17 November, 2009

Enigma of the Hour

Never underestimate London's ability to surprise you. It only takes a little trick of the autumn light to transform, say, Stroudley Walk, E3, into, say, pre-War Turin, on a Sunday evening, or perhaps a Monday morning.

Oh, my dear readers, the light of London will astonish you: subfusc overhead, golden on the ground, with the raking beam of the sun askance. There are a million such metamorphoses on offer in the city. Presently it is almost five in the morning; there is no light outside, only the heavy winds, making the casements chatter. Still, a long shadow is cast before me on the piazza: a metaphysical entity. On the third of December, that is, in a little over two weeks, my son is going to be hacked out of my wife, and into my life. This sort of fact tends to stick in the mind when you'd rather be writing, or sleeping.

My sister brought over her son's cot, no longer needed. It has been put together, and sits at the end of the bed, with garish toys, a cage, waiting. I am reminded of my childhood, when we were to embark on a holiday, en famille, perhaps to Italy, say, to Turin: the plane would be leaving at nine in the morning, and I would have packed the night before, leaving only the toothbrush out for my early ablution. I would sleep unsoundly, or not at all, for I'd be imagining the trip to come, and the bedroom would be in a state of disarray, all undone in anticipation: reordered and unfinished, suspended. To leave my bed, my house, my street, where I'd grown up, even for a week in the sun, seemed an enormous displacement, and already in the dawn taxi to Heathrow, shooting west through the strange wastes of Hounslow on the M4, long shadows before us, I would be seized with the desire to be home again. Do you remember these emotions? This melancholy of limbo, this bating of the breath?

31 July, 2009


Mrs Roth, it seems, has been harbouring a boy. We saw it there on the screen, between his legs, sticking nonchalantly out, not a care in the world: horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. We can't be certain, said the woman; it could be a large clitoris. But there was no mistaking that member. His name, come four months, will be Owen. Owen Roth, 'tis a handsome name, is it not?

21 July, 2009

Alexandra Park, crépuscule

I had been cooped all day at the Library. When I got home, against the night, I was restless, walkative. To see a place in the dark. Alas, so few places will be dark in the city, what with all the sodium lampadaires. Nothing is handsome in dun orange, nothing promissory. One has to find a natural darkness to obtain the possibility of promise. This can be achieved even in daylight. I had found it in the blank corridors and walkways in the weekend shadow of Tower 42; in the hard cavern under the Westway as it crosses Wood Lane, the sun overhead making the dark more spectral and unreal, a gasmasked youth spraying a wall—I had not courage enough to take a picture—and also beside Old Billingsgate, under a rickety jetty beneath Water Lane, at low tide, beyond the comfort of tourists, where the shingle gave way to debris, sand, quick and fungal underfoot, and the river lapped insouciantly at my shoes.

But at night, a natural darkness is found only in the city's parks. Someday after midnight, jump a gate at Regent's Park, cross the boating lake, walk out onto the broad grasses to the north, where we played cricket at school, walk until the trees around the lake are black masses far behind, and the trees edging the Zoo are black masses far ahead. There is no comparable space in London, locked alone in the Park, the sky and the earth differentiated only in shade.

I did not have the benefit of Regent's Park within walking distance. So I made for Alexandra Park, only ten minutes from my door—a space dominated by the palace at the top of the hill, but concealing a reasonable variety within its borders. It was not yet twilight. My path is always through the development, the New River Village. This is, of course, not a village. It is not even like a village. It is a series of contemporary apartment blocks in the young professional style: featureless surfaces, glass, lots of white, a few stilts, empty mock-modernist sculpture, awkward angles, sad stretches of grass, plastic windows and balconies in lime green and purple. They've added a gym and a minuscule art gallery, and built a restaurant into the old canal pumphouse, but still the place has no life. The whole very much resembles an architect's drawing, the sort you see on billboards outside construction-sites. There are a lot of these in the city. I am glad to have one here, at the edge of the park, to cleanse the palate. Walk five minutes into the Village, alongside the canal if you like, or on the tricky pavement shingle, and you are no longer in the redbrick Edwardian wastes of North London. You curve around the back of the Village, and find the old council houses of the Campsbourne Estate, and facing them the reservoir, a dilapidated playground, and then, the entrance to the park.

The reservoir, in fact, is one of the park's secret attractions. Along the eastern edge of the slope down from the palace, hidden by trees. There are three openings to it, from the path (above) that leads up to Bedford Road on the hill.

Each of these latent ways leads to a viewpoint onto the reservoir. I stopped at each, methodically. A man was walking his collies, allowing each off the leash in turn, to yap and frolic, each returning, conscientiously, in a few moments, to restraint, as would I, soon enough. I had a decent shot of a giant slug, the light was still enough, just.

When I first came walking here, I was delighted to find these viewpoints furnished, behind the railings, with wooden frames, against which one can rest to look at the reservoir, and luxuriant with quisquilian foliage. I have long felt an affection for reservoirs, as against ponds and lakes, say those of the Heath. Man finds the basic forms of nature and recreates them; in the process those forms are made meaningful. Pyramids and temples gave purpose and meaning to the mountain, houses gave meaning to the cave, canals to the river, and so reservoirs to the lake. The reservoir is not as grand or impressive as the lake, but it is more significant. It refuses to be beautiful or pretty; rather, its beauty springs from the possibility of meaning.

