There was a spell as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and when war ended she was at Nuremberg reporting on the trials of German war criminals for a London newspaper.

Photographer, archaeologist, ethnologist, zoologist, journalist and part-time spy, Violet travelled alone and light, with just a tent, a typewriter, her note books and a camera, for it was an age when it was still accepted that a single person could be an expert in several fields. ‘Adventurous travel’, she once said, ‘is no place for a man’.

What an ordinary extraordinary woman; fearless, competent, resourceful and adventurous. Twice married, a mother by her second husband of two boys, Forest and Ocean, both named after her real passions. She died in 1970. Nice to think a Chinese bookseller in Dali remembers her.

TRILBY O’FERRALL

‘Trilby’- it has a nice ring to it; a name for the sort of self-possessed young woman to be found in a rich aunt’s villa in the South of France. The name of a Bond girl. You would be right if you think it’s the name of a man’s soft, felt hat, now only worn by rich racehorse trainers; but the hat was named after a girl called Trilby, the heroine of an 1894 novel that turned out to be a blockbuster.

Trilby O’Ferrall was a grisette, living in the Latin Quarter of Paris during La Belle Epoque where she worked as a blanchisseuse du fin and as a part time model for artists. The death of her father, an Irish gentleman and cleric, obliged through addiction to strong drink to flee to Paris and the later death of her mother, a barmaid and ‘Highland lassie of low degree’, had left Trilby an orphan and guardian of her younger brother.

One day, descending the stairs from the studio of Durien, a sculptor, where she had been modeling ‘in the altogether’[1], Trilby hears music coming from the apartment below and, on an impulse, knocks and enters. She is greeted by three amateur artists, Sandy, a bearded Scot and occupant of the studio and his two friends, Taffy, a good-humoured Yorkshireman, and Little Billee, a slender, sentimental young man of twenty years. Trilby’s outfit, an army overcoat over a petticoat and a pair of man’s shoes, her self-confidence as she sat down and crossed her legs and rolled a cigarette left the ‘toffs’ bewildered and besotted. So too was the pianist, the bearded and sinister Svengali. In an age where piano legs were curtained off to avoid any incitement to passion, the sight of Trilby’s slender, white ankles caused her male audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats. But the piano stopped and jaws dropped when Trilby kicked off her shoes to reveal that rarest of human features, a perfect pair of pedal extremities.

Trilby soon became a regular and popular visitor to Sandy’s studio, appreciated as much for her charm and lack of vanity as for her sewing and cooking. It was during an evening of song, with Svengali at the piano and his friend, Gecko, on violin, that Trilby revealed her one defect, a total lack of singing voice, a flaw that did not prevent Billee from decorating the studio with a study of Trilby’s feet and falling in love. After rejecting countless proposals of marriage from Billee, Trilby finally accepts, knowing that their social backgrounds were incompatible.

Billee makes the mistake of announcing his engagement to his widowed mother, Mrs Bagot, who arrives post-haste in Paris with one question in mind regarding her son’s fiancée – ‘Is she a lady?’ Although ready to flay her dearest friend alive in order to make her son a pair of gloves out of the skin, Mrs Bagot was not prepared to allow Billee to marry an unchaste siren and duly drags him back to England. After a period of sulking Billee returns to his art, later becoming a successful painter and member of the Royal Academy.

Years later, intrigued to learn that the greatest female singer of the age was known as La Svengali, Billee travels to Paris to investigate and is astounded to find Trilby singing like a nightingale. When Svengali collapses and dies from a heart attack in the box, Trilby, no longer under his hypnotic gaze, can no longer sing in tune, reverting to her former personality with no recollection of her life as a diva. Shortly after this transformation and with no apparent indication that she is suffering from a fatal illness, Trilby fades quietly away surrounded by mystified doctors and the distraught Billee descends into madness on hearing Trilby call for Svengali with her last breath. Soon after, Billee also takes to his bed heartbroken and surrenders life with the manly calm of a true gentleman.

How did this Victorian pot-boiler, largely unread today, become a huge best seller, a novel that launched hundreds of dramatized versions across Britain and America, a character that had hot-dogs and ice-creams and a hat named after it and persuaded the mayor of Macon, Florida, to change the town’s name to Trilby? Mainly, perhaps, because it was the first literary portrait of romanticized Bohemian life and of an idealized Belle Epoque Paris. It also introduced a new type of heroine, a self-confident gamine who eschewed corsets and rolled her own cigarettes. Then there was the character of Svengali, a term that still lives with us today as a person who has an evil, controlling influence over another, but without the anti-Semitic characteristics that George Orwell deplored in the novel’s character. There is an amusing sarcastic tone throughout and the language is littered with real French argot. The narrative was also stoked by Du Maurier’s illustrations and by its delivery in eight suspenseful instalments in Harpers magazine.

Trilby’s creator, George du Maurier was born in Paris in 1834 to an English mother and French father. Moving to London around 1850 he worked as cartoonist for Punch and as illustrator of popular magazines. He and his wife, Emma had five children of whom only Sylvia, born in 1866, and Gerald, born in 1873, achieved fame of differing sorts.

Sylvia married Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a lawyer, with whom she had five sons. They were chosen by Arthur’s best friend, the playwright JM Barrie, as models for ‘the lost boys’ that feature in the stories of Peter Pan. Kate Winslet impersonated Sylvia in the 2004 movie ‘Finding Neverland’.

Gerald was a successful theatre manager and actor; he is best remembered now as the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier, for lending his name to one of the most popular brands of cigarette of the 30s and 40s and as the subject of this classic limerick:

There was a young lady called Gloria
Who was had by Sir Gerald du Maurier
And then by ten men
Sir Gerald again
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.

 

NINA HAMNETT

Nina Hamnett was a real-life Trilby, a true Bohemienne and good-time girl who had a good time without upsetting anyone except her family and other sale bourgeois individuals. After publication of her memoirs ‘Laughing Torso’ in 1928, Nina became an international trademark for indoor fun after midnight.

Born in Tenby, Wales in 1890, Nina was educated at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Bath where she showed flashes of unconventional wisdom and a complete disdain for authority. Later at art school in London, where she was fortunate to have Frank Brangwyn as a teacher, she posed in the altogether for the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who chiseled her nude torso from marble and became an early entry in her list of lovers. ‘I’m in the V&A with my left tit knocked off’ she would claim later[2].

Excited by a visit to Paris in 1912 where she met Jacob Epstein and his wife, Nina returned in 1914, rented a studio on the boulevard Raspail and enrolled in Marie Vassilieff’s art school, where Fernand Leger was teaching at the time. On her first night in Paris Nina was dining alone at Rosalie’s, a cheapish restaurant which Epstein had recommended, when Modigliani walked in, sat down at her table and after introducing himself, offered his art for sale. Nina bought a drawing of a head for five francs. Soon she was accompanying Modi every day to the Dome and the Rotonde, sometimes posing for him (‘Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe.’) and joining him in week long parties. ‘At Van Dongen’s studio negro boxers sparred with the guests… and Nina danced naked under a black veil’.

When not dancing naked on the tables of Montparnasse, Nina was often homeless and penniless, living on bread, cheese and wine, fortunately in a country that produces the best in the world. She survived mainly because she was popular, which enabled her to refuel as a frequent house guest of the rich and famous like Brancusi, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau. She danced for Eric Satie, sang a duet with James Joyce, played a nose-flute in Edmond Dulac’s studio and entertained Stravinsky and Diaghilev. In Antibes she sat next to Rudolph Valentino at the piano and sang her signature sea-shanties for him and his wife. Nancy Cunard helped her as did the kindly Marie Vassilief. Although no intellectual, Nina must have been good company but most importantly she treated her famous friends with discretion in both volumes of her memoirs. She was promiscuous in an indifferent sort of way, ‘Can’t see anything in it myself…. But they seem to like it so I let them get on with it.’

There was a little income from the sale of her paintings, but hers was a minor talent and she was unwilling to apply herself. Nevertheless she exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independents. Walter Sickert bought her paintings. Her portrait of Sir Osbert Sitwell is on display today at London’s National Portrait Gallery and her pictures still sell at auction, a small oil fetching between four and six thousand pounds but, as Daniel Farson points out, she was always more interesting than her art.

Back in England Nina found work with the Omega Workshop designing and making fabrics, murals and furniture under the direction of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry who became another of her lovers. Fry’s portraits of Nina show a rather serious, subdued Nina, not strikingly attractive but with that whiff of upper-class, bourgeois origins that she tried so hard to shake off.

By strange coincidence, she met Sir Gerald du Maurier on the cross-Channel ferry and in the preface to her second volume of memoirs – ‘Is She a Lady?’ she quotes from ‘Trilby’: ‘There is no place like the gutter for getting a clear view of the stars’. I wonder whether the stars dimmed for her in those last years. But she remained faithful to Bohemia to the end, spending much of her last years in the Fitzroy Tavern rattling a few coins in her tobacco tin to let others know she needed someone to buy her a drink.

She died in 1956 soon after falling out of her bedroom window.

The books:

  • Journey into China; Violet Cressy-Marcks; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1940.
  • Trilby; George du Maurier; first published in 8 parts in Harper’s magazine, 1894
  • Laughing Torso; Nina Hamnett; Constable, London, 1932
  • Is She a Lady? Nina Hamnett; Alan Wingate, London, 1955
  • Modigliani, The Pure Bohemian; June Rose, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1990
  • The People’s Album of London Statues; Osbert Sitwell and Nina Hamnett (Illustrator), Duckworth, London, 1928
  • Soho in the Fifties; Daniel Farson; Michael Joseph, London, 1987

[1] This is the first recorded use of the euphemism for ‘naked’

[2] Nina’s marble torso can be seen in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES – Love and poetry au fin de siecle

If you are visiting London you will find the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street conveniently placed for the museum district and for shopping at Harrods. Sadly, a recent facelift by international designers has deprived the hotel of its former, slightly faded, Victorian elegance, removed poached haddock from the breakfast menu and replaced it with avocado on sourdough. It was here on the 6th April 1895 that Oscar Wilde was arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Court. Oscar lived with his wife Constance and sons Cyril and Vyvyan only a short walk away at 16 Tite Street, but used the hotel as a peaceful sanctuary to write and to enjoy the company of its permanent resident, Lillie Langtry.

Oscar had once courted the notorious Lillie as he had Ellen Terry, a Diva of London’s serious theatre (‘she stands with eyes marred with the mists of pain, like some wan lily overdrenched with rain’). His overtures had also been rejected by society beauty Florence Balcombe who chose Bram Stoker, then manager of the Lyceum Theatre and later author of ‘Dracula’, the blueprint for all future vampire literature. Finally, in 1884, Constance Lloyd, ‘a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair, which made her flower-like head droop like blossom’ agreed to marry Oscar.  All was well for the next two years until Robbie Ross, a Canadian journalist and art critic ‘with the face of Puck’ introduced Oscar to physical love between men.

Five years later, soon after the publication of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Oscar met the twenty one year old blonde and beautiful (but spoilt, arrogant and petulant) Bosie (his nickname for Lord Alfred Douglas), beginning the tragic relationship that would eventually result in Oscar’s arrest.

To mark the change in his sexual preferences Oscar abandoned the lily for the green carnation. Few of Oscar’s words or actions had no meaning, symbolic or otherwise; surely the previously omnipresent lily was the Jersey Lily. Oscar’s affair with Bosie may dominate his love life in the public imagination, but Oscar loved beauty, whatever form it took. When Ms Langtry told Oscar he was wasting his time before surrendering herself to the Prince of Wales, Oscar retired hurt leaving this moving love poem, addressed simply to LL, which reveals the depth of his feelings.

