Saturday, 17 November 2018

Snyder's recent history: inevitable v eternal + hope

The first of many intriguingly phrased ideas in Yale Professor Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom is the notion that 'the politics of inevitability', the belief in the progress of capitalism and/or history, is collapsing, or has collapsed, in the face of 'the politics of eternity', 'manufacturing crisis' and 'drowning the future in the present': 'eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling' . Perhaps it might better be called 'the politics of neverland', and of course its chief manipulator is Vladimir Putin.

Snyder's orderly chapters positing a series of oppositions offer essential summaries of how we got into this mess, going back beyond the essential turning point - Putin's essential failure in the Russian election of 2012 and how, to deflect, he spread his country's latest breakdown worldwide in an increasingly successful strategy - to roots in Russia, America and Europe.

If you only read one chapter, as a European it would have to be the third. Only a master historian could take us so succinctly to the essence of the EU project. He then points out that 'the EU's vulnerability was the European politics of inevitability: the fable of the wise nation', the fact that not only young east Europeans but others everywhere else on the continent - and above all in Britain - were not educated to see that their countries were doomed 'by structure' 'without a European order...As a result, the fable of the wise nation made it seem possible that nation-states, having chosen to enter Europe, could also choose to leave'.

Revelatory and gobsmacking to me was Putin's manipulation of fascist ideology, starting with a 'philosopher' of whom I knew nothing, Ilya Itin. Lest one thinks this overstated, the quotations from Putin and Kremlin pundits show how it became state ideology. State scumbags' laughable running-down of western countries as subject to Satanic gays and Jews, their fantasy of Eurasia with Moscow at its centre appealing to an imagined 'primal Slavic experience', would be funny if it hadn't gone down well with the Russian people. And all this because Ukraine decided to throw in its lot with a properly European future.

The most jaw-dropping example here is of the Izborsk Club, inaugurated in September 2012, chief point of its manifesto 'Russia does not need hasty political reforms. It needs arms factories and altars'. A lunatic fringe? No, a club of heroes according to the Kremlin:

One of Russia's long-range bombers, a Tu-95 built to drop atomic bombs on the United States was renamed 'Izborsk' in honour of the club. In case anyone failed to notice this sign of Kremlin backing, Prokhanov [fascist novelist and Izborsk Club founder] was invited to fly in the cockpit of the aircraft. In the years to come, this and other Tu-95s would regularly approach the airspace of the member states of the European Union, forcing them to activate their air defence systems and to escort the approaching bomber away. The Tu-95 'Izborsk' would be used to bomb Syria in 2015, creating refugees who would flee to Europe.

Snyder doesn't just state and imply, he can get very angry. In the fourth (Ukrainian) chapter, 'Novelty or Eternity', he paints such a moving picture of Ukrainians of all ages flocking to join the citizens of the Kyiv Maidan that I wish I'd gone out to witness this incredible event before the Kremlin triggered the massacre (that it was oddly reported in the UK press is explained later by Snyder). Then he unleashes his ire on the lie machine that would deny the achievement:

Russians, Europeans, and Americans were meant to forget the students who were beaten on a cold November night because they wanted a future. And the mothers and fathers and grandparents and veterans and workers who then came to the streets in defence of 'our children'. And the lawyers and consultants who found themselves throwing Molotov cocktails. The hundreds of thousands of people who broke themselves away from television and internet and who journeyed to Kyiv to put their bodies at risk. The Ukrainian citizens who were not thinking of Russia or geopolitics or ideology but of the next generation. The young historian of the Holocaust, the sole supporter of his family, who went back to the Maidan during the sniper massacre to rescue a wounded man, or the university lecturer who took a sniper's bullet to the skull that day.

Our great chronicler of conscience is also a master of coining the right phrase: 'implausible deniability' for the Kremlin's lies (I remember the first time I realised that Putin was going to break all rules of international diplomacy, when in early 2014 he declared 'we have no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea', then did just that; 'schizo-fascism' ('actual fascists calling their opponents fascists'); 'cruci-fiction' for Alexander Dugin's outrageous lie about a three-year-old boy crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk, which drummed up volunteers to fight for Russia in eastern Ukraine from all over the former empire; 'strategic relativism' for faltering Russian state power trying to hold on by weakening others, the 'winning' of 'a negative-sum game in international politics'; 'sado-populist' ('a someone who proposes policies to increase opportunities for the masses, as opposed to the financial elites. Trump was something else: a sado-populist, whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate').

Then there's the myth of 'Donald Trump, successful businessman', saved by Russian money from 'the fate that would normally await anyone with his record of failure'. Let's just hope that fate has merely been delayed, and is coming soon, to the Horror Clown, Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and many others.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Along the Thames to Walpole's castle

From Richmond

to Strawberry Hill House to see Horace Walpole's collection reunited in neo-Gothic surroundings

was the first of our excursions on what turned out to be a four-day staycation (had been planning to visit friends on the Greek island of Spetses, but prices for flights to Athens had gone through the roof). Having read my Arts Desk colleague Sarah Kent on the new exhibition, and with happy memories of what happened when Houghton Hall's dispersed collection - much of it sold by Horace's unbalanced nephew to Catherine the Great - came home, I thought it would make a jolly day out.

The weather helped - the most serene, sharp and perfect of Autumn days; we ate our lunch on a bench by the river at Richmond, and this was the view above our heads. Then we crossed the noble bridge and walked parallel to Ham House on the other side. It's hidden by trees, but that only makes the perspective with not a building in sight the more naturally beautiful.

Various trees framed the river at low tide

with sundry old boats and barges glinting through the leaves.

