Monday, November 28, 2011

Dad and documentation

Lately I have commenced the awesome task of sorting through and identifying the Trumble family papers that are ultimately destined for the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Dad’s run of scrapbooks is fascinating because he kept everything—pretty much in chronological order—a confetti of mementoes of professional and domestic life from 1949 to the 1980s. Nothing he regarded as too trivial to escape notice and preservation. Beyond the scrapbooks, however, there are hundreds of other documents and photographs that came from previous generations—a group of long letters, for example, from the novelist Mary Grant Bruce to her lifelong friend our great-grandmother Borthwick and to her daughters, Aunt Jean and Aunt Kath, which seem to imply that various aspects of the Billabong stories, and of the Linton family of Gippsland, were based at least in part on the Borthwick family of Bald Hills near Sale. As well there is a sheaf of more official papers. This one is typical. Evidently inspired by the glorious Trumble heritage of test cricket, Dad put each of his sons up for junior membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club—at birth. Here is Hamish’s docket, lodged when he was a fraction more than two months old, on March 14, 1956. The annotation down below “Hamish David Campbell Trumble / plse Edgar” is a courteous instruction to Edgar Parker, who for years served as a law clerk (I think, I hope I am right about that) at Mallesons, and as the designated custodian of valuable and/or important documents that Dad preferred to keep under lock and key in the office: documents such as deeds, titles, share certificates, passports, and the completed nomination forms for his four sons’ junior membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club. As I recall, Mr. Parker began his lifelong career of devoted service to the partners of Mallesons as a junior deputy to the ancient Mr. Ted Russell, ultimately rising in the mid-1970s to be in charge of the files, which in those days were still folded in half down the middle and tied with red tape. Files pertaining to dormant matters were customarily retained for a period of about fifteen years, after which time they were put in large canvas bags and consigned to an industrial incinerator, to make way for the next year’s accumulation of files. The task of doing this was allotted to the teenaged sons of partners during the first few weeks of the Christmas holidays, and so it was that in the summer of 1979 Mr. Parker became my very first boss, and an exceedingly kind and benevolent one he was too. I was fifteen, but looked closer to nine.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


A generous colleague from the Ohio State University has lately written to ask me whether, when writing The Finger: A Handbook, I had ever come across any references to marginalia having been inscribed with the reader’s thumb-nail. In The Rivals (1:2) Richard Brinsley Sheridan has Lydia Languish refer to Lady Slattern, who “has a most observing thumb; and…cherishes her nails for the convenience of making marginal notes.” He goes on to say, quite correctly, that there is a similar observation made in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and asks me whether I know if the practice in fact ever existed. Alas, I had never come across either of these intriguing references. Presumably the idea was that Lady Slattern’s thumbnail was maintained in such a way—even pared down to a sharp point—so as not merely to mark the passage more effectively with an indentation, à la manicule (above) but to annotate busily also, which might conceivably require doing to it what one does with a sharp knife to the tip of a quill. Tatiana learns much about Onegin in his library, specifically from the marks of his pencil and thumbnail in the margins of various books, which implies a distinction there between pencilled notes and indented marks and/or underlinings done with his thumb-nail. I very much doubt if the quill-sharpening step was ever undertaken, so the joke in Sheridan must be about officiousness, or maybe inquisitiveness, or even interference, in other words making of Lady Slattern some sort of equivalent of P. G. Wodehouse’s glorious creation “the efficient Baxter.” I am guessing. I daresay the phenomenon may relate, however approximately, to the concept of “thumb-nail sketch,” although the O.E.D. (“thumb-nail…2. transf. A drawing or sketch of the size of the thumb-nail; hence fig. a brief word-picture. Chiefly attrib., as thumb-nail sketch”) admits no possibility that such a sketch might actually have been produced with the aid of the thumbnail. This would not be the first time that the O.E.D. ever overlooked some forgotten shred of social usage. We know, for example, that eighteenth-century French gentlemen grew the nail of their little finger for the specific purpose of scratching discreetly at doors, to distinguish that refined gesture from the crude knocking of factors, salespeople, or servants. We also know that J. M. W. Turner cultivated a long fingernail as a convenient tool for scraping, chiefly on paper through watercolour, but that is quite a different matter and I am not aware that he ever wrote with it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Agony Column Codes and Ciphers