….I remember we used to meet
By an ivied seat.
And you warbled each pretty word
With the air of a bird:

And your voice had a quaver in it,
Just like a linnet,
And shook, as the blackbird’s throat
With its last big note:

And your eyes, they were green and grey
Like an April day,
But lit into amethyst
When I stooped and kissed:

And your mouth, it would never smile
For a long, long while,
Then it rippled all over with laughter
Five minutes after.

You were always afraid of a shower,
Just like a flower:
I remember you started and ran
When the rain began.

          *   *   *

I remember so well the room,
And the lilac bloom
That beat at the dripping pane
In the warm June rain?

And the colour of your gown,
It was amber-brown,
And two yellow satin bows
From your shoulders rose.

And the handkerchief of French lace
Which you held to your face…
Had a small tear left a stain?
Or was it the rain?

On your hand as it waved adieu
There were veins of blue,
In your voice as it said good-bye
Was a petulant cry.

‘You have only wasted your life.”
(Ah, that was the knife!)
When I rushed through the garden gate
It was all too late.

         *   *   *

Well, if my heart must break,
Dear love, for your sake,
It will break in music, I know
Poet’s hearts break so.

But strange that I was not told
That the brain can hold
In a tiny ivory cell
God’s heaven and hell.

The charges against Oscar were laid under the provisions of The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made all sex acts between men illegal. In spite of the efforts of eminent physician (and Ripper suspect) Havelock Ellis to change the law on the basis that homosexuality should be accepted as a fact of life, the law was to ruin countless lives for a further 72 years until its repeal in 1967.That same year, as if in celebration, the world’s first bookstore catering for gay and lesbian readers,‘ The Oscar Wilde Bookshop’,  opened in New York . Alas, like so many bookstores, it fell victim to ‘dotcom’ disease, the on-line buying mania emanating from the Internet, and closed its doors in 2007.

While being escorted by the constabulary from the hotel to a waiting carriage, Oscar was clutching a copy of L‘Aphrodite, a mildly erotic novel by French author Pierre Louys. Desperate for further evidence to fuel their outrage, spectators and Press alike identified the book by its yellow covers as THE Yellow Book, an avant garde, literary journal associated with dandyism, decadence, feminism and, after Oscar’s trial, with homosexuality. Following public vandalism of its offices, The Yellow Book’s publisher, Bodley Head (or ‘Sodley Bed’ according to certain of its critics), dismissed Art Director Aubrey Beardsley for bringing the journal into disrepute, first for binding the periodical in the same yellow covers used by French publishers of pornography and then for his exquisite drawings packed with sexual innuendo. Beardsley was also tainted with decadence by providing the illustrations for Wilde’s play ‘Salome’. But other than its yellow covers and Beardsley’s drawings, the magazine was relatively harmless. Henry James was a contributor, as were HG Wells and WB Yeats and artists John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert (another of the many ‘Ripper’ suspects). The perception of decadence and the loss of Beardsley were critical; The Yellow Book struggled on for two years until finally closing its doors in the spring of 1897.

Naturally the instigators of all this effeminacy and degeneracy were the French. Already responsible for introducing the British to sexually transmitted diseases (‘French Pox”), the roots of the decadent movement were clearly present in two French publications: Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 volume of verse ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ (Flowers of Anguish’) and J K Huysmans novel ‘A Rebours’ (‘Against the Grain’ or ‘Against Nature’) published in 1884. Rejecting the current, popular literary themes of romance and naturalism, Baudelaire elected to criticise the charmless corridors of Haussmann’s new Paris and to write of prostitutes, wine and eroticism, thereby earning himself lasting fame and a fine of 300 francs for insulting public decency. Like all good pupils, Huysman took things further. His plotless novel, a manual for the rich delinquent, revolves around the eccentric and reclusive Jean des Esseintes who is dedicated to exquisitely perverse pleasures. He reminisces about past orgies, creates a garden of entirely poisonous plants and kills a tortoise by setting gemstones into its shell. The book celebrated all those values that were deplored and unfashionable in contemporary France. Immediately condemned as decadent it became the Bible of the movement spawned under that name. Oscar’s Salomé was inspired by Huysman’s description of Gustave Moreau’s painting of the Dancer of the Seven Veils; it is the handbook of erotic advice given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry Wotton claiming it contained ‘all the sins of the world’. A copy of ‘A Rebours’ was produced by the prosecution at Oscar’s trial as evidence of the defendant’s decadence.

Decadence, like the pox, soon spread across the English Channel. That is not to say England did not have its own home grown decadents. Algernon Swinburne had shocked Victorian society with his dandyism, atheism, alcoholism and masochism. The art critic, Walter Pater, who was gay and effeté but not a ‘decadent’, remained a subversive in that he rejected the Victorian ideal that art should contain a moral message.  Art, he said, is for its own sake and beauty should be worshipped as a religion.

Decadents and aesthetes like Wilde, Swinburne and Pater were despised, especially Wilde who purposely exaggerated his effeminate and theatrical mannerisms for the purpose of annoying others. The Victorians appreciated men of action, men in red uniforms sporting dundrearies, forming squares to repulse hordes of charging Zulus or whirling dervishes, men like Lord Roberts of Kandahar, hero of the Afghan and Boer wars and General Gordon who attained hero status by committing suicide in Khartoum. Otherwise it was sufficient to be the Christian, sober, hardworking head of a family. Poets, by contrast, had no visible, steady job or a workplace to go to. They tended to be foppish and effeminate. However, not all those with artistic leanings were deplored; the novels of GA Henty, H Rider Haggard and RM Ballantyne all preached an acceptable message. Rudyard Kipling’s thirty two line poem ‘If’ remains a catalogue of Imperial values. Today, when we expect and applaud extremism in everything, from cake baking to cage fighting, we have lost much of our ability to be amazed or scandalised.  Oscar with his green coat and lily buttonhole, his defence of homosexuality, even his abandonment of wife and children would not shock us.

The national pursuit of manliness created a mania for health and fitness. The bottle of Perrier mineral water on your table today owes its distinctive shape to Victorian gentleman Sir John Harmsworth who, having bought the French source, designed the bottles in the shape of the Indian clubs he used for exercise. War and sport, so hard to distinguish in the 21st century, were taught at an early age. In 1844 draper George Williams founded the YMCA (‘healthy body, mind and spirit’) and, in 1883, The Boys Brigade, the world’s first uniformed youth organisation was formed. But it was the Public schools, with their message of ‘muscular Christianity’ that became the main spawning grounds for the ideal Victorian male and remained so until the early 1960s.

Another casualty of The Yellow Book’s death by mistaken identity was one of its regular poetry contributors, the shy and scholarly Ernest Dowson. Born thirty year before the journal’s collapse into a modestly prosperous family in South London, Ernest had spent much of his youth on the continent where his father sought relief from tuberculosis. By the age of fifteen Ernest was fluent in French and, by nineteen, sufficiently well read in Latin and Greek to find a place at Oxford where his interests lay with the French Symbolist poet Verlaine, Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire, placing him from an early age amongst followers of the decadent movement.  Meanwhile income from the family’s small dry dock on the Thames, unable to service the larger vessels that were now appearing in the port of London, was dwindling and Ernest was forced to abandon his studies.

He turned to writing for a living and joined ‘The Rhymers’, a literary circle founded by WB Yeats and Ernest Rhys. They met in a room over Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street where Dowson, often too shy to recite his own work, would discuss his favoured poetic form, the villanelle, a French pastoral song consisting of five tercets followed by a quadrain, only remembered now as the name of the fictional assassin in the TV series ‘Killing Eve’. Oscar, an occasional visitor, expressed his admiration for Dowson’s poetry and initiated their brief friendship by taking him to lunch at the Cafe Royale.

Whereas Oscar had once admired Ellen Terry, Ernest became infatuated with her niece, Minnie, a child actress who had first attracted the poet’s attention when he saw her, at the age of six, on a London stage. For the next two years he amassed a collection of photographs of Minnie that, today, would place him on a paedophile watch list but which, at the time, raised no eyebrow. The ‘Cult of the Little Girl’, the worship of young girls for their innocence and purity was commonplace. The theme resonates through the works of Dickens (Little Nell), JM Barrie (Wendy Darling) and Lewis Carroll (Alice) as well as through many of the portraits by Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais. Shirley Temple’s entry into adolescence marked the end of the cult. For Ernest, this period of devotion to Minnie was ‘the most intense experience’ of his life.

One evening in 1889, entering a small restaurant in Sherwood Street, Piccadilly, Ernest found his muse. Adelaide, or Missie as he called her, was the eleven year old daughter of the restaurant’s Polish proprietor, Joseph Foltinowicz. Dowson’s evenings soon adopted a regular pattern; a few drinks at the Cock Tavern and then dinner at Sherwood Street  where Missie would occasionally serve at table or sit and talk with him after he had finished his meal. At ten o’clock when Missie had been sent to bed, Ernest, normally the meekest of fellows, turned into Mr Hyde. After finding solace in the arms of a prostitute Ernest, shameful of his disloyalty to Missie, would become angry and aggressive. Torn between feelings of lust and self-disgust, he drowned himself in drink. ‘Absinthe’, he claimed ‘makes the tart grow fonder’.

The agony Ernest felt by the contest between pure love and lust dominated his life and became a major theme in his poetry. No poem expressed it better than Cynara:

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
   Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
   Yea hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

In 1894 Dowson’s father died of tuberculosis. Within months, Annie his wife, also a victim, hanged herself rather than have the disease end her life. Soon after Ernest found that he too was affected. Tuberculosis or consumption, called also the wasting disease and, in previous centuries, The White Plague and The King’s Evil, has also managed to attract another epithet – romantic.  Although indiscriminate in its choice of victim, its responsibility for the deaths of Edgar Allen Poe, Paganini, Charlotte Bronte, Keats, Chopin and Modigliani helped promote its romantic image in the public imagination. But it was the publication of Alexander Dumas fils’ novel, ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ (Camille) in 1848 that sealed the disease’s romantic reputation. Based on Dumas’ real life lover, the beautiful demimondaine, Marguerite Gautier, signals her availability for naughties by wearing either a white or red camellia. The fatal disease takes hold just as there appears the possibility of true love.  ‘The death of a beautiful woman’, said Edgar Allen Poe, ’is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’.  Yes said Verdi and penned La Traviata, based upon the story of Camille, which opened in Venice in 1853. High opera specialises in the death of beautiful women and Puccini followed suit in 1896 with La Boheme, in which its heroine, Mimi, also dies of consumption. The two spots of blood left on the white handkerchief became a theatrical trope.

If you lived in the latter half of the 19th century, were British, tubercular and prosperous you would have gone to the French resort of Menton for treatment. Ernest Dowson’s father was there for the cure with his family in the winter of 1873, staying at the Hotel du Pavillon where they made the acquaintance of Robert Louis Stevenson, another victim of the disease. Poor Aubrey Beardsley went there to die in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1898. It was the publication in 1861 of ‘Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean’, in which Dr James Henry Bennett claimed to have been cured of the disease after a stay in Menton, that was to transform the town into the tuberculosis capital of Europe. From two or three hotels in 1861 the number had grown to thirty by 1875, while the cemeteries filled with the tombs of English dead. Naturally, patients and visitors found time to explore and report home on the charm that existed along the rest of the Cote d’Azur. Tourists and royalty followed and the seafront thoroughfare in Nice became La Promenade des Anglais. Meanwhile Dr Bennett grew rich and built a villa overlooking the town with gardens impressive enough to merit a visit by Queen Victoria. No small wonder there still stands a statue of Dr Bennett in the rue Partouneaux. The inscription merely states the good doctor’s name and dates. His services to French tourism go unmentioned.