The other great aesthetic appeal of a reservoir is its privacy. As part of the industrial landscape, you can only ever approach a reservoir, observe it through a fence or other barrier. You can never grasp the meaning of the water, and so never exhaust it. In this taste I find a reflex in myself of the ancient love of order, of hierarchy: the devout kept from the tabernacle. Better to have mystery, the awe of the invisible—subterranean, mechanical, hieratic—than to be left with an open society, bright surfaces, transparency. In such a city, nobody could experience a pleasure like this, a sublime profanation.

The new reservoir buildings, above, completed this year, are a great disappointment. The ideal reservoir architecture is castellar, like the Edwardian turrets around Lockwood, or the brute concrete hulk (1955) on Siward's Howe, north of York. These are dismal, plastic barns, with bathetic curving roofs, which might have housed a furniture superstore out on the M1. I remember these structures still as skeletons, incomplete. Then they were terrific. Now they dilute and spoil the oppressive intimacy of the landscape.

The sun finally set for good, 8.46 pm, behind another wall of trees ringing the pitches. Let the trees be dull, let the grass be dull, let the barn and stands be dull. Let us seek an aesthetic equipollence in the twilight. I find this an underrated mood. It is a shame, for the city, all cities, excel particularly in it. I hurry up the hill, approaching the palace from the east, through the rose garden—prim and clipped, as you would expect, so as to balance out the lower slopes. In the gloom I can see the inglory of North London spread out into the distance. 7.8 miles away, One Canada Square, the tallest building in the city, but soon to be usurped from this throne, winks sadly at me, as if in acknowledgement of impending senescence. The bus passes, empty, a lit cell passing up to Muswell Hill, through the unsung park. The dusk allows the palace none of the sham magnificence it enjoys during the day, leaving it shabby, ungainly, not sure what to do with itself, and so melancholy, magnificent. It is not beautiful, not like the other Victorian follies, and this cannot be disguised by pointing a camera cleverly. And so it has the park it deserves; or the park has the palace it deserves. The authenticity is commendable.

Returning to Hornsey, down the western slopes, this was as close as I could come to the cricket fields of Regent's Park. The camera would not serve the scene, but you have the idea. The far lights of Wood Green add and detract in equal measure. It is a fair walk, not cold, and there is food on the table, and work still to be done. I do not count the two hours in my log of strolls; I saw nothing new, but only newly the old. The one is material to be memorised; the other, to be cherished and remembered.

16 July, 2009

Shakespeare at Charlecote Park

Since Mrs Roth got out of hospital, I have been reading her Baron Munchausen. The first time I read this, I made the mistake of using one of the many modern bastardised editions—my copy had Ronald Searle illustrations, with a short but hyperbolic introduction by S. J. Perelman—but this time I returned to something like the original text, in a Dover reprint with the Doré plates. (The chapters are a little rearranged, but the prose is much the same.) Munchausen, written in English by a German, Raspe, and first published in 1785, is rife with grammatical peculiarities. When the Baron is posted to keep the Sultan's bees, his duties are
to drive the Sultan's bees every morning to their pasture grounds, to attend them all the day long, and against night to drive them back to their hives.
'Against night'? That Middle English idiom was long dead; the OED's latest citation is Stansby's 1634 Malory, and before that, Lord Berners' archaising 1523 version of Froissart. Raspe, of course, knew it as good current German idiom—gegen Abend, 'as the evening approaches'. Raspe also seems to have had difficulty with preterites: 'In an instant I took my gun from the corner, run down stairs, and out in such a hurry. . .', 'My ball had missed them, yet the foremost pig only run away. . .' The third edition, much expanded, makes the same mistake: 'while the whale was running away with the ship she sprung a leak'. But this expansion, which contains most of the material plundered by Terry Gilliam for his film, was written by a different hand: the anonymous hack paid to continuate Raspe's adventures perpetuated his solecisms as well.


The modern reader who has already heard a few of the Munchausen tales will be startled by the casual brutality of the original narrative. A fox is literally flogged out of its skin, a wolf eats its way through a horse's body and becomes trapped in the carcase, another horse has its rear end dissevered by a falling portcullis, and keeps on running nonetheless—in the continuation, the Baron nonchalantly slaughters 'several thousand' polar bears:
I had heard an old army surgeon say a wound in the spine was instant death. I now determined to try the experiment, and had again recourse to my knife, with which I struck the largest in the back of the neck, near the shoulders, but under great apprehensions, not doubting but the creature would, if he survived the stab, tear me to pieces. However, I was remarkably fortunate, for he fell dead at my feet without making the least noise. I was now resolved to demolish them every one in the same manner, which I accomplished without the least difficulty; for although they saw their companions fall, they had no suspicion of either the cause or the effect. When they all lay dead before me, I felt myself a second Samson, having slain my thousands.