One of my favourite anthologies contains mostly brief items of correspondence, many of them in code or cipher, that were printed in various London newspapers through the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond: The Agony Column Codes and Ciphers, Wndr, wpng, nd wrshp fllw., by Jean Palmer (Gamlingay, Bedfordshire: Authors Online Limited, 2005). The practice seems to have come into being with the pillar box, and became so widespread that it is mentioned several times in passing by Sherlock Holmes, who boasted of being able to decipher even the most complicated ones quite easily, and “that such crude devices amuse the intelligence without fatiguing it.” Many of the messages are barely encoded at all. Some merely spell words backwards or deploy obvious letter substitutions, or even demotic French, so the question arises as to whether their composers were genuinely concerned about keeping the contents secret. Others, however, are deeply impenetrable, and were certainly meant to protect the identity of the correspondent and recipient. Naturally, most of the messages relate to clandestine assignations, some commercial, possibly even political, but far more often romantic, at a time when evidently no other avenues of written communication were regarded as secure—from suspicious husbands, tyrannical mothers, watchful servants, even unscrupulous telegraph boys eager to do almost anything in return for a modest pourbois. Consider, for example, this slightly tactless appeal that was printed in The Times on Thursday, June 12, 1856: “I have the most beautiful horse in the country, but not the most beautiful lady. Your silence pains me deeply. I cannot forget you.—M.” Or this, from a person who self-identified as “Coach and Horses”: “Will you fulfill your promise this week to your distressed but ever loving Pussy?” (Tuesday, April 5, 1881.) Many others, however, are far less straightforward. In February 1886, readers of the Evening Standard might well have puzzled over the true meaning of this: “The steamer will leave as advertised on Wednesday. The two experiments answered very well. Your request shall be complied with. The box, I hope, is safe. Your own always, most lovingly. Fair and Mild.” Or this: “Yes. Reward would depend on value of information and amount recovered—Q. V. (Daily Telegraph, Saturday, August 8, 1903). And especially this, from the mysteriously restive “Velsa”: “Do you believe in the word platonic?” (Morning Post, Friday, November 6, 1896). Like all such conspicuous genres, this one inevitably attracted eccentric correspondents determined not merely to avail themselves of the platform, but to use it either to air non-problems—“Gentleman in good social position finds that wherever he goes friends ply him with whiskies and soda, which he does not like, and which disagree with him; they resent it if he refuses them. He would like introduction to society in which whisky and soda does not form so important an element. Address R., 01826, “Morning Post” office, Strand, W.C.” (Ibid., Thursday, April 9, 1908)—or to confront real and pressing crises but in so obscure a manner as to be almost entirely ineffectual: “A lady, whose parentage and connections entitle her to respect, if not veneration, has reason to believe that anonymous aspersions and improper letters (purporting to be written by her) are circulating to her discredit. She earnestly hopes that the recipients of any such document will be cautious of the credence they attach to it. (The Times, Friday, April 2, 1852.) Which last example begs the question whether a lady believing herself entitled to veneration therefore might well be capable of drafting improper letters, and concocting a cover story with which to distance herself from the mischief. Or perhaps this simply proves that I have been reading far too many. In any case, I love the Victorians.