On his father’s death what little income Ernest received from the dock dried up completely as teams of Dickensian lawyers tied up the business in probate. There was no way Ernest could afford a cure in Menton. The publication in 1895 of Dilemmas, a collection of short stories which he dedicated to ‘AF’ (Missie), brought some relief, but Ernest was now sleeping rough and drinking more. He was ‘a ship without a rudder in a night without a star’. His misery was compounded when Missie finally turned down a proposal of marriage he had made two years earlier when she was fifteen. 1897 proved to be an annus horribilis; it was the year The Yellow Book closed, depriving Ernest of much needed income, it was the year Oscar Wilde left prison a broken man and it was the year Missie married Augustus Noelte, a tailor.

After the trial Oscar spent most of his two years’ hard labour in Reading Goal.  Bosie never wrote but Oscar addressed a letter of fifty thousand words to him. Prevented from sending it, Oscar handed the manuscript to Robbie Ross on his release. Ross published a truncated edition titled ‘De Profundis’ in 1905; a full version would not appear until 1962. As they left, the prison governor warned Ross, ‘he looks well, but like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.’

The first 1899 edition revealing the author’s name

After his release in May 1897, Oscar, still with the devoted Ross, took ship from Newhaven, disembarking at Dieppe as Sebastian Melmoth, an allusion to the early Christian martyr and to the Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. With Ross, he settled in a small fishing village on the Normandy coast and sat down to write his last poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Goal’, the story of a fellow prisoner convicted of cutting his wife’s throat who was executed in the prison in July 1896.

Shunned by the long-established publishers such as John Lane (whose descendent, Alan Lane, was to found Penguin Books), Oscar turned to Dowson’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, who operated from his shop in Bond Street where he sold rare, antiquarian books in the front and pornography, or curiosa as it was called then, in the back. ‘He loves first editions’ wrote Wilde ‘especially of women’. This was to be the last golden age of erotic literature as the F and C words were soon to lose all their potency by becoming part of everyday speech.

When the poem first appeared in print in June 1898 its author was identified only by Oscar’s prison number, C33. Seven editions and a year later, in June 1899, his identity was finally revealed.

After the trial Constance had retired with her children to Switzerland where she changed their name to Holland. True to her given name, Constance now offered her husband financial aid and the hope of a family reunion on the condition he never saw Bosie again. Astonishingly, Oscar declined and when Bosie called he came running. The reunion was not to last long and Oscar, after leaving Bosie’s villa near Naples, wandered through Italy before finally making his way to Paris.

On 23rd February 1900 Ernest Dowson died at the age of thirty three, leaving only a single volume of poems, some short stories and a few translations. Wilde wrote to Smithers:  ‘I am greatly distressed  to hear of Ernest’s death…Poor wounded, wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb, and rue and myrtle too, for he knew what love is’.

Six months after Dowson’s death the prison governor’s grim forecast proved to be accurate. If you are visiting Paris you will find the simply named L’Hotel at 13 rue des Beaux Arts conveniently placed for shopping at Au Bon Marche and enjoying a kir royale at Les Deux Magots. Now a sumptuous nest of expensive Belle Epoque rooms, in 1900 it was the Hotel d’Alsace, a shabby doss house where, on 30thNovember, 1900, Oscar died beyond his means. The French have always been kind to artistic refugees and it is fitting that Oscar should have breathed his last in the arms of the hotel’s proprietor, Monsieur Dupoirier.

Postscript

Oscars wife, Constance, predeceased him. She died 7th April 1898 after some botched surgery in Genoa.

Captain Cyril Holland was killed by a German sniper in France in 1915. His brother Vyvyan was a writer and translator whose Australian wife, Thelma, was a cosmetician and personal beauty advisor to Queen Elizabeth II. They lived briefly in Melbourne from 1948 to 1952.Their son Merlin, a writer, lives in Burgundy. Oscar’s great grandson Lucian is a computer programmer living in London.

After Oscar’s death, Bosie returned to England, married and settled down to a life of letters, turning out scores of uninteresting Petrarchian sonnets and publishing the right wing, anti-Jewish journal Plain English. By a bizarre turn of fate he was imprisoned for six months in 1924 for libelling Winston Churchill, responding to Oscar’s ‘De Profundis’ with his own ‘De Excelsis’ (from the heights) a slim volume of sonnets, one viciously anti-semitic. His memory was further blackened by his disgraceful treatment of Robbie Ross who he repeatedly attempted to have arrested for homosexuality.

Oscar’s true friend, Robbie Ross, exercised his duties as Wilde’s literary executor with energy, tracking down and purchasing the rights to Oscar’s works that had been sold off on his bankruptcy. All the rights he acquired he gave to Oscar’s sons. He also worked hard to restore his friend’s reputation, producing definitive editions of his works. In 1950 Robbie’s ashes were placed in a small compartment in Oscar’s tomb that he had asked Jacob Epstein to include in his design.

Adelaide Foltinowicz, Dowson’s ‘Missie’, only outlived him by a few years, dying of septicaemia following an abortion in 1903. The abortionist, Bertha Baudach, was arrested and incarcerated for seven years for causing Adelaide’s death.

Dowson never achieved Wilde’s fame; however, he is remembered each time we watch a re-run of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell ensured the popularity of her 1936 Civil War novel by preferring as title a line from one of Dowson’s poems over her previous choices of ‘Bugles Sang True’, ‘Not in our Stars’ and ‘Tote the Weary Load’.

In 1962 Dowson’s poetry was pillaged once again for the Oscar winning film ‘Days of Wine and Roses’; it also inspired Henry Mancini’s song of the same name:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
            We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses :
            Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
            Within a dream.

 

What I read:

  • The Life of Oscar Wilde; Hesketh Pearson, Methuen, London,1946
  • Madder Music, Stronger Wine; Jad Adams, I B Tauris, London, 2000
  • Ernest Dowson, Poetry & Love in the 1890s; Henry Maas, Greenwich Exchange, London, 2009
  • Oscar Wilde, An Exquisite Life; Stephen Calloway & David Colvin, Orion, London, 1997
  • The Ballad of Reading Goal; Oscar Wilde, Smithers, London, 1899
  • Bohemian London; Nick Rennison, Oldcastle, Harpenden, 2017
  • The Poems of Ernest Dowson; The Bodley Head, London 1906
  • De Profundis; Oscar Wilde, Methuen, London, 1905
  • Salome and Other Plays; Oscar Wilde, Penguin Books, undated.
  • Fin de Siecle; Nevile Wallis, Wingate, London, 1947
  • Collected Poems; Lord Alfred Douglas, Martin Secker, London, 1907
  • Men and Memories; William Rothenstein, Coward McCann, New York, 1935
  • In Excelsis; Lord Alfred Douglas, Martin Secker, London 1924
  • The Importance of Being Oscar; Micheal MaLiammoir, Collin Smythe, Bucks, 1995

……. and of course Wikipedia.

DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON

When I was young my mother would embarrass me by playing the piano and singing. I decided that what had made me squirm was her flamboyant singing and playing style. Then there was her repertoire, mostly the works of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert, coupled with the fact that she was out of character, engaged outside her usual activities of cooking, cleaning, shopping and gardening. Apart from launching me straight into the adult passion and drama of The Merry Widow and The Desert Song, she was forever repeating the same pieces of advice – ‘Never argue with a man in a peaked cap’, ‘You can always trust a man who smokes a pipe’, ‘ Never hit a woman, even with a feather’ and, each day before she released me into the arms of the kindergarten staff, ‘Never take anything that’s not yours, not even another boy’s pencil’. Another repeated instruction, ‘Look both ways’ was clearly related to road safety but as time passed I found a deeper meaning. This is how homes, rather than schools, make us what we are. Observance of my mother’s aphorisms, coupled with an absence of tattoos and facial hair, could get you a long way in those times. My father’s regular instruction – ‘Keep your head down’, turned out to be merely a golfing tip.

In 1956, when I was fifteen, my mother caused me further embarrassment by taking me to Spain. A boy alone on holiday with his mother was an unthinkable situation, one that could subject him to all sorts of unmerciful mockery by his schoolfellows, even though my own excuse was solid enough, for my sister had married and flown the nest and my father had moved into digs where he could drink in peace. ‘He’s been called to the Bar’, my mother informed me.

Our destination was Sitges, an unspoilt fishing village near Barcelona in a Spain still firmly under Franco’s fist, where divorce, abortion, contraception and homosexuality were forbidden. Spanish wives would have to wait until Franco’s death in 1975 before the law of permiso marital, whereby a wife required her husband’s permission to work, own property and travel, was revoked. A visit by President Eisenhower in 1953 and admission to the United Nations two years later had lightened the place up a bit with a trickle of tourism, but in 1956 even the quiet beaches of Sitges were patrolled regularly by grim-faced members of the Guardia Civil carrying rifles and wearing those silly hats that looked like patent leather ladies’ handbags.

You may think that the age of exploration came to an end when John Hanning Speke stumbled across the source of the Nile in 1858, but a hundred years later Spain was relatively unknown to tourism. The last, large group of foreign visitors had been members of the Foreign Brigade fighting for the Republican cause during the Civil War. That’s all changed. I doubt that today Heinrich Schliemann and a team of archaeologists could find any remnants of the Sitges I visited in 1956. Perhaps someday an old fisherman’s hut will be uncovered as they drill the foundations of a new multi-storey car park.

My mother was an efficient tour guide; we watched some flamenco and visited the Benedictine Abbey at Monserrat and the Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria at Poblet, where the elaborately carved effigies of the Kings of Aragon have a lion at their feet and those of their Queens, a dog. That’s all changed. Alone one evening, I came across a capea. In a village square, in a makeshift wooden corral, young men were teasing a young bull, risking death or at least a goring to impress a girl or perhaps as the beginning of an apprenticeship on the way to becoming one of the 800 or so licenced matadors. Rather like Go-Karting before stepping up to Formula I.

One morning we took the train into Barcelona. Sitting opposite was a young woman with a babe in arms. Without a glance at the gaping jaw of the schoolboy facing her, the young mother casually unbuttoned her blouse and bared a single breast for her child’s mid-morning suckle. This was the first time I had seen a live breast and it was nothing like the pale, roseate-tipped, entertainment tits displayed by Marilyn in the centrefold of the Playboy magazine hidden under the floorboards in my bedroom. This was a working tit, olive and opulent, bursting with nourishment and covered with a road map of blue veins. The invisible mechanism that inscribes events into our cerebellum etched that breast deep and it still remains in my eternal catalogue of notable breasts, along with the tragic dugs of Van Gogh’s Sorrow and the aforementioned calendar tits belonging to Marilyn Monroe.

After some shopping and lunching, at five in the afternoon, when the sun had lost much its intensity, we joined the crowds at La Monumental, the principal arena of Barcelona. It was my first bullfight and like the breast, I never forgot it. The sand, the red wooden barriers, the boxes and galleries draped with shawls, the matadors in their traje de luces (suits of light)entering the ring, the brass band playing the pasodoble, and then what I have seen described as ‘A dance with death before killing a bull in a ritual sacrifice that appeared before language’. As is the custom for a full corrida, six bulls were killed by three matadors. I remember their names because I took home a poster of the event and it stayed on my school study wall for two years. They were Luis Miguel Dominguin, Antonio Ordoñez and Paco Camino.