Clearly, this is not a book most parents will want to read to their children. Later, the Baron finds himself with King David's sling in his pocket, and uses it to extricate his friends from a pickle. This episode gives rise to a digression on the sling. "You wish (I can see by your countenances) I would inform you how I became possessed of such a treasure as the sling just mentioned. (Here facts must be held sacred.)" (The insistence on probity and accuracy had been a motif of the outrageous fable since Lucian's True History; at the start of Baron Munchausen, the Baron's fidelity is testified at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's seat, 'in the absence of the Lord Mayor', by Sinbad, Aladdin and Gulliver.) In this digression, the history of the sling intersects with another body of folklore:
One of its possessors, my great-great-great-grandfather, who lived about two hundred and fifty years ago, was upon a visit to England, and became intimate with a poet who was a great deer-stealer; I think his name was Shakespeare: he frequently borrowed this sling, and with it killed so much of Sir Thomas Lucy's venison, that he narrowly escaped the fate of my two friends at Gibraltar. Poor Shakespeare was imprisoned, and my ancestor obtained his freedom in a very singular manner. Queen Elizabeth was then on the throne, but grown so indolent, that every trifling matter was a trouble to her; dressing, undressing, eating, drinking, and some other offices which shall be nameless, made life a burden to her; all these things he enabled her to do without, or by a deputy! and what do you think was the only return she could prevail upon him to accept for such eminent services? setting Shakespeare at liberty! Such was his affection for that famous writer, that he would have shortened his own days to add to the number of his friend's.
Ho ho ho, said the reader of 1786, by which time the Bard's reputation had been solidified; the literate gentleman knew this bit of lore, Shakespeare the Deer-Stealer, quite well. It was Rowe, in the seminal biography he prefixed to his 1709 edition of the Works, who had given the story popular currency:
[The young Will Shakespeare] had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
Exciting, eh? The Greatest Writer of all Time™ began life as a mischievous rebel: not wicked, just naughty enough for a little frisson of insubordinacy. Mort aux vaches, indeed. Only last week was I browsing my little 1903 octavo of the Essays of Douglas Jerrold, Bard enthusiast and author of the bizarre satire, 'Shakespeare in China', when I chanced across his prose vignette, 'Shakespeare at Charlecote Park'.
One of the culprits was specially distinguished from his companions, more by the perfect beauty of his face than by the laughing unconcern that shone in it. He seemed about twenty-two years of age, of somewhat more than ordinary stature, his limbs combining gracefulness of form with manly strength. . . And as he doffed his hat to a fair head that looked mournfully at him from an upper casement, his broad forehead bared out from his dark curls in surpassing power and amplitude. It seemed a tablet writ with a new world.
Shakespeare's escape, here as in Munchausen, is obscure: "The servants rushed to the cellar—but the birds were flown. How they effected their escape remaineth to this day a mystery, though it cannot be disguised that heavy suspicion fell upon four of the maids." And as with Munchausen, Jerrold insists that the story was corroborated, in this case by one 'John-a-Combes'.

The legend has become something of a totem or shibboleth among Shakespeare scholars. Thus Sam Schoenbaum, one of the most influential of the poet's biographers, dismisses it as 'a picturesque relation deriving, one expects, from local Stratford lore passed on to Rowe's informant, the actor Betterton'. Schoenbaum notes that Lucy had no park at Charlecote until 1618, two years after Shakespeare's death; the apparent evidence of a pregnant pun in The Merry Wives of Windsor is dismissed as a coincidence, and not much of one.
One wonders if the legend might not have originated in Stratford long after The Merry Wives of Windsor was written and its author dead, among locals who read the play, recollected jests about luces and louses, and interpreted the passage in accordance with their own resentment against a powerful neighbourhood family.
"Time plays tricks," he concludes, sounding for a moment like a smug Iain Sinclair; "events merge." But he does not deny the story's romantic appeal, quoting Sir Thomas's descendant, Alice Fairfax-Lucy: "If it were ever authoritatively disproved, children of the future would be deprived of something that for centuries has made the poet live for them." And he allows that certain respectable scholars, including A. L. Rowse, give the tale credence.

René Weis, a Romantic at heart, when he came to write his own Shakespeare biography a few years ago, concluded that there wasn't much of interest still to be said on the subject, unless one simply accepted all the stories ever told about the Bard. What if. . . ? It is an original approach, in this sceptical age, to be sure. And a fun book. Weis has an entire chapter, not unexpectedly, on the Deer-Stealer. This passage is typical of the book:
Though its credibility has been repeatedly impugned, this is the only account with roots reaching back into the seventeenth century to offer any explanation for Shakespeare's abandonment of his wife and family. At the very least it has the authority of a written source with links as far back as Shakespeare's lifetime, and unless there is a reason to think that Rowe, and with him Betterton and, possibly, Davenant, aimed to mislead posterity, there is no good reason to distrust Rowe.
The argument from authority comes into its own on the next page:
Rowe had no interest in making up a scabrous piece of gossip. It is worth remembering that the greatest Shakespeare scholar and antiquarian of the nineteenth century, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, and Sidney Lee, the author a classic essay [sic] on Shakespeare in the original DNB, both admired and trusted Rowe.
We should trust Rowe's story, not for any intrinsic plausibility, but because two scholars of a century later admired his moral character. Sure, it's preposterous, but what else was Weis going to make of the afternoon he'd spent reading O H-P and Sidney Lee? About the deer, Weis has clearly done his homework, but his evidence never rises above the fabulously circumstantial. True, there was no deer park at Charlecote until 1618, but
There was certainly a warren, with plenty of game in it for hunting, including hare, pheasants and roe deer—the roes of Charlecote may have been in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe' in Taming of the Shrew. . . As a game reserve, the Lucys' warren was patrolled by several gamekeepers; they were there for a purpose, and perhaps one of them arrested the young Shakespeare.
Weis does himself a disservice with all this hedging. Let our leaps be unbridled! Let our baseless assertions at least be made with some deuced conviction, like in the good old days! Damn it man, the roes of Charlecote were in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote 'fleeter than the roe'; a gamekeeper at Lucy's warren did arrest the young Shakespeare. And he was subsequently freed when an old Monkhouse solved an itchy problem for Good Queen Bess. If we would embrace a legendary of Shakespeare, the latter story is as good as the first. No, better. We live in a gelded age, my friends. Munchausen is now only ever by proxy. We no longer have tall tales; only lies, and historians.