Friday, November 18, 2011


I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of aesthetic experiences that one would willingly call life-changing—and I have a full set of fingers. One of these occurred a few years ago, on a visit to the great thirteenth-century temple in Kyoto called the Rengeōin or, more popularly, the Sanjūsangendō, which means the temple of the thirty-three bays. This enormous, plain, shoebox-shaped wooden building houses a colossal statue of Kannon, the feminine manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the seated bodhisattva of infinite compassion. She sprouts forty-two arms, and a forest of hands. An eleven-foot high masterpiece of Japanese sculpture of the Kamakura period (1185–1333 C.E.), Kannon is gloriously flanked by her heavenly cosmic guardians or attendants, the twenty-eight so-called bushū, and 1,000 life-sized, eleven-headed, “thousand-armed” standing statues, representing different versions of herself, carved in cypress-wood, then gilded. Each statue is carefully differentiated from the next, and like its larger prototype, has dozens of pairs of hands, the fingers painstakingly crafted into a bewildering range of delicate gestures. These statues fill the temple, and are carefully accommodated on a gigantic altar consisting of ten ascending steps which accommodate these seemingly numberless ranks of statues. It is said that all Japanese pilgrims should be able to discover their own face peering back from this host of silent bodhisattvas, who, like them, await a higher incarnation. Their fingers are exquisite.

"A masterly portrait, and very like"

I have been thinking quite a lot about portraiture lately, specifically an oddly widespread trope that crops up regularly in many British sources roughly stretching from the 1760s until the late Regency. I have a strong feeling, though it is only a hunch, that the watercolourist, printmaker, and author William Henry Pyne (1770–1843) (who published under the bizarre pseudonym of Ephraim Hardcastle) was well aware of it too when, sketching a semi-historical vignette in a very long and rambling article for Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (“The Greater and Lesser Stars of Old Pall Mall,” Vol. 23, No. 138, June 1841, p. 686) Pyne imagined the Prince of Wales dining with a group of gentlemen at Carlton House, including the Duke of Norfolk, and commenting on a caricature of the Duke by James Gillray. “It really is,” says the Prince, “a masterly portrait, and very like.” Portrait and likeness are two separate things, and the quality of the portrait appears to relate only partly to the accuracy of its likeness to the sitter. This sounds a good deal more familiar to us than it might otherwise where we sit at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, yet writing from Poundisford Park in Somerset to his son and namesake, a young grand tourist temporarily residing in Rome, Ralph William Grey could remark of his son’s portrait by Pompeo Batoni that it is “a very good portrait, and very like you” (Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Björn Kerber, Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 37–38). I seem to recall a similar formulation crossing the lips of an especially garrulous character somewhere in Jane Austen, so it is safe to say that this figure of speech was widespread, but was it taken seriously, and should we also? There are grounds for caution. Pyne has the Prince of Wales utter it, at a time when the Prince’s posthumous reputation could not have sunk lower, and in relation to an object that was demonstrably not a portrait, or not at least a portrait as the term was ranked among the genres in the Academy of the forties, or indeed at any time immediately prior to, during, or after the Regency. In other words, you could argue that Pyne is actually mocking the formulation of “a masterly portrait, and very like,” regarding it in something of the same light as those silly eyes that follow you around the room. Likewise Jane Austen, and, in the many other places in which it recurs, and in Mr. Grey’s letter to son, there would appear to be grounds for consigning the phrase to the dense thicket of mere conventions. Yet even if that is true, the phrase tells us a lot about the accepted conventions of portraiture in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain, and the assumption that the parent concept of portrait was not by any means the same thing as likeness. Useful, I think.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The Yup’ik are aboriginal people of the Russian Far East and of western Alaska. The village of Quinhagak, Alaska—population 680—is primarily Yup’ik. The local fifth grade schoolchildren decided they wanted to send a message to the other Yup’ik communities in the area. So they made this little video, and then posted it on Youtube. Naturally, inevitably, it went viral. Evidently nearly a million people have watched it, all over the world. I especially like the postmistress:

The firescreens

Lately I received a courteous message from a gentleman who recalled having been shown over the state rooms of Government House, Melbourne, by me when I worked as an aide to Governor McCaughey nearly twenty-five years ago. Clearly that tour must have been memorable, and I can only hope that it was memorable for the right reasons. He went on to explain that I had shown him on that occasion an object near one of the fireplaces which he thought I said was for the lady of the house to busy herself behind with tapestry or needlework, while not revealing too much of her face in wider company. Did I recall the object and its name? He explained that the reason he sought clarification was that he is writing an historical novel that is set in 1910.