When you are young life is a series of love affairs. Back at school my new loves, distinct but inseparable, were Spain, bullfighting, Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway. Whatever I read about Spain at the time, only For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Civil War memoirs of George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) remain fresh. In those pre-internet times bullfighting and the careers of my new heroes were hard to follow. Interestingly, if I was so lucky to find a Spanish newspaper, it was not in the sports but in the arts section, among theatre and opera, that I would find news of fights or matadors. If there had been a Religious section the reports might well have been there.

Ava was a Hemingway woman, even before she met him – a drinker and brawler, feisty, insecure and highly intelligent. Her mere presence caused men to drink too much and fight. Not someone you would choose to mind the kids. She was witty too. Arriving in Sydney in 1959 she announced that she was there to make a film (On the Beach) about the end of the world, adding ‘and this sure is the place for it’.

After filming The Sun Also Rises with Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn and divorcing Frank in 1957, Ava continued to carve some illustrious names on her bedposts: David Niven, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando to name a few. President John F Kennedy, (how did he have time to run the country??), managed to fit her in to his conga line of extra marital conquests. Claude Terrail, owner of La Tour d’Argent pulled out after a year claiming ‘she was too dangerous’. It was inevitable that she and Hemingway would become friends. The author was smitten. After witnessing her swimming naked in the pool of his Cuban villa he ordered that the water never be changed.

Hemingway, with DH Lawrence and Lord Byron, is one of the few writers whose personal lives matched the gravitas and reach of their own novels and poetry. Hemingway was also the ‘go to’ guy for bullfighting. His second novel, ‘The Sun Also Rises’, written while he was living in Paris and published in 1926, was about American and British ex-pats travelling to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. ‘Death in the Afternoon’, published in 1932, was and still is, the ultimate guide to bullfighting.  

And it’s author  invented a cocktail to go with it:

‘Pour one jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until an opalescent milkiness is obtained. Drink three or four slowly’.

You need to read Hemingway’s guide to understand the ritual and to be able to judge the degree of skill and bravery required in the performance of the various passes with cape or muleta – including the natural, the de pecho, the remate and of course the veronica, named after the Saint who wiped Christ’s face with a cloth. The passes are designed to turn the bull and stop him dead in his tracks, to lame and tire him and to bring down the carriage of his head for the moment of truth. You need to be Spanish to understand how pride, the strongest characteristic of the race, and pundonor (honour) take precedence over a fighter’s technical and balletic brilliance when evaluating his performance. Failing to kill the bull is more easily accepted than a show of cowardice.

If you are thinking that Hemingway was oblivious to the brutality, then read this statement from the first page of the book. ‘I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found to be true about it’.
If you are thinking that Hemingway’s guide is some ‘Bullfighting for Dummies’, let his brief description of Ronda tell you it is not. ‘The bullring is at the end of a hot, wide dusty street that runs into the heat from the cool forest shade of the town, and the professional cripples and horror and pity inspirers that follow the fairs of Spain line this road, wagging stumps, exposing sores, waving monstrosities and holding out their caps in their mouths when they have nothing left to hold them with, so that you walk a dusty gauntlet between two rows of horrors to the ring. The town is Velasquez to the edge and then straight Goya to the bull ring’.

In 1959 a now aging Dominguin emerged from retirement to reclaim his former glory as the greatest matador in Spain by entering into a series of mano a mano duels with his brother in law Antonio Ordoñez. Their rivalry was recorded by Hemingway in a series of articles for Life magazine, later published in book form as The Dangerous Summer in 1985. James Michener wrote the foreword. ‘This is a book about death written by a lusty, sixty year old man who had reason to fear that his own death was imminent. It is also a loving account of his return to those heroic days when he was young and learning about life in the bull rings of Spain.’

Unlike the rivalry between the arrogant Ronaldo and the dribbling Messi, which is easily decided on goal count, picking the winner between Dominguin and Ordoñez was more difficult. Hemingway gave it to Ordoñez; other professional critics were divided. Dominguin was gored at Malaga and Bilbao; Ordoñez at Aranjuez. Being gored is not prejudicial like a knock down in boxing and when Ordoñez was carried, wounded, from the ring he took with him the bull’s tail, both ears and a hoof, all signs of public approval for his courage and artistry. Rather like a standing ovation at the opera or ladies throwing their undies at Tom Jones. Ms Ordoñez would probably have preferred a piece of fillet; after all, post-fight the bull is butchered and the meat given to the poor, which is why all arenas are registered as abattoirs under Spanish and EU law.

Many things we feel important and eternal at the time are most often short lived in retrospect. In 1968 Ava moved into 34 Ennismore Gardens, a quiet part of London’s Kensington, where she remained, alone, wheezing and pigeon-breasted from emphysema, until her death in 1990. She was sixty seven. “You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey. She made movies, she made out, she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam”. In 1998 the mayor of Tossa unveiled a bronze sculpture of Ava in her Pandora role. What would the world be without women who don’t make jam? Two years after the dangerous summer, Hemingway took his own life. He was sixty one. Ronda, perhaps the true capital of bullfighting, has its Paseo E Hemingway. Dominguin retired but returned to the ring in 1971 when he was forty five. His comeback fight was at Las Palmas in the Canaries and he wore a traje de luces in pale viridian and gold, created for him by Picasso.

Picasso and Dominguin

It is 2018 and I am with Honeybee in the city of Nimes. Near the Arena, which still hosts bullfights, we visit the Musee des Cultures Taurines (Museum of Bull Culture) to see an exhibition entitled ‘Picasso Dominguin – Une Amitié – a friendship that Jean Cocteau initiated when he organised a meeting between the two in 1951. It was Dominguin who supplied the text for Picasso’s book ‘Toros y Toreros, Drawings and Paintings’ published in 1961. The exhibition included many of Picasso’s works inspired by the corrida as well as photographs of the artist and the matador, but the pièce de resistance is that viridian and gold ‘suit of lights’ designed by the artist for the matador. Picasso was born in Malaga and his father introduced him, at an early age, to the bullfights. His first drawing (at the age of eight) was of a picador. He also produced a series of drawings of bulls. Beginning with lifelike images, Picasso gradually reduces his bull to a few geometric strokes. Amazingly but unsurprisingly the final, purely linear works have an uncanny resemblance to the bulls drawn nineteen thousand years ago on the walls of caves at Lascaux and Roc de Sers in France. I left the museum with this thought, but what I had seen at the exhibition also reminded me of Sitges and my mother and Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner and the fights and that breast.

 

 

THE BARON AND THE SHOWGIRL

Two men influenced the early part of my life; one was Adolf Hitler, the other was Hugh Hefner. Hitler did more than just influence my life, he did his best to end it. Although he failed in that respect he succeeded in breaking up our family, forced me to spend my first four years sleeping in an air-raid shelter and was responsible for my food being rationed until I was fourteen. Long after his mortal remains had been incinerated, Adolf’s shadow loomed over the land. Many of London’s bomb sites, more exciting playgrounds than the swings and roundabouts provided by local councils, persisted into the mid fifties. At school meals our Housemaster, who had spent three years in Colditz, employed salt and pepper pots and cutlery to daily reconstruct the Wehrmacht’s flanking movement that had deprived him of his wits and liberty. Without the benefit of any serious study I can identify the shapes of most WW2 military aircraft. I still hear the wail of the air raid siren and the all-clear.

In 1953 a new leader came out of the West, a mild, pipe smoking hedonist who ran his operations, dressed in silk pyjamas, from a round bed that revolved and vibrated. His name was Hugh Hefner and he came, not clutching a copy of Mein Kampf, but a magazine called Playboy, which would prove to be just as revolutionary and more popular, with a monthly readership that was to reach seven million in the 1970s. ‘Smut’ decided my mother, writing to tell me she had burnt what she called a ‘substantial collection of pornography’ found in my wardrobe. But among the naked lovelies, there were short stories by Norman Mailer and John Le Carre, articles on fashion and sports cars and Hef’s support for progressive social causes.  Black guests were invited to the Playboy Mansion when Jim Crow Laws still operated in many US states and the magazine was used to campaign for the decriminalisation of marijuana and for abortion rights in an age when doctors refused contraceptives to unmarried women. In 1961 the first Playboy club opened in Chicago and when the London club opened at 45 Park Lane in1966, I was one of the first members through its doors.  Hitler once wrote that the world was made of ‘Gods and beasts’; Hef changed that to ‘Gods and breasts’. The bare breasts in the centrefold of the very first Playboy issue belonged to Marilyn Monroe; it is entirely fitting that Hef now lies beside her in a Los Angeles cemetery.

If Adolf launched a V2 or a couple of Doodlebugs at London while my mother was wheeling me in the park then she would have taken shelter in the Underground.  Apart from safety there was often a cup of tea and a sing-along perhaps organised by Joan Littlewood, a belligerent, chain-smoking impresario in a woollen cap. Under surveillance by MI5 for association with the Communist Party, Joan led a collective of left-wing leaning actors who performed in the street and outside factories to working class audiences as well as conducting sing-songs for those sheltering from the Blitz. In 1953 Joan and her group, now calling themselves the Theatre Workshop, found a permanent home in the derelict Theatre Royal in London’s East End. The Company lived and slept in the theatre, redecorating it between rehearsals, deprived of government grants on account of its communist ideology. Joan was saved from sleeping in squalor by Gerry Raffles, an affluent, public school runaway who joined the company as theatre manager, fell in love with her and took her into his luxurious home in Blackheath.

The next years were a battle between East and West. It was Joan’s mission in the East to create plays that stimulated and entertained, be both popular and serious, completely divorced from the polite, drawing room dramas of the West End, what Joan called ‘daffodils up arses’. She liked plays by and about working class people performed for working class audiences and found success with Brendan Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ and Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’.

The battle also raged within the East. Creditors had to be kept at bay and there was a continuing fight with the BBC who refused to show or air Theatre Workshop productions and with the Arts Council who refused grants.  Meanwhile Joan, foul-mouthed, unwilling to listen to advice, nasty and aggressive, humiliated actors and crew alike. ‘You can’t act’ she told Michael Caine, ‘so you might as well fuck off up to the West End or get a job in films.’ ‘Best bit of advice I ever had’, said Caine. Only Raffles stuck by her.

The East End – land of Jellied eels, music halls, costermongers and pearly Kings and Queens with its unique and colourful dialect of thieves cant and rhyming slang –  is no more, gone in a single lifetime, a victim of German bombs, closure of the docks, multiculturalism and gentrification. It was always going to be harder to conserve than the giant panda and the snow leopard, although Joan did her best to keep its memory alive with two brilliant ‘cockney’ musicals, ‘Fings Aint Wot They Used T’be’ in 1958 and ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ a year later.

Her masterpiece ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, an anti-war satire focusing on the folly and incompetence of England’s WW1 military commanders, opened at the Theatre Royal in March 1963. Using a backdrop of distressing facts and statistics of the Great War, documentary footage, marching and music hall songs of the time and actors wearing Commedia dell’Arte costumes and tin helmets, was an instant hit, transferring to the West End in the same year, to Broadway a year later and to the cinema in 1969. The film’s last scene, when the camera pans across the South Downs sown with rows of white crosses, is as moving a hymn to pacifism as you are ever likely to see.

When Raffles died in 1975 while sailing his boat up the Rhone, Joan walked out of the theatre never to return. Her destination was Vienne, a small town thirty miles south of Lyons where she kept vigil on the banks of the river close to the spot where Gerry had died, her only companion an adopted mongrel she called Jacques Tati.