07 June, 2009


Anthony Sutcliffe's London: An Architectural History (2006) is a useful book, if rather odd in some respects. Useful for providing a reasonable discussion of a wide range of buildings, both well and less known, and comprehensively illustrated. Odd for the sudden outbursts of scorn ornamenting its general level of dispassion. For instance, Sutcliffe interrupts a review of Victorian public architecture for a rant against the 'Outright Bad Design' of R. L. Roumieu, labelling him 'the McGonagall of London design'. He sneers at Roumieu's often admired Dutch façades on De Beauvoir Square as 'crude Tudor detailing', and labels the architect's masterpiece, 33-35 Eastcheap, 'grotesque' and 'brutal'. (Incidentally, Ian Nairn does not 'condemn' the work, as Wiki claims; if you were familiar with the rhythms of that critic's thought, you would not reach that judgement of this passage—
Victorian wildness can come from half a dozen causes, from mere fashion to cantankerousness. But this is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allen Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare. Like Poe, and unlike Horace Walpole or a modern detective novel, the horror is no game. Acutely pointed arches shrink away in front of the windows, the wall shrinks back in half a dozen varieties of terrified chamfer. Demolition is in the air; but it must be preserved—not as an oddity, but as a basic part of human temperament, and one which doesn't often get translated into architecture.)
So Sutcliffe has some character as a critic, even if he is no Nairn. But more interesting than Sutcliffe's quirks of taste is his candid reflection of his—our—age. From the introduction:
It is now difficult to go inside most London buildings. Churches have been a problem for many years, but since 11 September 2001 security and general suspicion have made matters worse. My 'Stop and Search' by a City policeman near the Monument was entirely courteous and indeed informative but it took thirty minutes, by which time the light had gone. I often shied away from encounters with security staff and other employees.
Sutcliffe's eye is therefore not the omniscient lens that one expects from an art-book; it is human and frail, clinging unabashed to chance and contingency. This was the real surprise of the book, and at moments the real pleasure. It means bizarre photographs like this one, transposing the glorious red brick of St Pancras to a wintry 1960s Moscow:

Elsewhere, a shot of the Caledonian Market clock tower is captioned: 'The threatening sky emerged mysteriously when this picture was developed.' Security paranoia, meanwhile, reaches its peak in the caption to a glorious old aerial panorama of Pentonville Prison: 'The author did not dare photograph the prison at a time of great tension.' This isn't at all ridiculous; stories abound. A notorious instance occurred two months ago, when an Austrian tourist was approached by two coppers (or possibly PCSOs, as one blogger has observed) and made to delete his photographs of double-decker buses and a modern bus-station, because taking pictures of London transport allegedly contravened some anti-terror legislation. There is indeed a seeping fume of suspicion, and it did not immediately follow 9/11, nor even the London bombings of 2005.

I myself, who take pictures every Sunday on my walks, have only encountered narrowed eyes once, and not those of the Met. I was up in Walthamstow—not far from where the Austrian tourists were shanghaied—examining the Town Hall, which I can't quite decide if I like. It does at least have a fine interior, and a full complement of chunky mid-century relief sculpture on the fronting columns:

Anyway, there I was, camera in hand, in the blazing light of day, the stone so bright my eyes were beginning to hurt, when a middle-aged Carribean woman approached me and asked 'if she could help me'. She was not, of course, asking if she could help. Her tone allowed no doubt: she meant, You do not belong here, please leave. This was officialdom shaking its suspicious stick. Nonetheless, she had, strictly speaking, asked if she could help me. I replied that I would love a cup of tea. She was not moved. What did I want here? I pointed at the building—a fine specimen, isn't it, I exclaimed with a false jollity. In retrospect, I should have taken a photograph of her, there and then. But she continued to watch me darkly until I sidled off, admittedly content with the pictures I had. I felt the thrill of having rubbed up against genuine oppression, but also a disappointment at the mildness, the tameness, of said oppression.


