Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Too early to say

A journalist asked Premier Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai) what, in his opinion, had been the full impact of the French Revolution? Chou’s answer, after a long and thoughtful pause, was: “It is too early to say.” A good one, no? Perhaps too good. Obviously this anecdote gained traction in the wake of Vietnam, and ever since, as a measure of the sage Chinese “long view,” but because it is repeated so regularly, and with a suspicious array of variations—occasionally also attributed to Ho Chi Minh, and even to Mao—I have become increasingly skeptical about its authenticity. There is a whiff of orientalist fantasy, after all, to say nothing of plain condescension in the broad historical conceit. Add to these a suggestion of facetiousness on Chou’s part and the whole thing strikes a false note. No doubt it held some appeal, too, for student radicals in the west to whom Chou was most appealing in the guise of Confucius, and not so much as master of the Party Congress. At last I think I have cracked it. According to Charles W. Freeman, Jr., a retired American diplomat who acted as the official interpreter for President Richard M. Nixon during his famous visit to China in February 1972, Chou made his remark to Nixon over lunch or dinner in Peking (as it was then still known), during a rather delicate political discussion about revolutions that had succeeded, and ones that had failed. These included the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. According to Freeman it was quite clear from the context that in saying it was “too early to say” Chou was referring specifically to the upheaval that took place in Paris in May 1968, and not to 1789. There are other theories, for example that Chou made his remark to a French journalist at the Geneva conference in 1954, but I suppose this simply demonstrates the tendency of enjoyable snippets to take on a life of their own, and powerfully to resist clarification, correction, or debunking. I think we can safely predict that Chou will continue indefinitely to say it is too early to say,” without any fear of contradiction.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The medallion

I have been doing a lot of work lately on the material culture of Sydney in the first decades of European settlement, about which there is a great deal to be learned from lengthy advertisements placed in the earliest colonial newspapers. However, I have also become wholly preoccupied with the so-called Sydney Cove Medallion—a work of art that bridges the 10,000-mile gap between the brand new penal settlement and the beating heart of Enlightenment England. Others have written at length about this object and its variants, above all the late L. Richard Smith of the Wedgwood Society of New South Wales, but there is, I think, still much more to be said. 

The “First Fleet” of eleven ships, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N., arrived in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788. The very next day two French ships, La Boussolle and L’Astrolabe, commanded by Admiral Jean-François de la Pérouse, were spotted out to sea. Eight days later, on January 26, as Phillip raised the Union Flag at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson, and his officers did their best to hurry the rest of the feet out of Botany Bay, the French dropped anchor there and received from John Hunter a cautious but cordial welcome. The coincidence must have seemed utterly astonishing, and probably not a coincidence at all—although it was indeed purely a chance encounter. Through February and early March Phillip set about establishing his settlement. The most rudimentary wattle-and-daub shelters were built, for which deposits of local clay proved useful but in due course, once the rain set in, depressingly impermanent. However, before the French party set sail on March 10—never to be heard of again—one of La Pérouse’s naturalists, the Abbé Jean-André Mongez, a mineralogist, ornithologist, entomologist and chemist, casually remarked to Phillip that this Sydney Cove clay might in due course be used to produce excellent pottery, or even bone china. 

In due course, on November 16, 1788, Phillip despatched aboard H.M.S. Fishburn a sample of this clay to Sir Joseph Banks—repeating the Abbé’s positive assessment; stressing that it was also used by the local Aborigines to decorate their bodies, and mentioning that he would not have thought it worth sending except that Banks himself had mentioned the substance in his account of Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation (1768–71)—an intriguing but maddening reference because it cannot now be traced. Since many of Banks’s positive assessments of the potential of Botany Bay had proven so depressingly inaccurate, Phillip must have been relieved to be able to furnish some confirmation of his account in the form of the clay, together with samples of an unusual black mineral that had been discovered whilst digging a well. This turned out to be “a species of plumbago, or black-lead.” The parcels reached London in May 1789, and Banks immediately forwarded them to his friend Josiah Wedgwood, a fellow member of the Royal Society. Wedgwood’s Staffordshire pottery, “Etruria,” near Stoke-on-Trent, was well accustomed to testing the properties of batches of clay sent from all over England, Europe, and much farther afield—for example from China and North America. 