How Baron Philippe de Rothschild knew of her whereabouts or even knew of her we do not know. He had certainly lived a world apart from Joan’s East End. His youth was spent at the wheel of a Hispano Suiza, skiing in Gstaad and sipping champagne from the slippers of high-class tarts.  At the age of 22 he inherited Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 222 acres of Medoc vines in the village of Pauillac, which became his home and where he introduced the concept of ‘Chateau bottling’ and the idea of using famous artists, including Picasso, Miro and Dali, to decorate his wine labels. He would certainly have known of Littlewood. He had an interest in drama; briefly managing a theatre owned by his playwright father and translating plays by contemporary English writers. He may have seen one of Joan’s Paris productions, for her work was acclaimed in France long before being accepted in England, partly because the French have always championed the Left ever since Camille Desmoulins jumped on a cafe table and called for a physical resolution to the French Revolution.

In May 1976, only two months after the death of his wife, Baron Philippe motored alone from Paris to Vienne and found Joan, dressed in clogs and slacks, outside a small whitewashed hotel not a hundred yards from the river. He records Joan as being reticent at their first meeting, even a little hostile, until they found common ground in the Baron’s translation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. A mutual interest in theatre and the Elizabethan poets soon overcame distrust; when the Baron returned to Mouton he took the pocket Marxist with him. There she became Jeanne Petitbois and lived platonically with the Baron whom she called ‘the Guv’, for the next ten years. The Baron involved her in his activities, designing the gardens, organising the Queen Mother’s visit and helping write his autobiography, the embarrassingly titled ‘Milady Vine’. It was not a perfect alliance but it suited both parties; she called her benefactor ‘spoilt, selfish and rude’, and her irreverence was not always welcome especially when she introduced the Baron to her friends as the fourth Marx Brother. When Playboy came to write an article on the Baron she came down to a grand dinner wearing floppy rabbit ears and a fluffy pompom on her derriere.

The Baron died in 1986, the showgirl in 2002. For all Joan’s Marxist principles and contempt for privilege she owed her life and legacy to Gerry Raffles and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, two members of a class she despised. Perhaps love trumped her contempt in the first case, companionship in the other, but it is common taste that reconciles strange bedfellows.

Dio li fa e fra di loro si accoppiano.

PS  A Royal Shakespeare Society production of a new musical, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is scheduled to open in 2018.

MORE TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

SOCKS AND THE CITY

Only those who follow the vicissitudes of male fashion can understand the drastic fall in hosiery sales which occurs each summer in Milan, that elegant, business-like city of incalculable possibilities. For several years now it has been common among Milanese gentlemen to eschew socks in the summer months. The best way to get a peep at these naked pedal extremities is to watch the cyclists. Between the cuff of a Brioni suit trouser and the soft leather of a Ferragamo loafer you may catch a glimpse of a well-turned ankle, perhaps even the hint of a tasteful tattoo. Of course, Milanese gentlemen are not alone in spurning hosiery in the city; Australians can be seen striding, summer and winter, thonged and sockless, through Sydney; but theirs is not a fashion statement only a desire for convenience and comfort.

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Rinascente, situated near the Duomo, is a good place to buy socks. The department store is currently celebrating the centenary of its name, devised by the decadent poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio who, at the same time, was devising the entire ritual of Fascism, including the Blackshirts and Roman salute that Mussolini adopted. This embarrassing information is prudently omitted from the Exhibition in the Palazzo Reale marking the centennial of the store’s name. It does however emphasise its title of World’s Best Department Store awarded at the Global Department Store Summit in 2016, won by Selfridges of London in the three previous years, although one suspects that Bergdorf Goodman, Libertys and Harrods were either not competing or facing drug bans.

We are not at Rinascente for the socks but for lunch as our favourite restaurant, La Bagutta, has closed its doors for good. Having frequented it for forty years it felt like a death in the family. Another favourite restaurant, Boeucc, which claims to have been here since 1696, is also closed, but only for the holidays. There you will find the best porcini mushrooms, grilled like steak and a genuine escalope Milanese or orecchio di elefante, which means it has the bone attached and is beaten thin to cover the entire plate.

A PILGRIMAGE

I love the south of France, the sky is clear and blue and there’s a healthy atmosphere of gluttony. Many of the local dishes are difficult to find in an acceptable quality elsewhere – aligot (a blend of mashed potato and tomme), foie gras mi cuit, omelette aux girolles and aigo bouido, a white garlic soup. It’s just the coffee that lets the French down, tasting, as Tom Wolfe says, of ‘incinerated PVC cables’. Pierre-Jacques and I are making the 600 kilometre motorised pilgrimage from Paris to Laguiolle in the Aveyron to pay homage to the culinary arts of Michel Bras, who has hung on to his three Michelin stars for eighteen straight years.

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The gargouillou at Michel Bras

The house special is gargouillou, a brilliant fireworks display of edible flowers, vegetables, shoots, leaves, stalks and roots that almost turns me into a vegetarian.

The service, the cuisine, even the place itself, perched on the lip of an escarpment, is outstanding. How was it? asks Honeybee; I tell her the dishes were mouth watering, the prices eye watering.

Apart from Michel Bras, Laguiolle is famous for its table knives. But if it came to a design knife fight the winner is clearly the Opinel, a peasant’s knife, an artisan’s instrument, ideal for whittling driftwood, peeling an orange or pruning a rose; Picasso used one as a sculpting tool. Apart from being inexpensive and useful it is also a work of art in itself and it was an

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Laguiolle (top) and Opinel

Opinel, not a Laguiolle, that was included, alongside a Rolex watch and a Porsche 911, in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1985 exhibition of the 100 most beautiful products in the world.

The next day we drive west and south, past fields of placid Aubrac cows, through Espalion, Estaing, and Entraygues. At Conques we lunch with pilgrims resting on their 750 kilometre journey from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage becomes more popular each year; 2,491 made the journey in 1986, 277,915 in 2016. Are we becoming more religious, or has El Camino just become another item on a bucket list? We pass many pilgrims on the footpaths and lanes, all bearing the scallop shell or coquille Saint Jacques on their back-packs.

Albi, La Ville Rose, when we reach it in the evening, looks almost Tuscan with its buildings of pink brick. We are here to visit the Toulouse –Lautrec Museum. Why do we like this painter? Because he was born rich and privileged yet worked for his living, because he overcame severe physical handicap to succeed as an artist, because he lived his whole life as he wanted and understood just what had brought him that rare gift. ‘J’ai acheté ma liberté avec mes dessins.’ (I bought my freedom with my drawings’).

THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT

The Gare du Nord hasn’t changed much since the 1970s except that now there’s the Eurostar instead of the romantic Golden Arrow boat-train with its individually named Pullman cars and crossed Union and French flags on the engine. Along with faster travel Europeans have become accustomed to bomb scares and when we are herded off the platform while the Gendarmerie check out a suspicious looking suitcase, no one looks surprised let alone alarmed.

Having spent the first twenty six years of my life in London, I feel I’m going home but soon realise I’m not. ‘It’s all over; all rinsed out’, says my cousin, resident since birth in the great city. ‘Town’s nothing but a collection of empty investment properties and Air BnB apartments full of tourists. The clubs are all closing because landlords find it more lucrative to convert them to flats for rich Asians; even Annabels has been forced out of Berkley Square’. My cousin feels the city, perhaps the world, has reached its nadir. But inevitably this age, with its adult videos, tattoos, cage fighting and celebrity worship, will be lamented in its turn, just like the last.

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The Golden Arrow

 

It’s the ‘summer of love’ at the Globe theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, the latter a splendid production full of add-libs, dancing, music and audience participation that makes you think, yes, this must have been what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. After, we take the Millennium footbridge across the Thames and wander up Fleet Street, now lifeless without its newspapers, their journalists banished long ago to Wapping to hack phones. We have a drink in what was once one of the newsmens’ favourite watering holes, The Cheshire Cheese, now full of Asian tourists using its gloomy 17th century interiors as a backdrop for self-portraits.

In Gough Square we pass the home of Samuel Johnson once also the home of his manservant and friend, Francis Barber. Born Quashey, a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, he was brought at the age of seven to London in 1750 by his English owner. After spending five years at school in Yorkshire he was freed, given a small bequest and went to work for Johnson as his valet. Johnson, an eccentric himself, commanded a strange household in which only ‘tolerable concord’ existed. The disharmony between the housekeeper, blind poet Anna Williams, Poll Carmichael, a former prostitute, Dr Levet, a destitute Quack and the cat Hodge was such that Francis ran away and joined the Navy returning to Gough Square in 1760 where he remained until Johnson’s death in 1784. During those last twenty four years he looked after his employer’s affairs, became his loyal and trusted friend and inherited the bulk of his estate. After Johnson’s death he moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born and where he sadly lost most of his inheritance through unwise investments. Barber’s descendants apparently still farm in the area.

The next day we take the train to Norwich, the sort of city, with its 11th century cathedral and cobbled alleys, that the English travel to France to admire. I have a special feeling about Norfolk; I believe it’s the home of my ancestors. Once part of Danelaw, an area of eastern England where Viking law and the 3 Rs – rowing, raping and raiding – prevailed, it’s now a quiet refuge for ancient Britons, green, lush, dripping with willow. At Blickling Hall, where Anne Boleyn was born, there are giant, sculptured yew hedges and at Blakeney, among flocks of sea birds, people mess about in boats in the muddy tidal inlets. If it’s a sunny day and if you are near Thorpe Market then you should lunch at the Gunton Arms, part of art dealer, Ivor Braka’s beautifully restored 18th century estate, complete with herds of deer and cattle. Nowhere else will you find a Damien Hirst painting in the Ladies’ Loo or a Magritte above the residents’ lounge fire-place. The food’s good too; try the spicy wild boar sausage with chilli jam or the slow roast shoulder of lamb with summer bubble and squeak.

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The green, green grass of home

While, unlike London, the countryside remains largely unchanged – the thrush, the newt, the bumble-bee, the oak, the oast-house are all still there – it’s not the countryside I remember. Only AE Houseman can express that sense of a long gone, deeply English (and perhaps imaginary), golden age:

Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

WHAT DOES THE SINEW COME WITH?
Years ago, on a menu in a restaurant in the port of Piraeus, I came across two local dishes the English translations of which had me in stitches – ‘Tender bowels, stewed’ was one, ‘Lambs Dong’ the other. Regrettably, I did not try either; I suspect the first would have been some kind of tripe and the other, tongue. Since then I’ve been on the look-out for other mirth inducing dishes; so it was a pleasant surprise to find ‘Mixed pig organ congee’ on my breakfast menu at Singapore Airport. This dish I am familiar with and it can be very tasty; it’s just the translation that needs to sound more appetizing. And incidentally, how amazing is the city of Singapore. I was expecting a dry cluster of glass towers full of accountants and hedge-fund managers, endless malls of phone shops and dim sum eateries. Instead there is an inspired blend of outrageous modern architecture and beautifully restored colonial buildings. Plus, I’m told it’s the only place on Earth with a Michelin starred street food stall.

In Chefchaouen, in the Street of Outstretched Hands, my English language version of a lunch menu offers a tantalizing selection of beef leg, giblets, sinew and brains. Checking the French version I found beef leg to be a more understandable ‘Pied de Veau’, while sinew (in French?), turned out to be ‘ox penis’. IMG_6514The latter can be a bit heavy for lunch and so I opted for the beef leg, or more properly the calf’s foot, which turned out to be a bowl of tasty fat surrounded by chickpeas in broth. Delicious! I regret not trying Khlie – lamb, seasoned, sun-dried, cooked in fat, preserved in jars (rather like duck confit) and traditionally served with scrambled egg; a sort of Babel el Squeak.

In Meknes I have my boots polished while lunching al fresco on kofta and chicken brochettes and a cumin-spiced salad of pepper, cucumber, tomato and sweet onion. In the back of the café our guide, Youssef, touches the floor with the seven parts of his body in prayer. Later, after we have finished eating, he carries our leftovers into the streets for the poor and hungry, making me feel, unintentionally, like a cad.