I well remember the pair of objects to which he refers. They stand at either side of the fireplace in the State Drawing Room, and my correspondent was right in thinking that adjustable firescreens of this kind had to do with the fire in the grate. However, the function of the object was not provide something discreetly to hide behind, but rather to shield a lady’s face from the radiant heat of the fire, so as to avoid unsightly flushing, blushing, or worse. The practice of creating adjustable, embroidered panels with which to decorate such firescreens—here is a rather ugly mid-Victorian one, ornate in a rather cheap way— was a semi-logical convergence of function and pastime. In other words, the embroidery that ladies so positioned (and protected) industriously practiced while sitting by the fire, “flush-free,” was eventually coralled into decorating the screen itself, a depressing example, I suppose, of the pointlessness and circularity of much that went on in the day-to-day life of a Victorian lady, or, as it were, didn’t. Unless, of course, you were George Eliot, Lady Burdett-Coutts, or Mrs. Russell Barrington.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eyes that follow you around the room

One of the strangest art clichés that still circulates endlessly—and I heard it again yesterday uttered by somebody who really ought to know better— is the one about the eyes in a portrait “following you around the room.” This non-illusion arises from somewhat muddled expectations about how a two-dimensional image might behave when seen from different angles in three-dimensional space. Provided the image is not a hologram, we can hardly expect it to take account of our position in the room. If the eyes engage us when we stand directly in front of the picture, they will also engage us from any other viewpoint, despite the distorting effects of foreshortening. I doubt if eyes “following you around the room” have anything at all to do with gothic fiction or those old movies in which real eyes spy through peep-holes cut into the face of a portrait. Of course, they actually do follow you around. I suspect by its slightly supernatural, spiritualist note that we can safely blame the concept of eyes that seem mobile and, worse, intently watching you, on nineteenth-century French art critics, who got a kick out of that sort of thing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Donna Orietta

I have only ever known one continental noblewoman, and even then only slightly. Somehow it seems absolutely right that I should have been introduced to her and to her family in Rome in 1986 by those shrewd but kindly Ladies of Bethany. Donna Orietta Doria Pamphilj, Princess of Torriglia, Princess of Melfi and of Valmontone, Duchess of Avigliano, etc. etc., was far more than their landlady. To a very large extent Princess Doria was a vital and practical patron of their work, and the principal reason why Miss Koet and Miss Galema managed to live for so long in their sunny apartment on the roof of the Collegio Innocenziano at Via dell’Anima, 30, overlooking Bernini’s exceptionally theatrical fontana dei quattro fiumi right in the middle of the Piazza Navona. Donna Orietta spoke English, French, and Italian with complete fluency, and was no doubt therefore entitled to make what at the time seemed the rather suprising observation that I spoke Italian with a Japanese accent. She was rightly proud of the staunch, anti-fascist stance, adopted by her father, Prince Filippo Andrea VI Doria Pamphilj, long before and right the way through World War II, and at considerable personal cost. Having refused to fly a fascist flag, a mob ransacked the Palazzo Doria, and Orietta and her mother hid in an old elevator that they stopped between floors. After the fall of Mussolini and the end of World War II, Don Filippo, who had been imprisoned, first, in a concentration camp, and later hid with his wife and daughter in different safe-houses in Trastevere, plotting with the partisans to dynamite the headquarters of the Waffen SS, which happened to be in the Villa Doria Pamphilj on the Gianicolo, whose cellars Don Filippo explored in early childhood and therefore knew like the back of his hand. He became in 1944 the first postwar sindaco of Rome, a vital role in the transition from allied occupation to the plebiscite in 1946 which abolished the Italian monarchy and established the Italian Republic. Before his death in 1958 the family estates were vast, and, I seem to recall, extended over such extensive southern territories in what was previously the Kingdom of Naples that there existed a family train in which to travel through them, at times escorted by cowboys mounted on horseback, ebulliently firing their rifles into the air by way of tribute. Upon the prince’s death, Donna Orietta had to sort out estate taxes and death duties of colossal size, and resolved to do everything in her power to save the enormous Palazzo Doria, one of the largest in Rome, together with her astonishing collections of art, among them the famous portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez. This she did with the assistance of her English husband Frank Pogson, who took much pleasure in sustaining over many years a cricket club which played socially in the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphilj. That beautiful property eventually had to be made over to the Italian state, but was restored some time during the 1980s, at enormous cost to the Italian taxpayer, in order to provide a suitable venue for entertaining Diana, Princess of Wales.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Ladies of Bethany