There is a historical precedent for all this. On September 13, 1786, a 37 year-old Goethe, in the course of his Italian tour, and in the face of strong winds on the road, stopped at Malcesine, near Verona in northern Italy. The next morning he went to visit the town's old castle; he sat on a step next to a locked gate, and began drawing the castle's tower. As he sat, people began to appear, until at last
one man came up to me, not of the best appearance, and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was sketching the old tower, as a memento of Malcesine. Thereupon he said that this was not allowed, and I should stop it. This he said in the common Venetian tongue, so that I really could hardly understand him, and so I answered that I could not understand him. Then he seized my paper with a true Italian Gelassenheit [best translated into Anglo-French: somewhere between sangfroid, nonchalance, and désinvolture], tore it up, and left it lying on my board.
The podestà, magistrate, is fetched, and asks Goethe why he is sketching the Festung or fortress; the young wag replies ich dieses Gemäuer nicht für eine Festung anerkenne, 'I don't credit these mere walls as a fortress'—'I prompted him and the crowd to consider the ruination of this tower and these walls, the lack of a gate, in short, the defencelessness of the entire situation, and assured him that I thought myself to be seeing and drawing nothing but a ruin.' Then comes the key passage:
Someone answered me: If it be only a ruin, what about it could then appear worthy of consideration? I replied very anfractuously, seeking time and favour, that they knew how many tourists wanted to travel to Italy purely for the ruins—that Rome, capital of the world, laid waste by the barbarians, remained full of ruins, which were sketched hundreds and hundreds of times—and that not everything from antiquity had been so well preserved as the amphitheatre at Verona, which I hoped to see soon as well.
Thus: Romanticism. The scene at Malcesine is suddenly transformed from an irrelevant squabble into a dramatised conflict between the aesthete, with his love of mediaeval ruins, and civic authority, which sees the fortress not as a beautiful work of architecture, but only as a site of political significance. It is observed to Goethe that the tower marks the boundary-line between the territories of Venice and the Emperor's Kaiserstaat, und deshalb nicht ausspioniert werden solle, and therefore ought not to be spied upon. The Italians worry that Goethe is an agent of Joseph II, a 'restless' man. Our hero replies that he is in fact from Frankfurt and in no thrall to the Emperor; a local Malcesinesco named Gregorio steps in and everything is sorted out, but not before Goethe gets a chance to practice his Italian, waxing lyrical to the throng on the desolate glamour of the scene at hand. (Goethe was not in fact arrested, as Wiki claims. Apparently that famous website is not always accurate.)

The 1786 story neatly mirrors today's clashes between photographic scurriers, their eyes out for the beautiful, the delapidated, the unexpected, the recondite, the fascinatively hideous; and local officials who can understand the urban landscape merely in terms of its civic and political function. Deviance, no matter how undeviant when seen in the context of culture or history, must be barred and debilitated.

[Update 05/07/09: I am stopped outside Crystal Palace station, during a routine Sunday stroll, by cops with sniffer dogs. Somehow, mirabile dictu, the hounds fail to detect the sizeable quantities of smack and blow stashed under both my oxters. Despite my (apparent) innocence, the officer requests my name, date of birth and address. 'Routine procedure, sir.' I ask if I am compelled by law to give my details, and he admits that I am not, but then tries to trick me. 'And what did you say your name was again, sir?' Could he not tell by my very voice that I am not one of his usual subjects, blasted and dupeable, with plenty to hide? He speaks into his walkie-talkie, in an attempt to intimidate me. I confess that I was a little intimidated. But I did not give. Still, at last—a police encounter with real menace! Another authentic London experience to cross off the To Do list. Jellied eels next week, cum liquore.]

03 June, 2009

fauteuil de nuages

It is a little disconcerting, although perhaps appropriate, gruesomely, to our atomised age, to learn of a friend's death via Wikipedia. I had not seen Stanley around the Library recently, and a month ago he was doing very poorly; he had been in hospital, and was sluggish of moment, suddenly his age—eighty-three—after years, presumably decades, of sprightliness. He said that he felt it was the end, but I thought this simply a figure of speech. He said he would come to dinner, sample my wife's cooking; but now that will have to wait. Neither the Times nor any of its competitors seem to have run an obituary, which saddens me. It is not mine to write here. But I will remember fondly his widescreen disdain for almost everything: for A. S. Byatt, 'the big armchair', for Iain Sinclair, who 'insists on starting all his sentences with 'And'', for a play, for a poem, for all the poseurs of today's avant-garde. I was touched that he always expressed a warmth for me, taking me by the arm when we parted. For the last two years, when I knew him, he spent his days doing not much of anything at the Library, just reading, whatever came to hand, under his enormous beard, free.

31 May, 2009


In Book 21 of Teofilo Folengo's Baldus (1517), a spoof epic in macaronic hexameters—that is, half Latin, half Italian, the latter frequently provincial—the eponymous hero and his friends find themselves in battle with a dragon or serpent (anguis, serpens, draco, drago, dragus, according to taste); finally, after one warrior rides its back and punches it to the ground, on the verge of death, it transforms into a formosa putina. . . cui nomen Smiralda fuit, de gente luparum, a beautiful girl by name of Smiralda, of the race of she-wolves. Falchetto, the dog-man leading the attack on the dragon, is about to duff Smiralda up too, but she entreats him:
Talibus ingannans, Falchettum porca carezzat
barbozzoque eius digitis putanella duobus
fat squaquarinellum, velut est ars vera piandi,
sive carezzandi menchiones atque dapocos. (ll. 446-449)
The putanella, little whore, fat squaquarinellum eius barbozzo duobus digitis: she does something to his chin [barbozzo in dialect, see here] with two fingers. The poem's recent translator, Ann Mullaney, renders the passage:
Tricking him with such words, the pig caresses Falchetto; the little whore takes his chin between two fingers and gives it a small tug, in accordance with the true art of getting and stroking dolts and low-lifes.
In Emilio Faccioli's 1989 translation into modern Italian, this squaquarinellus is given as 'con due dita gli va titillando il barbozzo'. Folengo's own phrase derives from the Mantuan idiom far squaquarin, which Cherubini paraphrases as far vezzi, that is, 'to fondle, caress, flatter'. The word seems to come in turn from the verb squaquarare, which appears three times in the poem: 1.144, 7.437, and 24.39, translated variously 'to sport', 'to live it up', and 'to soak up', where Cherubini offers ciarlare (to chat) and gozzovigliare (to carouse). The more usual meaning is 'to soften, quicken, loosen', also 'to shit, blurt out, reveal a secret', with connotations of both diarrhoea and soft cheese, two Dalinian motifs that occur throughout the poem.