Wedgwood soon found the Sydney Cove clay to be “an excellent material for pottery,” and set about producing from it a small edition of commemorative medallions. The design was created by Wedgwood’s in-house draughtsman Henry Webber, brother of the artist John Webber who had sailed with Cook aboard the Endeavour, and the moulds were created by Wedgwood’s principal modeler William Hackwood. The heavily classicizing bas-relief composition was entitled “Hope encouraging Art and Labour, under the influence of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant settlement.” This figure group on the recto carried the inscription “ETRURIA 1789,” and on the otherwise unadorned verso “MADE BY IOSIAH WEDGWOOD OF CLAY FROM SYDNEY COVE.” Thus the Sydney Cove Medallion is evidently the only work ever signed and dated by Wedgwood himself, a measure of the seriousness with which he undertook its manufacture. 

The first batch of finished medallions were sent to Phillip aboard the second fleet, which set sail on January 19, 1790, but Wedgwood also sent a specimen to his friend the midlands physician and intellectual Erasmus Darwin. Responding to Wedgwood’s invitation to compose some suitable accompanying verses, Darwin supplied thirteen couplets in iambic pentameter entitled “Visit of Hope to Sydney-Cove, near Botany-Bay.” These were in fact a slightly leaden pastiche of “Liberty,” by the Scottish poet James Thomson (who also wrote the lyrics to Thomas Arne’s “Rule Britannia!”). Together with an engraved vignette of Webber’s design, these appeared on the title page of final part of The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, with an account of the establishment of the colonies of Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, printed in London at the end of November 1789 by John Stockdale, sometime publisher to Dr. Samuel Johnson). 

Any one of these stout warp threads of Enlightenment England—Banks, Wedgwood, the Webbers, Hackwood, Darwin, Thomson, Stockdale and, admittedly by very indirect association, Johnson—would be sufficient cause to celebrate this, the first British fabrication of a work of art using Australian raw materials. Being a set of multiples produced in the west midlands, moreover, it carries strong associations with the Industrial Revolution. However, the additional Anglo-French, and even Aboriginal dimensions of the episode, to say nothing of the fact that in Sydney Cove dire necessity had been the mother of invention—all these converge on the medallion, and allow it to make the case, however illusory, that the first British settlement in New South Wales was indeed a project of the Enlightenment, and not merely the by-product of a cruel, corrupt and unwieldy eighteenth-century British criminal justice system, obsessed above all with relatively minor offenses against property.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Volodos and Mompou

Over the past few years I have bought fewer and fewer CDs, mainly because I now have so many that it seems perverse to add to an already unwieldy collection. However, I find that my acquisitions, though far less numerous and frequent, have tended to become more careful. Such is the case with the new Sony recording entitled Volodos Plays Mompou, which has received, as far as I can tell, almost universal critical acclaim. I picked it up the other day, and since then I have been listening to the pianist Arcadi Volodos with an increasing degree of wonder, admiration, and delight. He is one of those great artists whose technical brilliance and dazzling keyboard virtuosity is matched by the deepest possible poetical insight and subtlety of thought—I wonder why these qualities have so consistently combined and re-combined in the Russian character? In this sense Volodos is just as at ease performing on the grand scale as he is in miniature. One thinks of a mighty seascape in oils, as against one of the barely even minimal effects in watercolour on a page in one of Turner’s small sketchbooks. With these performances on the piano of short pieces by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou (18931987), Volodos similarly demonstrates supreme command, if that is the right word, over an intimate, impressionistic dream-scape of shadows, failing light and softness, of murmured phrases of rare beauty and, indeed, of silence itself. No pyrotechnics here, but rather an almost uncanny pianism with which Volodos coaxes infinite colour from at times deceptively simple musical phrases, even single notes. As the critic of the Boston Globe remarked—and it is hard to forget this as you begin to absorb the entire program—“chords melt into what Wallace Stevens called ‘the half colors of quarter-things,’” and Volodos has chosen a sequence of pieces with such ingenuity that we are led gradually from light into penumbral places, and, finally, to darkness. It would be foolish to alight upon one short piece over and above all the rest, however I will readily admit to occasional bouts of foolishness: Volodos is, like the late Vladimir Horowitz, a great improviser, and his own transcription of Mompou’s Damunt de tu, nomes les flors (which means “Upon you only flowers”) strikes me as a work of genius twice over. It is rather like learning to listen, really listen, all over again.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Chattri