The Ladies of Bethany, an order of Dutch nuns, were infinitely kind to me. I first met them when I stayed briefly in their guesthouse in Rome called Foyer Unitas Casa, in the snowy winter of 198485. I was initially referred to them by the redoubtable Thea Waddell, whose son Richard I knew at Trinity. Originally there were four sisters, Miss Luff, Miss Klompé—a sister of Marga Klompé who in 1956 became the first female minister of state in the Netherlands—Miss Josefa Koet (pronounced like shoot, seated here on the right), and Miss Leideke Galema (on the left). The order was one of the first to eschew the habit of the religious, and to adopt as well as civilian clothes the slightly confusing practice of referring to themselves by the secular “Miss.”

The four women converged upon Rome from various different places in, I think, the mid- to late 1950s, with an essentially outward-looking and ecumenical mission, much supported by Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, who was at that time Pope Pius XII’s sostituto for ordinary affairs in the Vatican secretariat of state. With Monsignor Montini’s assistance they found accommodation in the Palazzo Salviati in Trastevere, a sinister, ramshackle building that was used by the Germans during the war as a point of deportation of Roman jews from the Ghetto. Possibly the ladies moved from there once or twice before Princess Orietta Doria Pamphilj was persuaded by Monsignor Montini, with whom she was on friendly terms, to restore and make available to them and other religious bodies an essentially derelict, six-storey palazzo she owned that adjoined the great family church of S. Agnese in Agone, which dominates the Piazza Navona. (She had previously sold the huge Palazzo Pamphilj to the Republic of Brazil, whose embassy to Italy continues to occupy it.)

With the coming of the Second Vatican Council the work of the Ladies of Bethany suddenly assumed far greater prominence in Rome than it had previously, and the guesthouse they maintained, and the hospitality and programs they offered their guests, were geared towards accredited non-Catholic observers at the Council, both Orthodox and Protestant—Davis McCaughey was a guest at around this time—and continued thereafter to support far greater efforts in inter-church and inter-faith dialogue.

On one occasion, Miss Galema once told me, a young theologian then staying at Foyer Unitas, who was peritus to Josef Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, received word that his mother had died in Germany, and therefore needed to be driven straight away to the old airport at Ciampino. This Miss Galema did, thus earning the sincere gratitude of the future Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

At around the same time, Monsignor Montini, who had in the meantime gone to be Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, was elected to succeed Pope John XXIII. For the rest of his life, Pope Paul VI took a lively interest in Foyer Unitas, and presented to the ladies the gold chalice which a kindly Dutch Jesuit priest used every afternoon for the masses he said in their beautiful little chapel, a calm, whitewashed slice of Holland right in the heart of the Baroque city.

I only ever knew Miss Koet and Miss Galema. Miss Luff and Miss Klompé died long before I arrived in Rome. Miss Koet, alas, died some years ago, but Miss Galema is still going strong, and, when last I received news of her, was busily drawing up plans to travel to the Holy Land. She is now well over ninety. I recall many good stories that each of them told me a different times, Miss Koet with wry good humour, wit and wisdom, and Miss Galema with considerable flamboyance. One of those has remained especially important to me.