At any rate, it strikes me that Smiralda's chin-pulling alludes to the well-known gesture made by Thetis when entreating Zeus at Iliad 1.501: she dexiterēi d' ar' hup' anthereōnos helousa, takes hold of his chin from below with her right hand, while at 8.371 Athena reports that Thetis ellabe cheiri geneiou, grasped [Zeus'] chin with her hand. (Compare 10.454, where the Trojan spy Dolon is about to do the same to Diomedes.) This gesture is illustrated in Ingres' rather garish and ungainly early painting:

Samuel Butler, in a notorious 1892 lecture arguing for the poem's female authorship, remarks, à propos of this passage, that 'it is still a common Italian form of salutation to catch people by the chin. Twice during the last summer I have been so seized in token of affectionate greeting, once by a lady and once by a gentleman.' Butler's holiday reminiscences aside, Thetis is not making the gesture as an 'affectionate greeting'—she is indicating her suppliancy. For Walter Leaf, who, like Butler, translated the Iliad, with a little help from his friends, the action suggests a beaten warrior who 'can only clasp his enemy's legs to hamper him, and turn aside his face so that he cannot see to aim the final blow, until he has at least heard the prayer for mercy'. R. B. Onians, in his fantastical Origins of European Thought (1951), disputes Leaf's interpretation, arguing that the chin (geneios), like the knee (gonu), is related to genus and generation: 'this would also explain why the chin, as if holy in the same way as the knee, was clasped by the Greek suppliant'.

Folengo's Smiralda, whose name has already been misheard as Smerdola two hundred lines earlier, is not humbly entreating Falchetto. Her gesture is instead ironic, a two-fingered teasing or chucking of the chin, softening Falchetto's heart and brain: a solicitative trollop, Thetis in burlesque.

24 May, 2009


Imagine you're a harmless drudge. You've been assigned the task of scouring the works of Sir Thomas Browne for new words, or new uses of old words, or antedatings, and so you sit in your bright-lit windowless cubicle, poring over Urne Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus, and then it's on to Religio Medici, and finally the Vulgar Errors. In the last of these, not quite as lexically fecund as the other works, you stumble on this:
What therefore may consist with history, by cessation of Oracles with Montacutius we may understand their intercision, not abscission or consummate desolation; their rare delivery, not total dereliction, and yet in regard of divers Oracles, we may speak strictly, and say there was a proper cessation.
You have little understanding of what it means, since you are only a humble word-spotter. And the word you spot, in this case, is intercision. You check your lists, and those of your colleagues; nothing yet. The word, whatever it means, is contrasted with 'consummate desolation', so it must mean something less than a complete destruction, and it must correspond in some degree to 'rare delivery'. More than that is hard to say. You check Cockeram, who says it means 'An intreating in ones behalf', clearly confusing it with intercession, which he has just defined as 'An intreaty in ones behalf'. You check Blount, who has 'a cutting off in the midst', from Latin intercisio. Clearly, whatever intercision means, it has a lot to do with intercisio. Du Cange merely has 'injuria', which seems to help little. How about modern Latin dictionaries? Lewis and Short offers 'a cutting through'. The OLD has nothing.

You are not stuck yet; intercisio, you reason, is clearly a nominal form of the verb intercido, which in turn is inter (between) and caedo (cut). So what do your lexica say on the verb? Here you strike gold. Lewis and Short list two intercidos: the first is 'to cut asunder, cut up, divide, pierce, cut through, part, divide, mangle, destroy', this clearly corresponding to the listed noun. But there is another: 'to fall between, to occur meanwhile, to happen, to fall to the ground, to go to ruin, be lost, perish'. This is promising. OLD, likewise, has 'to fall between, to be lost or wasted, go astray; to be lost from memory, fall into oblivion, be forgotten; to perish incidentally, to be destroyed during an action; to cease to exist, be lost, lapse, fail'. Intercisio, and therefore intercision, must have been formed from one of these verbs, each differing in shade. But which?


This is the classic problem of the neologism. Without an accepted context and range of meanings, a consuetudo, it can be impossible to determine the meaning of a word. It turns out, however, that intercision is not a neologism. In one context, in fact, it is common: the theology of grace. Lutheran doctrine held that it was possible for a member of the elect to fall from grace forever; Calvinism held that this was impossible, for a man's sin cannot override the divine act of bestowing grace. Thus Peter, who denied Christ, was nonetheless saved. This fall from grace is called intercisio or intercision; but even here the meaning is not clear-cut, at least in English. In 1626, the Cornish theologian Francis Rous published his Testis veritatis, writing:
God is for the Saints all the way from the first foreknowledge, unto the finall glory; what Arminius or [Peter] Bertius can make any Apostacy to be against us, when God is throughly for us? God being stedfast with us from Election to glorification, no interloper can come in with intercision to cut off and put a sunder this continued chaine of happinesse, which God hath joynd together and guardeth all the way.
In the same year, George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester, argues likewise: 'This is certaine, all is not gone, all is not cut off by intercision; here is a Seede of God abiding. . . If all be not falne away, then this man in whom it abideth can not fall totally.' In both of the above quotations, intercision sounds like something permanent. Carleton returns to the theme in 1629, claiming that 'Man cannot by any sinne make void any act of Gods', and arguing against the possibility of 'an intercision of justifying grace, caused by the sinnes of the flesh'.

