Saturday, 12 April 2014

A plethora of exhibitions

This blog post is a test of many things. Firstly, I'm trying out my new piece of tech, in preparation for Italy. Second I'm testing the ability to talk about exhibitions, something I'm planning on continuing during the MA. Thirdly I'm hoping to test the link up to Facebook I *think* I've set up, but have no idea if it actually works.

I'm a keen exhibition attendee, and there have been a few in recent months that have captured my imagination. The fact I'm still thinking about two of them months after I saw them is testament to their power (and also my excuse if things seem a little hazy!)

On one particularly busy Saturday last year I went to both the 'Elizabeth and Her People' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then dashed next door to the National Gallery for the 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' exhibition. It is hard to imagine two exhibitions that are quite so opposite in theme, and it was certainly fascinating to contemplate the latter exhibit in parallel with the former.

The Elizabeth I exhibition was very intimate, curling back on itself and with 'peep holes' allowing reflection back and forth between the rooms. The Queen's image was closely guarded and very few of her portraitists actually saw her - most copied images that had been 'approved'. This led to a highly romantic view of the queen, particularly in later years. It wasn't just the queen that was a primary focus - as the title suggests, there was a close look at her people - both those close to the crown and the more general depictions of Elizabethan life. There was an amazing rapier, at least a meter long. Beautiful in its craftsmanship, but undoubtedly very difficult to wield.

Sometimes I find myself disappointed with an exhibition - there sometimes seems to be a lack of something ..... often I can't put my finger on it, but with this I knew exactly. Given the fact that it was in the NPG, I could not fathom the reason why Elizabeth I's coronation portrait was not part of the exhibition. It's just upstairs, and would have been a stunning addition to a collection that was so focussed on the importance of image and its dissemination to the masses. Perhaps it couldn't be moved, but the omission glared and I kept wishing for its inclusion.

The Vienna exhibition, in contrast, totally blew me away. I had no expectations (which I suppose helped) and I wandered around drinking in the variety and scope this exhibition had to offer.

Vienna was in the grip of a cultural war around 1900 - the old and the new fighting each other for supremacy. It was a lush exhibition. The old style of portrait executed so well by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller and then Klimt - pushing on to the scene with informality and brilliant colour. Both those artists deserve a closer look  as well as Auchentaller, who produced a painting in 1912 of a young woman so sharp that it could be a photograph. It's hard to convey precisely what about this exhibition thrilled so much, but a great part of it was the thrill of the new and undiscovered.

More recently, I went to the 'Turner and the Sea' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Turner is prolific, and the variety of works that were gathered together were staggering. The battle of Trafalgar being one of his largest canvases, and an event that was an important part of the national psyche. Britain, being the sea fairing nation it was (and is) naturally produced artists who found inspiration in the watery depths. Other artists produced some beautiful works, but when Turner was pushed by his contemporaries he then went the beyond the boundaries and produced something new. It's a fantastic exhibition. I just wish I'd bought the catalogue!

I'm always on the quest to see art I'm not familiar with or great collections that important families have acquired over the decades. Tomorrow I'm off to Hughendon - home of the great Benjamin Disraeli. I'm sure there's going to be some wonderful treasures in store!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Literary festival part deux

Writers, if they are to be really successful, should be excellent verbal story tellers as well as able to paint pictures with their written words. I'm not sure if there are writers with subjects more opposed than Sebastian Barry and John Julius Norwich, but after hearing them speak, I am utterly convinced they share the gift of the gab (as the Irish might say) and the ability to keep their audiences spellbound.

Sebastian Barry's writing is deeply embedded in Ireland and the chaotic world of his family history; his drunken grandparents, his actress mother and poet father. He grew up thinking this chaos was all perfectly normal (as John Julius Norwich grew up believing it to be perfectly normal to have a mother as wildly charismatic as Diana Cooper). He's passionate about his heritage and answered every question Joan Bakewell put to him with an intensity of thought - even if he meandered down an avenue which had nothing to do with what he'd started to talk about. He read a section of his new novel 'The Temporary Gentleman' and I was completely blown away - not necessarily by the writing (which was dynamic and brilliant), but by his wonderfully dramatic delivery. As he read the description of a boat sinking having been torpedoed, the audience held its collective breath as the words tumbled about our ears and we were all transported to that sinking skip. I don't think I'll ever read one of his novels in the same way again and I'm convinced he should do public readings more often.