Immediately after the end of World War II, Josefa Koet was attached to a convent in Vienna. When I learned this, I asked her with the boldness of the very young and inexperienced whether she had ever seen Carol Reed’s The Third Man—convinced when I did so that her reply would be no, and that I would be introducing a comparative simpleton to something potentially interesting and novel and informative. As usual, with infinite indulgence, she surprised me. Yes, she had not only seen that marvelous film, but had seen it many times, because it so perfectly captured what she recalled of the sinister postwar mood and rubble of occupied Vienna. And evidently she knew it far better even than Carol Reed, because clandestinely, Josefa and her fellow religious undertook the hazardous task of ferrying messages—letters, memoranda, deeds, money, etc.—between families for the time being divided between the three allied sectors and the locked-down Soviet, from which even temporary departure was for several years forbidden. Such communications were naturally also prohibited by the Russian military authorities, and there were numerous instances of people being deported to the east, or even worse simply disappearing for presumed political and other offenses far less serious than this essentially humanitarian work, about which, incidentally, certain officers of British military intelligence were glad to learn as many trivial details as Miss Koet could remember. Josefa told me she was not aware at the time that she was ever being debriefed, but she eventually reached that inevitable conclusion with considerable alarm. Alarm, because on one occasion in an especially cruel midwinter she was detained by Russian soldiers for four interminable hours on an exposed railway platform, as she was about to cross back into the British sector, and was questioned there in some detail about the purpose of her visit to the Soviet. They never learned that she was carrying an infinitely compromising brace of letters in both outside pockets of her overcoat—compromising not only to Josefa herself, but obviously to each and every correspondent who had entrusted them to her care through an intermediary—because when at length the Russian military police conducted a careful body search, they made the simple, life-saving mistake of asking Josefa with considerable gruffness to unbutton and open wide her overcoat for ease of frisking, and evidently assumed that nobody would be so stupid as to carry secret messages anywhere other than below many layers. They mocked her vocation, shocked her by the intrusiveness of the search, but eventually let her go.

Years later, I am still struck, indeed ever more so, by the extraordinary bravery exhibited by Miss Josefa Koet, then and on numerous subsequent occasions—bravery to which she would never have laid claim, but almost certainly would have dismissed with a chuckle instead. She simply did what she had to do, and it would never have occurred to her not to do it. Goodness of heart, strength of spirit, gentleness and wisdom. How rare are those qualities, and how lucky we are when, with luck, it is given to us to encounter them at an early age? Josefa died peacefully some years ago in a pretty retirement home, formerly a boarding school for the children of Rhine barge captains, at Arnhem in the western-most corner of the Netherlands, not too far from the house in which she was born.

Friday, November 11, 2011

SS. Quattro Coronati

The year I lived in Rome was one of the happiest and most adventurous of my life. I was not yet twenty-two when I arrived in the fall of 1986, armed with a trio of scholarships and a letter of introduction to the ancient Professor Richard Krautheimer who graciously allowed me to get a reader’s ticket at the Bibliotheca Hertziana over which he still presided in the Palazzo Zuccari at the top of the Spanish Steps. There I spent many sunny mornings reading my way into an impenetrable thicket, trying with minimal resources but much ambition to make sense of the Tavolette di San Bernardino at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. That group of panels I first knew in the somewhat unpromising form of several dusty old Arundel Society prints that hung in the corridor outside the office of the Warden of Trinity, the late and much lamented Evan Laurie Burge. The problem I set for myself was to come up with a hypothesis about the sequence in which the panels were originally installed in the Augustinian oratory for which they were intended; figure out what they meant; and who painted them. Essentially I failed in all three endeavors, but it was heaven. I had a job answering the telephone for the Ladies of Bethany, an order of Dutch nuns of whom only two elderly members remained en poste, living in considerable splendor in a very large apartment on the top floor of the Collegio Innocenziano in the Via di Sta. Maria dell’Anima, overlooking the Piazza Navona. And I enrolled as a part-time student of Latin at the Pontifica Universitas Gregoriana. It sounds busier than it actually was, because as far as I can remember I spent most of my time exploring the churches of Rome, of which there is a limitless supply, and in every one of which there is an abundance of treasure.