In 1633 George Downham, Bishop of Derry, thinks it 'ridiculous' that 'there should bee an intercision of justification (which I proved before to be a continued act) so oft as there is an intermission of the act of faith'. Here the intercision seems more temporary, as a phenomenon accompanying an intermission. A similar meaning is found outside a theological context, in 1641, when John Jackson notes, 'there hath beene of late an intercision, and interruption herein'.

Ambiguous also is a line from a 1627 oration by Thomas Gataker: 'Their death is rather a departing, or a going out of this world, or a passage to heaven, or a returne to God, then a deceasing, or surceasing, or intermission, or intercision, yea, or diminution, either of life, or of their good or happy estate.' We are tangled up by conjunctions: the or cannot always be an 'or rather', but may be between intermission and intercision, or intercision and diminution. Trying to pinpoint the exact meaning of 'intercision' comes down to a morass of hard-to-determine textual passages of uncertain relations to one another.

The OED lists the Browne passage under the meaning 'The action of cutting off the course of, stopping, or interrupting, esp. temporarily; the fact of being interrupted or ceasing for a time.' Immediately preceding the Browne is a quotation from one Richard Montagu—in Latin, Montacutius—Bishop of Norwich, Browne's home-town. The passage in full runs:
Doth ARMINIUS maintaine touching finall Perseverance, (you must tell mee, my good Informers, for I have not read him) that sometime the Called and Elect of God, the Chosen ones and Justified by Faith, such as S. PETER was, though they doe fall totally for a Time, shall yet recover necessarily againe, and not fall away finally, or for ever? If this be Arminianisme, and so his conclusion, then therein He holdeth with ARMINIUS. But I have bin assured, that ARMINIUS did hold as the Lutherans in Germany doe, not only Intercision for a Time, but also Abscission and Abjection too, for ever.
This in fact is from Montagu's 1625 Appello Caesarem, against which Rous published his Testis the following year. The last line looks suspiciously similar to Browne's 'intercision, not abscission', and the entry's compiler must have thought that Browne was referring to this in writing 'with Montacutius'. Montagu's 'Intercision for a Time' is clearly the same intercision as Downham's and Jackson's: an interruption, rather than the permanent sundering of Rous and Carleton. If this is Montagu's intercision, then presumably it is Browne's too. In 1647, John Trapp seems to make a similar distinction when he writes that 'Happy for us, that we are kept by the power of God to salvation, 1 Pet. 1. 5. for else it were possible for us to fall away and perish: an intercision there might be, nay an utter excision from Christ'.

The problem is that the 1625 passage is not the origin of Browne's words, at least not directly. Browne is in fact translating another line from Montagu from Latin. This is from his 1635 refutation of the ecclesiastical history of Baronius, and glosses the word cessare, normally translated as 'cease':
Cessare dicitur id, quod cum olim in usu frequentissimo fuisset, postea rarissime adhibetur: non penitus autem cessare, sed respectu prioris frequentissimi usus. Secundo, Cessare dicitur aliquid dupliciter: vel per Intercisionem ad aliquod tempus; vel per Abscisionem, et desolationem consummatam.
To paraphrase: cessare is what happens when a frequent activity becomes much rarer, without necessarily stopping altogether. And cessare can mean either an intercisio, or an abscision or consummate desolation. It is clear, Montagu continues, that the cessatio of the oracles was not an abscisio, but only an intercisio, for the oracles continued to speak thereafter. The natural reading of this passage is that after the cessatio, the oracles were still delivered, only much less frequently; in other words, that they fell into disuse. One might compare Quintilian: 'verba intercidant invalescantque temporibus', 'words become obsolete or current with the lapse of years'. This is not only the natural reading, it is consonant with what many other people had written about the oracles. To understand the word this way, therefore, would necessitate not only knowing other uses of intercisio, but also the contemporary discourse about this rather arcane subject: and how many lexicographers would be capable of that?

The 1625 passage, with its 'Intercision for a Time', seems to resolve the question in the other direction: presumably, though not necessarily, Montagu intended the same distinction in each case, and by intercisio and intercision meant a temporary interruption in proceedings. The oracles, then, would stop being given, but then later return. Nobody else, to my knowledge, ever argued this. And so the claim has a rather spectral quality to it: it rests on no consuetudo, and has no support other than the use of a similar word in a different language in a different work. If Montagu's Appello had been lost, we would have had, I think, to read differently his intercisio, and so Browne's intercision. All of a sudden, the meaning of this word, a museum-piece, looks highly contingent.