In the earliest stages of the Great War, before British casualties began to assume their calamitous scale, measures were taken to meet the needs of imperial troops, above all ordinary soldiers of the Indian army who were wounded in France. For this purpose the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was turned into a military hospital, and arrangements made there to accommodate the different dietary and other requirements of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim patients. There seems to have been some notion that the architecture of the Prince Regent’s batty Pavilion would provide more sympathetic surroundings for these Indian troops, in other words make them feel more at home than in the more humdrum surroundings of Rickmansworth or, indeed, the splendors of Cliveden and other ad hoc military hospitals set up in great country houses. One must presume that a more sinister reason was the urge to sequester and separate these men along the colour line. Thus in December 1914, 345 Indian soldiers took up residence at the Pavilion. Most of them recovered from their injuries, but several dozen soon died. The bodies of twenty-one Muslim men were buried in accordance with Islamic rites at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey, but those of ten Hindus and Sikhs were taken from the Royal Pavilion to a spot on the South Downs above Brighton, overlooking the English Channel—in the middle of an exposed field belonging to the fourth Marquess of Abergavenny. A local undertaker, presumably in close consultation with old hands at the India Office who knew about this sort of thing, was prevailed upon to build a ghat or funeral pyre on which the remains were cremated, together with those of forty-three other non-Muslim Indian casualties from other military hospitals in the district. Their ashes were afterwards scattered in the English Channel; by ancient convention these must be returned to the life-giving element of water. About a year later, Sir John Otter, sometime mayor of Brighton, proposed the creation of a permanent monument over the site of the ghat. His plan was approved by Sir Austen Chamberlain at the India Office, who agreed to share the cost of building it with the Brighton Corporation, and a portion of the land was in due course ceded to the council by Lord Abergavenny. Private fund-raising proceeded throughout the war, though for obvious reasons at a gradually diminishing rate. At last, in April 1918, a design in Sicilian marble was produced by a young Indian architect, E. C. Henriques, in close consultation (until his death in 1917) with Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, a pioneer of the synthetic “Indo-Saracenic” style of Anglo-Indian architecture. The contract was awarded to a firm in Manchester, and the Chattri was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on February 1, 1921, only a few months after the solemn interment in Westminster Abbey, “amongst the kings,” of the remains of the Unknown Warrior.

The Chattri is indeed a pungent place. Here, at the fringes of gentle, quintessentially English pastures—and a slice of primitive England, moreover, that enjoys inconceivably ancient associations—you follow a long and, at times, almost invisible bridle-path to which the only access is a little turn-off at Patcham, a few hundred yards east of the busy junction of the A23 and the A27 Brighton Bypass. Through an ordinary footpath gate, you walk a considerable distance up-hill until, passing over a succession of gentle rises, finally, far from the nearest road, you catch your first glimpse of a white marble dome hovering in a little wooded dale. Approaching nearer, the Chattri swims into full view—an elegant, slender pavilion, rising 29 feet to its finial from a plain square base set upon gently graduated terraces. Eight square columns supporting the dome shear into elegant, slightly tapering octagonals exactly halfway up; the shallow drum and its broadly flaring lip are likewise boldly octagonal. The plinth bears an inscription in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, the text of which was composed by Sir John Otter. It reads: “To the memory of all Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the King–Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly love dedicated.” When we approached it quite early on a brisk weekday morning in late spring, a flock of black-faced sheep was grazing peacefully in the compound, and low clouds scudded past admitting occasional flashes of sunshine. It was as if, once within earshot of shells exploding in northern France, the imperial story—the story of the Raj—had been partly repatriated, and prematurely laid to rest in the pastoral bosom of Sussex.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ball's Pyramid

The soothing atmosphere of Lord Howe Island could not contrast more sharply than with the amazing sight of Ball’s Pyramid, a vertiginous shard of rock that rises 1,844 feet out of the Tasman Sea, approximately twelve miles southeast of Lord Howe Island. I took an alarmingly small motor boat to inspect this strange place, and found it to be worthy of the wildest imaginings of a Burke, a Beethoven, or a Byron—the perfect fodder for the Romantic imagination: wild, impossible, unthinkable, and home only to vast colonies of shearwaters and a particular type of stick-insect once thought to be extinct. The ocean swell was considerable, and a school of porpoises joined us for the last leg, not so much leaping playfully, as tumbling helplessly among the whitecaps. It was far too rough for me to photograph them.
As if conforming to my increasingly lurid imaginings, as we approached this outcrop a weird veil of cloud materialized around its summit, as if to proffer incontrovertible proof of its own dizzying height. This put me in mind of J. M. W. Turner, with grace notes of Franz von Stuck. Ball’s Pyramid and the rocks surrounding it are the remnants of an extinct volcano which few people have ever dared or even bothered to scale, although I gather this was once achieved in the 1960s by a party of brave students from the University of Sydney.
Perhaps the most thrilling thing, upon sailing around the southernmost part of the monolith and coming back around the other side, was this sight of Lord Howe Island to the north, reduced by distance to an almost meaningless spec, a small bump in an increasingly dark and tempestuous sea. There are, after all, in these days of anodyne airlines, relatively few opportunities to experience the Conradian dimension of travel. Fortunately I do not get seasick.