One of my favourite places, because of its scarcely conceivable antiquity, was the fortified monastery of SS. Quattro Coronati, which is tucked along an almost bucolic uphill lane just behind the Colosseum. In that complex, then and still now occupied by an enclosed order of especially ferocious nuns, the small chapel of S. Silvestro contains a cycle of early thirteenth-century frescoes depicting scenes from the lives of Pope Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine the Great. What is so fascinating about this monument is that, not surprisingly because of earthquakes, the frescoes were at intervals heavily restored (most recently towards the end of the nineteenth century), but evidently restored in the certain belief that the original paintings were far, far cruder in execution than was actually the case, and in conformity to the view that before Pietro Cavallino Roman painting of the dugento amounted to nothing. If there is one monument that should teach caution to those of us who concern ourselves with the repair and restoration of damaged works of art, it is the fresco cycle of S. Silvestro at SS. Quattro Coronati. However, we did not know this when I first knew S. Silvestro, because the art historian Andreina Draghi had not yet re-discovered an astounding further fresco program elsewhere in the same complex, in the aula gotica upstairs, that also dates from the early thirteenth century. This happened in 2002. That lost cycle was entirely covered with plaster probably at around the time of the Black Death around 1348 or 1349, presumably in a desperately prophylactic but useless gesture of penitence—which nevertheless and, at length, fortunately insured that many of the frescos have been preserved in almost pristine condition. The monument is a revelation, and shines entirely new light upon the artistic milieux of medieval Rome, far, far less like something out of the Flintstones than we previously assumed. These airy frescoes let us see as never before what early thirteenth-century Roman painters were capable of. They are amazing: subtle, intensely colored, brimming with life, energy, even choreography. And, equally remarkable, they are secular, a scheme of Twelve Months (May is illustrated here), representations of the Liberal Arts, the Four Seasons, and of the Zodiac—a kind of temporal pendant or counterpoint to the ecclesiological cycle that lurks underneath the crude reconstructions in the chapel of S. Silvestro downstairs. Thank goodness Professor Draghi was allowed to reveal and conserve these lost paintings in the Gothic hall, and to photograph and publish them in sumptuous detail, because those wretched sisters will not allow them to be seen by any visitors at all because of the strictly enclosed state of their order. Nevertheless the work that Professor Draghi has done now lets us see beyond the gluggy restorations, and hazard a guess at what S. Silvestro might once have looked like.

The Finger again

My last book has now appeared in paperback, though only in the United Kingdom. It has this glamorous new cover, but everything else in it is the same. It’s a strange feeling, because it has been so very long since I wrote it, but upon revisiting certain parts I remain satisfied, and occasionally have the satisfactory and somewhat surprising feeling that, you know, this is quite good. The Guardian seems to like it, though they also used the word creepy. The wider critical reception has been mixed, which doesn’t really bother me as it might once have done—because you get better at putting those things in perspective as you get older, and as you write more books. And now, I think, a novel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Debt Crisis

The events unfolding in Europe in recent days, indeed the lack of geopolitical focus exhibited by the entire community of nations in the midst of the current economic crisis, brings into focus a horrible truth: As far as creativity and boldness of leadership are concerned, we are adrift in a sea of ordinariness.

Where is the vision? Where is the grit and determination to put the shamefully expedient western financial system in order; to deal forthrightly with excessive, squalid wealth that treads with contempt and utter selfishness upon grinding poverty; to forge a more adequately representative international settlement which accommodates the great states such as Russia, China, India, and Indonesia? Where is the gravity that looks far beyond opinion polls and even election results; and, perhaps above all, where is the proper disregard for the shallow cult of celebrity that practically everywhere now so deeply undermines public life, discourse, and deeds?