John Julius Norwich is a different type of storyteller, but just as captivating. He reminds me a little of a clockwork toy - wind him up and off he goes! He spoke for almost half an hour with hardly any interruption from his 'interviewer' Paul Blizzard, charting the intricate relationships of his family history and the locations his parents found themselves during World War II. He interrupted himself at one point to ask permission to read an extract of one of his Mother's letters. 'You do what you want John', Paul Blizzard chuckled, 'It's your show!' It really was. And his impersonations of Winston Churchill are spot on - not overblown, but done by someone who really knew him. Affectionate, but with an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness. 'Darling Monster' sounds like it will be treasure trove of letters, and will further serve to fuel my passion to continue the trend, rather than relying on email at all times.

The day was topped off in rather grand fashion with Philip Pullman, who introduced the music that has informed his life, played by the Orchestra of St John's. The pieces he chose were:

- Mendelssohn: Octet, 1st movement
- Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No 2, 2nd Movement
- Mozart: Void Che Sapete
- Bach: Italian Concerto BWV 971, 1st Movement
- Monteverdi: Si Dolce Il Tormentor
- Hellmann: Away we trot
- Beethoven: Song Er schwur es mis brim
- Debussy: En bateau from Petite Suite
- Brahms: Sextet Op. 18, 2nd movement
- Schubert: Heidenroslein; An Sylvia
- Ellington: Take the A Train
- Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings, 4th Movement

Mostly familiar composers, but many pieces I'd never heard. I will look them up again though, and a trip to YouTube might be well worthwhile.

Philip Pullman never talks much about his own writing process, but he did reveal he had to work in silence (so much so that he had a shed built in the garden when his son took up the violin) and he is in the middle of a long awaited companion piece to the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy called 'The Book of Dust'. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Literary festivals inspire

It's high time I got back into blogging. Life can be crazy busy at times and when you combine it with the fact I've not been reading that much because I've been a bit depressed, there didn't seem much worth writing about. 

Note that I've tried to qualify my feelings - although it's the worst I've ever felt, I'm fully aware it comes nowhere near what others suffer.

Anyway - the point is that life has now turned a corner and I want to write again.

It's literary festival time here in Oxford [or it was when I wrote this in a coffee shop. It's now Sunday, and the festival is pretty much over] so off I went to see Jan Morris. I feel the need to make a disclaimer: writing about Jan Morris is hard, not least because the use of sexual pronouns could become confused. The fact Jan Morris used to be a man (James) is probably one of the better known facts, but it doesn't help with the quandry of how to label her (him) when talking about events in the past when she was a he ... To avoid confusion, I plan to use the feminine pronoun throughout.

In a shockingly third full Sheldonian, Jan Morris took to her stage and immediately set about charming her audience with a story about her arrival earlier in the day. Sponsored as the festival is by the Folio society, the goodie bag participants receive naturally includes one of their books. And they are heavy. 'I'm not a great fan of short stories' she said as she revealed her book had been the collected short stories of V.S. Pritchett. Stopping to chat to one of the female porters at the gate of Christ Church, she reminisced that she was the longest serving member of the 'house', having become a chorister in 1936 at the age of ten. She then came to the college to study and is now an honorary fellow. 'And in recognition of this fact' she finished, with a gleeful anticipation of the punchline to come, 'I would like to bequeath this book to the college', and promptly handed over the Pritchett to a no doubt slightly baffled porter.

The thing I love perhaps more than anything about this story is the fact Jan Morris managed to get one over on the traditional history of Oxford. True, she was a man when she went to Oxford, but that still doesn;t alter the fact she is the first female alumni of Christ Church, some 30 years before they 'officially' admitted women.

This set the tone for the rest of the event. Designed, as it was, to be a kind of retrospective, the conversation flitted across topics such as Welshness, the Monarchy, how she writes and whether it comes fully formed (thankfully, she does three drafts before she considers it finished), climbing Everest and the state of England. 