In Essaouira Le Chalet de la Plage had been heavily recommended and first appearances look encouraging. There is a seasoned bar of warm, dark, varnished wood and a view of the sea and the islands in the bay. Over the bar hang photographs of Nicholas Cage, Orson Welles, Ron Dennis and other notables, smiling with the proprietor. Frankly, the meal was disappointing and expensive (by local standards), made bearable by a bottle of the local (Meknes) Château Roslane. The only really bad meal I had in Morocco was the lamb tagine I prepared myself at cooking school. I did complain to the chef.

Freshness, variety, seasonality and hospitality are the keynotes of Moroccan lunching and dining. Much of the food, including sheep, grown or fattened in the field, is on sale at the side of the road. A sale occurs after bargaining and bargaining brings people together. In the narrow alleys of the Fez market there are spices in coloured mountains, camel meat, small fish, eels, oranges, figs and chickens so fresh they are still alive.

It’s Tuesday and market day in Azrou and the roads are filled with slow-moving pick-ups, crammed with a mixture of sheep, goats and family members. Bedouin, whose black tents are visible on the surrounding plain, have brought their scrawny sheep to town to sell to local farmers who will fatten them up for the feast of Eid al-Adha.

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The market at Azrou

They will be eaten as mechoui when the whole sheep is roasted in a clay oven for a few hours. There is no better way to eat lamb. Later, we pass rows of fossil supermarkets selling everything from tiny trilobites to great polished slabs of fossil-filled marble destined for the walls of Joan Collins’ bathroom.

 

On the road again we are protected from accident and injury by the hand of Fatima dangling from Youssef’s rear-view mirror and reach Tafilalt safely to look down into the great palm oasis, a broad, green ribbon stretching for miles along the bed of the Ziz river. I am reminded of the importance of the palm to desert people and of these opening lines of Roy Campbell’s eponymous poem:

Blistered and dry was the desert I trod
When out of the sky with the step of a god
Victory-vanned, with her feathers out-fanned,
The palm tree alighting my journey delayed
And spread me, inviting, her carpet of shade

In his book ‘Iron John’ another poet, Robert Bly, said that white stands for semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers, the sea and priesthood, health, strength and all good things and good company and the purity of children and brides. For the Moroccans, green is the sacred colour of Islam and the colour of the doors of those who have made the haj to Mecca; it stands for life, nature and renewal and here, in the oasis, it blazes in contrast to the sun-blasted hills and dun-coloured Ksars.

Among the perfect dunes of the Sahara we will sleep in a black Bedouin tent, complete with en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning. After dark, when the encampment lights are turned off, we look up into the night sky to see what Joyce, in Ulysses, called ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Then straight to bed as we are on the 7.30 camel in the morning.

APOLLINAIRE

What an extraordinary period for art were the early years of the twentieth century in the City of Light, much of it emanating from two refuges for poor artists and writers – Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), an ex-piano factory in the Place Emile-Goudeau in Montmartre and La Ruche (the bee-hive) situated across the river in the Passage Danzig in the 15th arrondissement.

It was the writer Max Jacob who invented the term Bateau Lavoir to describe the rickety, wooden building, which reminded him of the laundry boats on the Seine. Later he would call it the Central Laboratory of Painting. At one time or another, Braque, Derain, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Juan Gris and Matisse as well as Max’s friend Picasso lived and/or worked there, as did writers Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet.

La Ruche, originally a temporary, circular pavilion designed by Gustave Eiffel to showcase French wines at the Great Exhibition of 1900, had been dismantled and re-erected as low-cost studios for artists. Among its tenants and frequenters were Chagall, Leger, Soutine, Brancusi, Modigliani and Diego Rivera.

These innovative and talented young artists, many of them, like Soutine and Chagall, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were driven by poverty and exhilarated by freedom, more powerful stimulants than any strong drink or drug. ‘I knew we would make it through the Bateau Lavoir’, wrote Picasso, ‘There we were truly happy; we were considered as painters and not as curious animals’.

It is one thing to be present, quite another to recognise the importance of what’s happening around you. At the Dôme Café in Montparnasse Modigliani, who required strong liquor to fuel his creative urge, would offer a quick sketch in exchange for a glass of mominette, a cheap absinthe based on potato alcohol. How many of his drawings were framed and treasured and how many used to light the stove or compile the weekly shopping list? I wonder what I would have done with a portrait of myself with distorted face and elongated neck. Artists are not always the best people to market their own work and the tenants of the Bateau Lavoir and La Ruche were fortunate to attract the interest of art critic and poet Wilhelm Kostrowicki, the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman. Calling himself Guillaume Apollinaire, he drew these two artistic nests together and to the attention of the public and the collectors. Picasso and Braque had no idea they were Cubists until Apollinaire coined the term ‘Cubism’ in 1911 to describe the emerging art form. Likewise Dali, Duchamps and Max Ernst would not have known they were Surrealists if Apollinaire had not invented and included the word in an article for the program of the ballet ‘Parade’, produced in 1917 by Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie.

1st English edition; Peter Owen, London, 1976

In the early days Apollinaire was also poor, forced to sell his literary talents to the clandestine market. His erotic novel, ‘Les Onze Milles Verges’ (The Eleven Thousand Rods), written in 1907 but banned in France until 1973, is a masterpiece of smut, its title a reference to the massacre in Cologne of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand British virgins in the early centuries of the Common Era. So that’s where they all went.

It’s the story of Mony Vibescu, a Rumanian Prince who comes to Paris in search of excitement and sexual adventure, moving via the Orient Express to Bucharest and St Petersburg and ending in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. It is verbally inventive, comic, obscene, satirical and deadly serious. A lot of the places and historical detail are actual and factual and there are real people or ideas behind the masks; example – the name of the Japanese prostitute Kilyemu is an abbreviation of ‘Celle qui l’emu’ – she who moved him. Tongue in cheek, Picasso claimed it was his favourite book, but it did remain one of his prized possessions. The publishers of my 1976 English translation omit whole paragraphs they feel too explicitly violent. These missing passages describing the crueller aspects of physical love and the triumph of evil were part of the writer’s attempts to rehabilitate the Divine Marquis and the belief that there is a fundamental purity in very bad behaviour.

His next literary works were three collections of poetry – L’Enchanteur Pourrissant (1909), Le Bestiare ou Cortege d’Orphee (1911) and Alcools (1913), the latter establishing his immediate fame and future legacy. The poems were applauded for their combining of contemporary themes with traditional poetic forms. I’ve tried to enjoy Apollinaire’s poems because I like the sound of the man, but as kindly, clever, loyal and gregarious as he was, his poems now seem sad and pessimistic.

Les feuilles
Qu’on foule
Un train
Qui roule
La vie
S’ecoule

All went well until 1911 when Vincenzo Peruggia, a former attendant at the Louvre, stole the Mona Lisa, unwittingly involving Apollinaire in the crime, and creating an international uproar. The theft, claimed the New York Times, ‘has caused such a sensation that Parisians, for the time being, have forgotten the rumours of war.’ Bouquets of flowers were placed beneath the spot where the painting had hung and the Editor of the French news magazine, L’Illustration, asked ‘What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?’ Peruggia fitted none of these descriptions; he was merely intent in returning the painting to what he considered to be its homeland, Italy, and to extract a reward for doing so. Apollinaire was arrested and briefly jailed and Picasso questioned by the police, on account of an earlier theft from the Louvre of several Iberian stone heads by Apollinaire’s secretary, which Picasso had bought and used as models for his 1907 painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before taking it to Florence where he contacted Dott. Poggi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery, in an attempt to discuss a reward for its repatriation. But Poggi called the police who soon recovered the painting from a room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia; Peruggia’s claim to have been motivated by patriotism earned him a sentence of just seven months.

Apollinaire by Irene Lagut from Les Onze Mille Verges

Soon after the Mona Lisa was back hanging in the Louvre, Europe went to war and, like the wind, Apollinaire’s luck changed. Taking up the Government’s offer of citizenship to any foreigner fighting for France, the stateless Apollinaire enlisted, and served at the front until 1916 when a shell fragment pierced his helmet and made him a semi-invalid. It wasn’t the Germans who finished him off but the Spanish Flu, so named because neutral Spain, free of war-time censorship, was the first country to publicise the pandemic. The most popular theory is that the flu originated in Fort Riley, Kansas and came to Europe with the American soldiers. Whatever the circumstances, Apollinaire, already weakened by his war wound, succumbed to the flu in 1918 just months after he was married. The French buried him alongside the rest of their heroes in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Bateau Lavoir was destroyed by fire in 1970 and rebuilt in 1978; it still provides studios, but not accommodation, for young artists.

La Ruche, saved from demolition in 1968 by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Renoir and others, remains a collection of working studios for artists.

The hotel where Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa is still there in the via Panzani, now called Hotel La Gioconda.

TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

NEL BLU DIPINTO DI BLU

After the engines had stopped and the seat-belt sign turned off, the cabin suddenly fills with music. They are playing Volare and the lady sitting next to me begins to sing along. I join her for the few lines I know because it’s that sort of song. ‘Ah, Modugno!’ she sighed and I guessed she was recalling all those Italian summers by the sea that the song evokes, although the blue mentioned in the song has nothing to do with the colour of the Mediterranean. While Volare will always be associated with singer/song-writer Domenico Modugno, it was in fact the brain-child of his lyricist partner, Franco Migliacci. Franco’s inspiration came from seeing reproductions of two of Chagall’s paintings, Le Coq Rouge and Le Peintre et La Modelle, both of which decorated the walls of the café where he was working on a new song. The first mentioned painting shows a man suspended in mid-air, a familiar feature of Chagall’s work, while the second depicts the painter with half his face painted blue. And so we have a song about a man who paints his hands and face blue before being swept up by the wind and flying away in the infinite sky. Like many great additions to the world’s cultural inventory, the qualities of Volare were not immediately recognised by the experts in the field and it was only reluctantly and belatedly included among the entrants of the 1958 San Remo Song Festival, which of course it won, going on to become the most played to air Italian song of the 20th century.

Volare is only one of the entrenched and unvarying traditions of ‘la stagione al mare’. As soon as the school holidays begin, mothers traditionally take their children to the sea, maybe to a second home in Forte dei Marmi or perhaps to a rented apartment or hotel in Alassio, while their husbands enjoy a brief period of freedom with their mistresses before their own official holidays begin and they join their families at the sea. In summer the beaches from Ventimiglia to Rimini are covered with uniform lines of deck chairs and coloured umbrellas; newly painted pedalos are dragged to the shoreline and small beachfront restaurants offer that classic seaside dish, spaghetti alle vongole, best taken with a bottle of chilled Grillo and followed by a sorbetto al limone. Each year the stabilimenti balneari find new beaches to exploit as the tide of tourists increases (up 24% in 2017). Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria are the new holiday Klondikes and already on a sunny weekend it’s standing room only on Puglia’s Gallipoli Beach.

Santa Teresa di Riva, on the Sicilian coast between Giardini Naxos and Messina, is a new and still pleasant addition to the stock of summer destinations, called into service to cope with the overspill from the stampede of tourists that has ruined Taormina. The people of Santa Teresa are courteous and friendly, there are no souvenir shops, parking is easy and the waters are free of jet-skis, kayaks and wind-surfers, while a sharply shelving and shingled beach deters families with young children.

The Bar Vitelli

High in the Nebrodi hills, which rise steeply behind the town, is the village of Savoca and its Bar Vitelli where Michael Corleone asked Apollonia’s father for her hand in marriage in The Godfather.