19 May, 2009

The Shrine of Ammon

Upper Clapton, on the edge of the largest Hasid community in London, just north of the old Murder Mile, an urim's throw from the Lea, and from the cricket grounds alongside Springfield Park, on the corner of the Common, by the fountains, with children being children and the buses idling by, and the endless young women in long black skirts, with their remarkable faces, on a bright Sunday afternoon, presaging an evening of poetry, I find myself in the Good Shepherd, originally erected for the Agapemonites, and latterly occupied by the Georgian Orthodox Church. I politely ask an elder lady, the only person inside, when the church was built.

Ahh, she says, after a pause. Tuesday Saturday.

— No, when was it built? The date, when built?

Ahh. Easter!

The lady's English is evidently somewhat limited. The building, when built? Building. It is curious that we should slip into this sort of bastard pidgin when dealing with those not so gifted with the tongue, as if we were talking to a small child or retard. Still, it is a natural reflex.

Oh. Sixtin centry?

I shake my head. No, I smile, it can't be earlier than the late nineteenth century. But never mind, it's not important.

— And why you want know? You Orthodox?

No, not that.


No, atheist. I don't believe in God.

You no believe God? Why you no believe God?

I reply that I think the language barrier between us too great for that conversation. She tries to convince me that Britain was Orthodox before it was Catholic. In return I try to explain, with some patience, that this is not true, and that in fact Orthodoxy and Catholicism only became distinct religions about four hundred years after Britain was officially Christianised.

You young pipple, you no understand history. You go read history book.

Come, she wants to show me something. In the dark recess of the church is an icon, painted or possibly printed on cloth, fraying authentically at the edges. The image is a rather gangrenous, Gothic Jesus, staring reproachfully out at me.

— You understand, says the lady, when we have this, it all like this, white, dark. Then, last year, you see? She points to the area around the right eye. Is red. Is blood. This is living person here. Then, the day after, varr between Russia Georgia, varr, you understand?

Oh. It's magic, I say, somewhat startled. She gives me a stern look. It's a miracle, I repeat, nodding my head.

— Yes, miracle. It's miracle. So now you Christian.

Yes, yes, you convinced me. That's amazing.

— Come, come, I baptise you. She takes me by the shoulder. Not today, I fear. I'll come back next week, I promise. I ask to take a picture of the icon. Yes, yes, she beams. I explain that I will bring news of the Orthodox Church, spread its message. We introduce ourselves; she's delighted. It seems a better solution to the situation than simply marching off, or, indeed, being baptised. I'm not ready for the font and aspergill quite yet. In the light of day the world is a little more magical, a little more miraculous; if I have not truly been converted, at least a strange corner of London has acquired that bit more mythical resonance—place made of a space, crisis memorialised in an artist's blood, the heart of a religion yet beating, even surrounded by civic indifference, cynicism, rationalism. I smile, tease, but do not sneer in earnest. I am too curious.

Peiresc explained his willingness to believe the unbelievable, such as the possibility of seeing through walls, because he had himself 'seen things, so incredible without having seen them, that I am, in faith, almost disposed not to be surprised by any other'. —Peter Miller.
Had the Georgian lady seen such things, things incredible to you or me? Had she been victim of a fraud? Perpetrator? Was she insane, stupid? Did she simply allow herself to believe, because believing explained everything that needed explaining? The small accounts for the great, the dash of red on a picture for the reality of the Godhead, Christ, the Spirit, who proceeds from God the Father, and not the Son, thank you very much.

Plutarch. 'Demetrius went so far as to say that it was ridiculous to try in this way to draw great conclusions from small data, not, as Alcaeus puts it, "painting the lion from a single claw," but with a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe.' Cleombrotus has just suggested that, since the lamp of the shrine of Ammon consumes less oil each year, so the years must be getting shorter. He responds to Demetrius: 'not to allow that small things are indication of great stands directly in the way of many arts; for it will result in taking away from us the demonstration of many facts and the prognostication of many others.' Proof and prophecy go together, deduction and induction.

I wanted to ask her how, even if she knew it was a sign, she knew she had interpreted it correctly, and what sort of assumptions she had to have in place already before she could reach the conclusion she did. These are the very questions I ask of my scholarly protagonists, such as Peiresc or Plutarch; I fear she would have been just as unable to answer them as the long dead. I wonder, too, what questions I would be at a loss to answer.

01 May, 2009

Flow gently, sweet Afton

You know when you haven't e-mailed someone for a while, and you feel you ought to, but the longer you leave it, the more embarrassed you feel about not contacting them, and the longer still you want to leave it? Well, so it is with the Varieties. Still I walk—a jaunt from Heathrow to London; a stretch in Waltham and Leyton, where the word alright has become a mere two schwas of rising intonation; a saunter through the campus at Imperial, where hard science and technology are symbolised architecturally by flat glass façades in royal blue and hot pink; East Finchley Cemetery, where the dead are erased from memory, as with poor Henry and Agnes Ritchie, above; and so on and so on. Still I read—Lost Girls in the Library this week, amid a sea of prim Courtauldians sharing out table-space between Foucault and Tiepolo, I relish the thrill of postmodern fin-de-siècle child-porn drawn après Beardsley, Mucha and Schiele. Still I write—my 15,000-word, rather Varietesque opus on the Golden Bough should be coming out in a month or two, and I am already several thousand into a new piece on tripod iconography. In the Roth household, life goes on, and even promises to increase in number. All is well. Sure, there is a certain void, where once were varieties. But this will pass. It always does.