Climbing Everest was the shock for me. When she started talking about that, I imagined this to be after the sex change and was preparing to hear stories of how she was the first woman to do so, etc ... but no! Jan Morris was the Times correspondent which accompanied the party led by Sir Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit on the same day as Elizabeth II's coronation. She has therefore been part of the anniversary celebrations ever since.

I've never read any of Jan Morris's work and am therefore unable to say whether the writing matches the character of the woman - strong and opinionated, but also very aware of herself. The interviewer (Kevin Crossley-Holland) did make reference to her beautiful prose, and we were lucky enough to hear extracts read aloud by Jan herself (simply because she felt like it, it seemed) which proved this instantly. The extract of her meeting a monk high in the Himalayas on a solitary ramble during the Everest expedition was startlingly evocative, powerful and intensely moving. I look forward  to delving into her work as soon as I can.

She did drop a bombshell with the fact that this would be her last public appearance, simply because she finds the preparation and the performance of events too exhausting now. At 87, who can blame her. It does make the empty Sheldonian that much more heartbreaking though. When I planned this piece, I was inclined to blame the marketing, and I am still persuaded that the organisers would be better served in sending out the hard copy earlier. However, now that I have been to a number of events, most of which were packed out, I think the price of tickets are to blame. £11 is expensive enough, but the Sheldonian tickets went up to £50, which is extortionate. Especially if you end up buying books after the event!

To finish on a positive note - although I have come to Jan Morris late in her career, I feel that I am surely going to devour all her works in the future. She signed my copy of 'A Writer's World' and added 'Bon Voyage!' when I told her of my plans. For here is my real reason for taking up the reigns of blogging again. Five years working in one place has show me, above all, that just being an administrator is not enough for me. I want to create too, and with that in mind, I've accepted a place on the MA in History of Art at the University of Birmingham. To aid with the transition between working and student, I'm taking two months to travel around Italy. This blog, therefore, will become a travel journal, and after that document the wonders of the art world into which I am fully immersing myself. All change!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Spring poem

The Spring by Thomas Carew

Now that the winter’s gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes; and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream:
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring,
In triumph to the world, the youthful spring:
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long’d-for May.
Now all things smile: only my love doth lower,
Nor hath the scalding noon-day sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal’d, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made
By the fire-side, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season: only she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Itchy fingers

It has been a long time since I last posted.

I started this blog having been inspired by a certain literary festival event which drew me into the world of book blogging, and very soon I had thrown myself onto that bandwagon and was throwing my opinions about like a seasoned pro. Poor old internet - it does have to deal with a great deal of superfluous nonsense sometimes!

I am no literary critic, and find it easier to talk about things I like, which means that my posts have always been very onesided. Passionate, no doubt, but not up to date on the latest works. I grew frustrated with my offerings, and the blogging didn't change my life in the way I had been so sure that it would when I started.

My posts grew less frequent as I found I had less to say, and I found a job I liked and took up more of my time. I slowly wound to a meandering halt in the middle of 2011.

I suppose it was at this time that I started working on my novel again, which satisfied the creative outlet that I was using the blog for. Now, with my first complete draft finished, and in the hands of a friend to do a first edit, I find my fingers itching to write something else, and I thought of this as a means of appeasing that itch.

I'm not sure what I'll use this for now. I'd like to carry on talking about literature, but I also want to note down my thoughts on life (both mine and the world around me). The world is such a big place that one's place in it can feel small and insignificant. I'd like to try and reverse that feeling.

I was having a chat to a friend about the things and people which inspire me recently, and made the point that inspiration doesn't necessarily have to come from events or people that the World decides to inspire us. Your best friend can be an inspiration because they don't put up with the shit life hands them, but just puts their shoulder to the wheel and carries on regardless. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in The Ninth Elegy: 'Because being here is much, and because all this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely concerns us. Us the most fleeting of all. Just once, everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too, once. And never again. But this having been once, though only once, having been on earth - can it ever be cancelled?'

So - I'll be back periodically to note my thoughts and feelings on films, books, politics, sunsets, poetry, friendship, food, education .... in short, my thoughts on life. I don't expect them to be the greatest pieces of prose ever written, but that's not why I now choose to blog. I just want a little piece of me out there in the world. That's enough.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Vera Brittain

Amongst the thousands of Alumna Somerville has produced since its inception, there can be seen a steady stream of writers who have gone on to win fame and inspire generations of readers.