From the village, or better still, from the terrace of the very charming Ristorante Gelso Nero, there are lovely views out across the Mediterranean. Let us hope that the Mayor of Santa Teresa will preserve its charms by resisting any attempt by Ryan Air to establish direct flights between his town and London, Moscow and Dusseldorf. One way of choosing a holiday destination may be to list all resorts then eliminate those that are visited by cruise ships or served by cut-price airlines.

View from the Gelso Nero

Even from sea-level the shoreline of Calabria is visible across the Straits of Messina, although sometimes, in the evening, a haze melts sea into sky and the mainland disappears altogether. Before the Atlantic Ocean breached the chain of mountains joining present day Spain and Morocco five and a half million years ago, you would have been looking over a dry valley. The breach triggered the most spectacular flood in Earth’s history, creating the Mediterranean. Originally seen by the Romans as a series of smaller seas, with names taken from neighbouring coastlines and islands – Mare Tyrrhenum, Mare Balearicum and so on, later they would refer to the whole sea as Mare Magnum and later again, Mare Nostrum – Our Sea! In the second half of the 3rd century AD, when Roman ownership of the sea was beginning to be questioned, Solinus, a geographer, became the first to use the term Mediterraneum – the centre of the world, as indeed it then was and to some of us, still is.

Woody Allen used Volare to book-end his 2012 film ‘To Rome with Love’ to good effect and Luciano Pavarotti’s version of the song still leaves me feeling I’m high on drugs, but my special Volare moment will always be the time I heard it on 17th July, 1994. I remember the date because it was the day of the World Cup final between Italy and Brazil and Honeybee and I were in a night club on the island of Capri. It was a particularly fun evening; the American Ambassador to Italy was there with a large party to celebrate his birthday and we were on the island with a group of friends to see an exhibition by Veronese painter, Pippo Borrello. It was while the orchestra was playing Volare that a message was passed to the band-leader, who, after examining the content, immediately stopped the music and made this brief and tragic announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am sad to tell you that Italy has lost to Brazil on penalties’. Knowing how the Italians love their soccer I expected the mood of the evening to darken and that we would now be listening to a grim selection from Cavalleria Rusticana. But, turning immediately to face his band, the Maestro raised his arms and launched his musicians straight back into the song they had briefly abandoned …..

 Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiu’
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me
Volare oh, oh
Cantare oh, oh, oh, oh
Nel blu dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu’
Ma tutti i sogni nell’alba svaniscon perche’
Quando tramonta la luna il porta con se’
Ma io continuo a sognare negli occhi tuoi belli
Che sono blu come un cielo trapunto di stelle

And everyone clapped and cheered and it was the very best of evenings.

 

VOLUBILIS

The fruit of that grand and tragic love affair between Anthony and Cleopatra consisted of a boy, Ptolemy, and twins – Helios (the sun), another boy and Selene (the moon), a girl. After their parents were defeated at Actium by Octavian and had taken their own lives, the children were dragged to Rome in golden chains as evidence of imperial insuperability. There, in an act of extraordinary charity, Anthony’s former wife (and sister to Octavian), saved the children from further public humiliation by taking them into her household. The fates of Ptolemy and Helios are unrecorded, but we know that Selene matured into a well-educated woman, whose loyalty to her captors was rewarded with Roman citizenship. Another contemporary, political prisoner in Rome, Juba II, King of Numidia, had also become Romanised, in spite of his father’s defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar and the appropriation of his Berber kingdom as a Roman Province.  In a bizarre turn of events, while Selene enjoyed the patronage of Octavia, Juba was befriended and supported by her brother, Octavian and was at his side at Actium. Notwithstanding Juba’s involvement in the defeat of her parents, Selene married Juba and the couple were dispatched by Octavian (now the Emperor Augustus) to develop and govern Mauretania, the far South Western reaches of the empire. Their mission began around 20BC with the founding of the city of Caesarea (now Cherchell in present day Algeria) and continued westward to Volubilis, an existing city of Phoenician and Berber origins, which became the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania and therefore, some say, of modern Morocco. Its position on a ridge at the base of the Zerhoun mountain provides the visitor with fine panorama of a Roman city with its temples, agora, basilica and triumphal arch.   Although only partly excavated, the exposed mosaics are as fine as you will see anywhere and the small museum contains some interesting artefacts as well as spotlessly clean lavatories. It is a column from Volubilis that serves as a monument to Yves Saint-Laurent’s life and achievements in the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech.

Our guide points out a farm in the plain to the South, the property of the de Villepin family, one of whom, the effete and snooty Dominique, was prime minister during the Chirac presidency. The lower slopes of the hills to the North are covered in olive trees, and local production of oil has survived for thousands of years, for no fewer than 85 olive presses were found during excavations of Volubilis. Every souk has its mountains of green, yellow and black olives although the oil is somewhat bland and not a patch on the green and peppery Tuscan variety. More suitable for pouring on the body than a salad, as I found out the next day at a Hamman where I was oiled, scraped and sandpapered and then sluiced down like the orlop deck of the Victory after a particularly sanguinary amputation. I’m not sure how many layers of skin were removed but my sun-tan had disappeared and my entire rib cage was visible as if through an x-ray. Retiring to an adjacent room for a massage, I was handed a tiny envelope containing two small eye patches joined by an elastic band; talk about ‘invisible panty line’! Anyway it was just enough to save me from six months for indecent exposure. Again, I was copiously lubricated, this time with Argan oil, before the masseuse got to work on my recumbent skeleton. Now, I’ve always thought that ‘argan’ was Arabic for ‘engine’ but Honeybee says no, argan oil is produced from the kernels of the small, brown nuts that grow, along with goats, on the argan tree.

Argan nut and goat tree

Apart from olive oil, grain and Barbary lions, Mauretania’s other main export to Rome was the purple dye extracted from the gland of the spiny Murex rock-snail. A Phoenician myth tells us that it was the pet dog of Tyros, mistress of Tyre’s patron god, Melquart, that bit into a shell, covered its mouth in purple dye and made the Phoenicians rich. The 1636 painting by Peter Paul Rubens depicts the same myth but substitutes Herakles for Tyros as the dog’s owner, reflecting Rome’s desire to replace Phoenician gods with their own. Tyrian purple dye, produced by the Phoenicians as early as 1,500 BC, was prized for the intensity of colour and its resistance to fading. On account of the vast number of shells needed to produce a small quantity of dye and because of the difficult and lengthy production process, the dye was fabulously expensive. Someone with nothing better to do has calculated that it takes roughly twelve thousand shells to produce 1.4 grams of dye, just enough to colour the border of a single garment. In re-establishing the ancient Phoenician process of manufacturing Tyrian purple dye using the spiny Murex shells that thrive among the intertidal rocks at Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Juba helped make Mauretania one of the wealthiest of Rome’s client kingdoms.

Following Juba’s death in 23AD, his son, Ptolemy, inherited the kingdom but, like many a second generation, not his father’s aptitude for hard work and frugality, although he continued to display the same level of loyalty to Rome and was rewarded for such with an ivory sceptre and triumphal cloak. Acquiring expensive wardrobe tastes, Ptolemy began wearing togas and cloaks in Tyrian purple in defiance of Roman sumptuary laws, which decreed that only the Emperor could use the dye to border his toga and bed sheets and to brighten the guest hand-towels in the Tepidarium. Invited to Rome in 40AD by the unbalanced and bloodthirsty Caligula, Ptolemy was assassinated on the Emperor’s orders. Was Caligula merely piqued at Ptolemy wearing the full Murex or was he concerned that sporting the Imperial purple was a sign of his guest’s political ambitions? Anyway, that was the end of the Kingdom of Mauretania, which was thereafter divided into two separate provinces. Volubilis continued to thrive until 285AD when it fell to local tribes. Ptolemy is still remembered as the first man to die for fashion.

 

THE LAST LION

After Chefchaouen, a Wedgewood maze of souvenir shops, the road South takes us through the Rif Mountains and, after Fez, to Ifrane, a pleasant town surrounded by a forest of pine and cedar, home to the miniature Barbary ape. Built by the French in 1929 as a resort, the town centre is distinguished by a fine sculpture of a Barbary lion, chiselled from rock by an Italian POW in 1945. Barbary lions once roamed the deserts and mountains of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. Thousands were shipped to the Coliseum and other Roman amphitheatres to be fed on a tasty diet of Christians and gladiators. Later they were sought after by private and public zoos for their size and magnificent black manes and finally polished off by 19th century hunters. The kudos of shooting the last Barbary lion goes to an anonymous French hunter who, it was thought, had extinguished the species in 1922, although reports of subsequent sightings suggest that the Barbary lion may only have become extinct in the wild as late as 1956.

After Ifrane we continue on over dusty plains where the main mode of transport is the mule or donkey – small, miserable creatures on spindly legs, hung like men, sometimes almost invisible under a mountain of hay or an owner, sitting side-saddle and tapping its skinny buttocks as he jogs along.     It’s mid-summer, time, according to our guide, for the dreaded chergui, a fierce East wind that can shrivel a field of plump olives into a crop of desiccated peas in minutes. At Ouarzazate we pass a series of vast movie production studios, their lots crammed with ersatz temples and colossal Egyptian gods in painted polystyrene. On a bank of sand dunes stand the plywood and plaster walls of Jerusalem, once defended by Orlando Bloom against a crowd of turbaned extras in the 2005 epic ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The studios are a major source of foreign income for Morocco, but more important for its future is what lies beyond the studios – the world’s largest solar power plant, designed to provide 52% of the country’s energy by 2030. On the Mediterranean coast, improvements to the port of Tangiers will soon make it one of the twenty biggest ports in the world. Clearly not all the country is moving at a mule’s pace, perhaps because Morocco benefits from the very best form of government – benevolent despotism. Hearing that another major project was behind schedule, the despotic but immensely popular King Mohammed VI immediately cancelled holiday leave for all management personnel. Now there’s a thought.

The lives of some authors rival their writing in interest; Byron, Hemmingway and DH Lawrence spring to mind. Gavin Maxwell, Scottish aristocrat, naturalist, explorer, secret agent and racing driver was another. His book ‘Ring of Bright Water’ (1956), which tells how the author raised otters he had brought back to Scotland from the reed marshes of South Iraq, established his literary reputation, while ‘Lords of the Atlas; Morocco, the Rise and Fall of  the House of Glaoua‘, published in 1966, provides a riveting portrait of Morocco’s recent political history. The Glaoui were one of several Berber tribes that, for centuries, had struggled for dominance in the High Atlas. Their fortunes improved in 1893 when they were rewarded for saving the Sultan from a blizzard with the gift of a 77mm cannon, which was used to immediately subdue their rivals. For supporting the French Protectorate T’hami el Glaoui, son of an Ethiopian concubine, was made Pasha of Marrakech and given control over the South’s olive and saffron trade and the region’s salt and mineral mines, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Guests at his palaces in Telouet and Marrakech included Maurice Ravel, Colette, General Patton, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. In spite of owning hundreds of slaves, he was a personal guest of Churchill at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By then the end of the Protectorate was in sight and in 1955, after restoring the previously exiled Sultan, the French withdrew, leaving El Glaoui to his fate. They didn’t shoot Morocco’s last great Southern leader, but when he died in 1956 the mob looted his palaces and lynched his henchmen. His reputation as a traitor remains intact and the verb glaouiser (to betray) has become part of French political jargon.