When the democratically-elected representatives of the American people find themselves in a crisis simply unable even modestly to raise the level of taxation on the incomes of the wealthiest few in order to confront and alleviate the enormous problems faced by the entire polity, you have to ask: How did this happen, and where has our common sense gone, to say nothing of our basic senses of justice, of goodness, and of truth?

All this puts me in mind, first, of Kenneth Clark’s famous rhetorical flourish: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now,” and, following his prompt, and that of Jacob Bronowski here, a single speech delivered in the House of Commons on November 12, 1940.
Only 71 years separate us from that moment, but from where I sit it might almost be centuries. Here is what Winston Churchill said then about Neville Chamberlain:

“Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members, and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown.

“The fierce and bitter controversies which hung around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness, and are silenced by his death. In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no-one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

“It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heartthe love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

“But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking folksfor that is the tribunal to which we appealwill doubt that, even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.

“I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain’s life and character, but there were certain qualities always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. When, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.

“I had the singular experience of passing in a day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member. Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before told the House how on the morrow of the Debate which in the early days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few other friends that only a National Government could face the storm about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. Thereafter, he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be the ideal of us all.

“When he returned to duty a few weeks after a most severe operation, the bombardment of London and of the seat of Government had begun. I was a witness during that fortnight of his fortitude under the most grievous and painful bodily afflictions, and I can testify that, although physically only the wreck of a man, his nerve was unshaken and his remarkable mental faculties unimpaired.

“After he left the Government he refused all honours. He would die like his father, plain Mr. Chamberlain. I sought permission of the King, however, to have him supplied with the Cabinet papers, and until a few days of his death he followed our affairs with keenness, interest and tenacity. He met the approach of death with a steady eye. If he grieved at all, it was that he could not be a spectator of our victory; but I think he died with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned the corner.

“At this time our thoughts must pass to the gracious and charming lady who shared his days of triumph and adversity with a courage and quality the equal of his own. He was, like his father and his brother Austen before him, a famous Member of the House of Commons, and we here assembled this morning, Members of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli would have called an ‘English worthy.’”

So, there we are. We will not, and evidently we cannot, produce another Churchill any more than we will discover in our midst a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mores the pity, but surely there has never been a time between then and now when the need for that calibre of brave and decisive leadership; wisdom and strength; goodness of heart, and passion was ever greater, or more urgent.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I saw this snippet of Dame Margot Fonteyn on Youtube the other day, dancing the exquisite Salut d’amour which Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed for her sixtieth birthday gala at Covent Garden. Set to Elgar, the piece evokes several of the most famous roles Ashton created for that great, great artist. At the end of the snippet, Dame Margot pays tribute to the Australian dancer Sir Robert Helpmann. About Helpmann there are many good stories, but one of the best was told by Kenneth Williams, and is worth re-telling. Helpmann danced the role of Oberon in a production of Ashton’s The Dream that toured through the United States. Somewhere along the way the ballet was performed in a huge sports arena, and Bobby Helpmann was assigned to the umpires’ room, which was considered the most commodious, or, at any rate, the least uncomfortable dressing-room accommodation. Before that evening’s performance the stage manager did the rounds, calling “the half” (hour), and, getting no answer from Helpmann, knocked again, then cautiously opened the door. He was genuinely taken aback by what he saw: A large table had been dragged into the middle of the room. On the table was a chair, and Helpmann was standing on that: craning towards the one naked, low-wattage light bulb that dangled forlornly from the ceiling. With the aid of a hand mirror held at an angle in one hand, and a pencil clasped with several more in the other, Helpmann was busily applying his spectacular green and silver eye make-up. “Are you all right, Sir Robert?” asked the stage manager, slightly concerned. “I’m fine,” answered Bobby, in his trademark drawl, “but God knows how those umpires manage.”