It is, perhaps, worth remarking upon the fact that very few of them have chosen to portray the college in their fictional work. Dorothy L Sayers is well known for creating a thinly veiled Somerville in her ‘Gaudy Night’, but Vera Brittain also used the college in her first novel ‘The Dark Tide.’


During the war, Somerville’s buildings had been requisitioned by the War office and its students found themselves removed to a small corner of Oriel – although mat students (Brittain included) chose to suspend their studies in favour of assisting the war effort by nursing or other full time occupations. The return to post war Oxford was a shock to those who had been away, and tested by the experiences thrust upon them.


College life, with its formalities, must have seemed archaic and the world of The Dark Tide uses its first section to cast a piercing light on the lives of the returning post war undergraduates. There is a caustic tone to Brittain’s portrayal of college life; the students gathering in very cliquey sets, behaving in a way that does not reflect the empowerment that women achieved through the war, and Virginia (a character who reflects much of who Vera Brittain was at that time) finds it hard to accept their attitude, and eschews ‘fitting in’ in favour of hard work.


In a modern world, which is used to criticism and satire, it will perhaps surprise the reader to learn how much controversy the novel created. The powers that be, who recognised themselves in the pages of Brittain’s novel, did not find the portrayal flattering and were so outraged that they declared the book to be banned from the college. I am inclined to think that were an alumnae to fictionalise the college now (perhaps a humorous take on when we started admitting men) the reaction would be far more measured. Times have, of course, changed greatly, and perhaps the work was seen as belittling the achievements of women who had only so recently won the right to be awarded the degree for which they had studied.


Even at this early stage in her career, Vera Brittain clearly had a lot to say about the forces which drive a woman to make the choices that will shape her life. ‘The Dark Tide’s’ central characters are polar opposites who are eventually united by their share in a mistake that affects both their lives.


Brittain’s prose is not particularly poetic, choosing instead to tell the story in what might seem (to a modern reader) to be an unsympathetic tone. The First World War had a great effect on Brittain, as is evidenced in her other works and the direction her life took from then on, and it is plain that this effect is at work on her writing here.


I’m reluctant to end on a bleak note, and happily Vera Brittain’s own history gives us a ray of sunshine. However unhappy the novel is and whatever the opinion of her college, the book must have given some a glimpse of the real woman behind it, for – as Vera herself explains – her first ever fan mail was from a man who, after a year or so of courtship, became her husband. The rest, as they say, is history!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Painting with words

Knowing I was going to write about ‘An Equal Stillness’ as I read it, there were naturally all kinds of opening lines forming in my mind as I turned the pages, How surprised I was to find them all chased away by the simple act of reading one sentence and finding all my preconceptions about the narrative voice shattered. Not who I was expecting at all!

Which, I suppose, serves very well to emphasise the point I had intended starting with: that with a supposed seven plot lines available to a writer, it is difficult to find something fresh and captivating. That Francesca Kay manages it is clear.

To write fictional biography about well known people is a technique I admire, but to do it with a totally imagined character is intriguing and compelling. Jennet Mallow is a painter and so into the form of words there comes a need to describe her paintings – that art form one turns to when language fails in its evocable power.

It’s a quiet book, somehow almost sensuous in its descriptions: the life and work of a woman laid out, with all its imperfections, failures, successes and small moments spread out. I rarely listen to music as I read, fearing a distraction from an overloud, or wordy, piece; but this book seemed to demand a classical accompaniment: the notes seeping into my appreciation of the words and helping me see the paintings that were described. The melding of these art forms just seemed to be right on this occasion.

It’s a wonderful novel: one that will haunt with its themes of love and loss, even as we strive to imagine the paintings that are the central point of the work. Understated is the word that springs to mind when trying to describe the feeling of the novel. There are no big explosions of emotion, and that is surprising – particularly for a first novel. Francesca Kay seems to have found her voice from the outset and draws her readers into this small, but creative, world she has created.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Remembrance through song

I've been pondering which poem to use for Remembrance weekend, and was having a difficult time choosing, and then I heard this song:



So happy remembrance weekend everyone.