Kasbah of Telouet

We are in the High Atlas mountains, travelling the narrow road built by the French Foreign Legion in 1936 and since largely unrepaired. At eight thousand feet, on the corner of a desert plateau and surrounded by giant peaks we reach the Kasbah of Telouet, once El Glaoui’s fortress palace, now a crumbling building of red stone, pisé and green roof tiles. The Chinese silk panels and the rugs from Rabat have all gone. From the same balcony where I’m told Churchill once watched Berber horsemen show their skills, I can see the nearby village of Telouet, full of descendants of El Glaoui’s slaves. The field where the horsemen once rode for Churchill is now a dusty football pitch.

BOOKLUST

My book collection’s not what it was; it’s been diminished by divorce, unwise lending and the occasional cull, nibbled away by damp and silverfish and now dispersed in various locations throughout the apartment and garage. But to call my books a ‘collection’ is a misnomer; collections accumulate from a lifetime of knowledgeable research, focused upon a particular author, subject or theme, often with the object of future financial gain. My own efforts have been plagued by a characteristic lack of resolute purpose, domestic upheavals and poor funding. In extreme cases of booklust you need to be both wealthy and celibate.

Thomas Jefferson was a serious collector, amassing an important collection which he sold to the US Government to replace the Library of Congress, torched by the British during the War of 1812. Jimmy Page, once lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, has the wherewithal and the knowledge to collect works on the Arts & Crafts movement as well as anything remotely associated with Aleister Crowley, including the occultist’s former residence, Boleskin House, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The ‘completist’ collector must have every scrap and fragment produced by a chosen author. Umberto Eco’s properties in Milan and Urbino are reputedly crammed with 50,000 titles, much of them devoted to semiotics. Other people collect books shaped in circles, books bound in metal boards, pop-up books and books that open like accordions. Nostalgia is an inducement to collect and I spent a lot of time and energy that could have been more usefully applied to a career tracking down key books I had enjoyed as a child in the 1940’s.  

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Book of 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. Errol Flynn splendid in red tights

 

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Buffalo Bill Annual from 1949

Popular writers in my youth had odd first names like Enid, Somerset, Rider, Edgar, Aldous and Wyndham. My collection began with Rudyard Kipling, switched to illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and then to books on space travel, before I realised I wanted every book that took my fancy. When a bookseller asks me what authors or subjects interest me I am unable to provide a coherent answer. Being an avid reader does not make you a bibliophile and separating the book lover from the book collector is what John Hill Burton in ‘The Book Hunter, Etc.’ called the ‘disposition to possess’. Possession, or rather the need for,  dealt with by A S Byatt in her Booker Prize winning novel of that name, if unchecked may infect you with bibliomania, a word first documented by Phillip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield in a letter to his illegitimate son at school in 1750 advising him of its dangers. I would describe myself as an inconstant book lover overcome with occasional bouts of lust. I’m sad to report that the English poet AE Houseman, heavily represented among my books, referred to bibliophiles as ‘an idiotic class.’

Books are a lonely interest and not one to trot out at social gatherings. However, I recently showed a dinner guest, a lady librarian from Brazil, a few of my treasures. ‘You and I are people of the book” she confided, as if she had discovered that we were both members of some secret society. People of the book are finding life more and more difficult. Soaring rents have robbed the high street of second-hand bookshops and there are few bargains to be found on the internet. Gone are the days when books could be bought by the yard in London. Book covers, once a canvas for talented artists like John Piper and Michael Ayrton, are now designed by technicians using keyboards.

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Michael Ayrton’s dust jacket and illustration for Poems of Death 1945

Books themselves are cheaply produced and digitally printed on machine-finished, coated paper; however long you keep them they will never give off that scent of foxed antiquity. Nor of course will they merit a description of the paper and font as in this example from ‘Dress – An Essay in Masculine Vanity and an Exposure of the UnChristian Apparel Favoured by Females’ by Eric Gill, the English Arts & Crafts sculptor and typeface designer: 

Printed in the summer of 1986 at the Yellow Barn Press, Council Bluffs, Iowa by Neil Shaver. The book was printed on a Vandercook Press and handset in Eric Gill’s 14 point Joanna. His Perpetua is the display face seen on the title page. A Gill Floriated  Initial is used on page one. The paper is Mohawk Superfine Text, an archival quality paper. The pattern design used on the cover and endpapers was made for this edition by the wood engraver, John DePol. There are 200 copies in this edition and this is Copy Number 122.

Music! and as moving as a paragraph of Flaubert. These details are to a book lover what a film’s end credits are to a movie enthusiast.

While the sheer volume of titles obliges major public libraries to arrange their stock according to the Dewey Decimal Classification, a sort of mathematical version of Linnaean taxonomy, the bibliophile is free to indulge his or her own particular whims. Samuel Pepys, a stickler for order, liked all his 3,000 books to have an even appearance, which he achieved by the use of varying sizes of wooden blocks; others prefer artistic confusion. Library organisation, the perpetual spring cleaning, the weeding, the reclassifying and rearranging, according to principles of colour, topic, size or aesthetics as new titles arrive, is one of the pleasures of owning books.

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Art books arranged by size & colour

 

‘Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books’ by Terry Belanger is only one of many books concerning library organisation. One lunatic scheme he mentions was proposed in an 1863 American book of etiquette which decreed that the perfect hostess will ensure that the works of male and female authors be properly segregated on her book shelves. In all personal collections there exists an invisible category of ‘lost’ books – those stolen, lent and never returned or stupidly not purchased when the opportunity arose. Topping my list are the 1919 edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ illustrated by Harry Clarke (lent to a ‘book keeper’) and WB Yeats’ 1893 three volume ‘Works of William Blake’, left with a bookseller in the Boulevard Haussmann, and costing then, in 1970, no more than dinner for two at Maxims. I might also mention my encounter with a very handsome edition of a Conan-Doyle classic. Inspired by Paolo Uccello’s 1436 funerary monument to Sir John Hawkwood in Florence’s Duomo, I borrowed a copy of Conan-Doyle’s ‘The White Company’ a novel about the English mercenary, from the American Library in Paris. Pasted inside the front cover was a label telling me that the book was a gift from Gene Kelly. Below the label the dancer and movie star had left his signature and the date of his donation, 1951, the year he filmed ‘An American in Paris’. I returned the book with some reluctance.

 

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Paolo Uccello’s portrait of Sir John Hawkwood  in the Florence Duomo

 

 

 

There are moments of good fortune however. In 1997 Honeybee and I were passing Hatchards, the Piccadilly bookseller, still where it first opened in 1797, and saw a display of JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Honeybee thought his Lordship might like a copy and we inquired within only to be told that the author had insisted the book should not go on sale until after 4pm, when the schools closed. We returned after 4pm and made our purchase. ‘Perhaps’, said the assistant, ‘you would like a signed copy; there’s no extra cost.’ More recently, in the unlikely Sydney suburb of Manly, I came across a first, 1848 edition of Howard Staunton’s ‘The Chess Player’s Handbook’. Staunton was responsible for organising the world’s first International Chess Tournament in 1851; he helped design the chess pieces that are still required for competition and he edited my three volume, 1866 Works of Shakespeare, beautifully illustrated by John Gilbert. Small potatoes, but, nevertheless, a mildly pleasing find.

 

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An illustration from The Chess Player’s Handbook

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Staunton’s 1866 edition of Shakespeare

Part of the attraction for a bibliophile lies in the aroma of leather, bindings, pages, glue and bookmarks. The Nostalgic aroma of old books, that sweetish smell with notes of almond and vanilla, comes from the decomposition of lignin in wood-based paper. So powerful is this scent, with its link to memory, recalling, for the bookish, the pleasures of reading old classics and scouring through second-hand bookshops, that it is now available in bottles. ‘Dead Writers’ perfume, a ‘bookish blend of heliotrope, vetiver, black tea, clove, tobacco, musk and vanilla’, claims to capture ‘the unique olfactory pleasures of old books’. Honeybee, aware of my attraction to the smell of antiquarian literature, now adds a dash of ‘Paper Passion’ behind her ears when she welcomes me home from the local hostelry on a Friday night. 

The temperature at which paper combusts is the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in which he writes of a future society where books are banned and burnt if found. There are enough examples throughout history of the suppression of dissent through the incineration of literature to know how likely this is to continue. In 364AD the pagan Library of Antioch was torched on the orders of the Catholic Roman Emperor, Jovian; In France during the 13th century ‘crusaders’ attempted to entirely eradicate the ‘heretic’ culture of the Cathar people by burning their literature; in 1497 followers of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola deemed it necessary to protect the morals of their fellow Florentine citizens by burning every copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and all works of Ovid found in the city. One of the most notorious book burnings took place in Berlin’s Opernplatz on May 10th 1933 when the Nazis burnt 25,000 works of literature, including those of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway and Heinrich Heine. Heine’s inscription on the bronze plaque that now marks this infamous spot – ‘Where books are burned in the end people will burn’ – correctly foresaw the present day indiscriminate destruction of human lives, libraries and cultural artefacts by Islamic State

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My copy of Dante, illustrated by George Grosz whose works were burnt in 1933

Libraries are temples of high romance; I refer, not to those libraries with Kiddy Korners, rows of PCs, shelves of DVDs and weekend sausage sizzles, but those like The National Art Library at the V & A or, even better, The London Library, whose understated entrance in a quiet part of St James Square takes you into the largest independent lending library in the world. In those aisles of quiet you may sit where Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Darwin, Bram Stoker and Kipling once sat, turning the pages of an incunabulum with your white cotton glove. How good is it that the current President of this most English of institutions is Sir Tom Stoppard, a Czech refugee from Zlin in Moravia. Splendid too the words of Thomas Carlyle, founder of The Library in 1841: ‘All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books’.

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The very elegant and atmospheric London Library

Romance is not restricted to a library’s surroundings and the books on its shelves. There is also the feeling, in that mandatory silence, of mysterious possibility, the chance of igniting passion from simple eye contact and the thrill of sliding a billet-doux across the polished mahogany, all with the knowledge that you both share a common passion. Truman Capote understood the romantic association of books when he chose the New York Public Library as the setting for Paul to reveal his feelings of love for Holly Golightly. Giacomo Casanova was a lover of books as well as of women and spent his final years in humble reflection as librarian to a nobleman in Bohemia. Poet and novelist Philip Larkin devoted his whole adult life to quietly administering the contents of the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull.

 

When book lovers dream they dream of their own particular Holy Grail of literature. Last night I dreamt I was in India. A young guide led me through the urban chaos of some pleasant hill-town and stopped outside an open-fronted shop. Stepping through the haphazard display of bric a brac – tied bundles of old magazines, oil lamps, brass trays and stuffed wildlife – I spied a cardboard box containing a dozen or so books. The price, the proprietor told me, was 250 rupees (about $5) for each book or 200 if I took the lot, a concession I happily agreed to. Back in my hotel I pulled out the treasure I felt sure existed among the otherwise worthless selection of Victorian novels. It was a fine first edition of ‘The Jungle Book’, bound in dark blue buckram with three elephants blocked in gilt on the front cover. Inside was the inscription – Macmillan & Sons 1894, and the author’s signature. The last book in the box, although less desirable, also turned out to be a prize – a first edition of Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads & Other Verses’. Gradually my initial euphoria began to fade. I knew I wasn’t suffering from an attack of Post-Colonial Political Correctness because, like any sane person, I can read ‘Kim’ or Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ without feeling distraught at the evident evils of imperialism. What was nagging at my conscience was the thought that I had taken advantage of the kindly seller, for the Jungle Book alone, on the open market, could cost me as much as US$11,000. The dream turned into a nightmare and I woke up. I’m still looking for ‘The Jungle Book’ but I do have a copy of ‘Barrack Room Ballads’.

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The Romantic side of Empire