Architecturally, it's a string of pearls. While the river near home has grand houses along Chiswick Mall, none is as fine as Marble Hill House, the Palladian villa commissioned by Henrietta Howard, mistress of the then-future George II, and completed in 1729.

Until you reach the church at Twickenham,

the fine houses and grounds accumulate.

This is more like the Chiswick legacy, a home for an admiral.

No time, alas, to pause for homage to Pope at the church, but onwards to our exhibition slot at Strawberry Hill. Unfortunately the Thames Path goes inwards, along a busy road, but once at Walpole's retreat, the rusticity is resumed, with only the planes roaring overhead on their way to or from Heathrow to break the illusion.

In 1750, having rented a 'little play-thing-house' known as Strawberry Hill Shot, Horace Walpole (1717-97) wrote to his distant cousin and long-term correspondent Sir Horace Mann, 'I am going to build a little Gothic castle...If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you' (I'm working my way through the somewhat disordered and patchy Everyman collection of his letters). The project grew, like Topsy, with additions made up to 1772, a combination - as now it still seems - of gallery and cosy home, full of 'gloomth' (Walpole's own portmanteau word): 'I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury'. With 'battlements for a roof', as he found authorised in Deuteronomy, Walpole made sure that the south facade would be 'the only all regular'.

I had to photograph its upper half only, because in the first of many annoyances about the exhibition, and the general management of a house admittedly well restored, a tea-room marquee currently blots out an unobstructed view of the south front. From this point on, with no photography permitted within the house, I look elsewhere, including Strawberry Hill House's current management, for images. I trust 'fair use' applies for the diverse sources.

Walpole thought the hall and staircase 'the most particular and chief beauty of the castle'. But that was before John Chute designed the Library with details copied from Gothic tombs in Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, illustrated here in 1781 by Edward Edwards

and then the Gallery, with its fan vaulting modelled on Henry VII's chapel, also in Westminster Abbey. 'Gilders, carvers, upholsterers and picture-cleaners are labouring at their several forges, and I do not love to trust a hammer or a brush without my own supervisal,' Walpole wrote in July 1763, a month before the gallery was completed.

The collection comes nowhere near the masterpieces of Houghton Hall (many now in St Petersburg's Hermitage), but the ensemble is fine. Printing, including 3D for a Gibbons frame, has been useful to fill in some of the gaps.

One gets the sense that Walpole was more interested in human idiosyncrasy as represented by the portrait than by great paintings (or maybe he couldn't afford those, though he did buy a superb Van Dyck double portrait for a remarkably low price). There are wonderful miniatures, though the bad exhibition lighting, poor throughout the house, prevents one from seeing them properly. Walpole didn't rate Hilliard as highly as the Olivers, but nonetheless this, of Sir Francis Drake, is a gem of the cabinet.

Noted is a penchant for beautiful young men, not least this boy as shepherd by Peter Lely

and Walpole's features were delicate. I love the portraits Rosalba Carriera painted of him and his cousin Francis Seymour Conway, Earl of Hertford, whom he met on his Grand Tour.

His Strawberry Hill parties were a byword in extravagance, though he seems to have been torn between his curiosity about people and the need for a quiet, solitary life. The festino for a party including many French visitors in May 1769 is briefly described in a celebrated letter: 'At the gates of the castle I received them, dressed in the cravat of Gibbons's carving,

and a pair of gloves embroidered to the elbows that had belonged to James I.'

In addition, celebratory verses were printed on the Strawberry Hill press, their distribution inaugurated by 'French horns and clarionets'. 'In the evening we walked, had tea, coffee, and lemonade in the Gallery, which was illuminated with a thousand, or thirty candles, I forget which, and played at whisk and loo till midnight. Then there was a cold supper, and at one the company returned to town, saluted by fifty nightingales, who, as tenants of the manor, came to do honour to their lord...'

On the feminine side there is exquisite beauty in the collection's signature painting of the Ladies Waldegrave by Reynolds

and on the other hand - an odd purchase - Hogarth's portrait of the triple murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell before execution. Hogarth made a fortune out of prints of this subject.

After that, some air. I can't say I entirely enjoyed the experience: the volunteer guides in every room just would not let you alone with your catalogue. I like to talk to them, but only if I have something to ask; these ones would collar you and insist you look at this or that. Way too intrusive. I only got away with private viewing in the bigger rooms where they were already having rather banal-sounding conversations with other members of the public.

And so, into the garden, which is no longer what Walpole wanted, something 'riant, and the gaiety of nature' in opposition to 'the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals' imprinted on the house; a garden, he insisted, could not be Gothic. The lawns run into the territory of the adjoining St Mary's College, once part of the University of London, now St Mary's University. Its buildings look more like a hospital with a bit of grass in front, though the shell bench in what Walpole called his 'perfect Paphos' remains (or is it a copy? Anyway, the paint is peeling).

We wandered round the college demesne, the cries of the sporty reminding us that this is the demesne of rugger buggers. The chapel, though, is interesting, in extreme contrast to the house. Built in 1962-3 above the university library, its brick model is Albi Cathedral. The Sutherlandesque reredos is in fact by Constance Stubbs

and  I like the glass by by the studios of  Gabriel Loire, master glazier of Chartres Cathedral. This is the west window.

After a brief glimpse at Walpole's Chapel in the Woods, with poor Victorian muralling by way of overlay, we made our way back. Kew was a familiar destination for the next bright autumn afternoon, and what remains most vividly with me is the autumnal smells rising from the ground in the bosky groves. Out in the sunlight it was once again warm, and the delights began with the temple ensemble just inside the Victoria Gate.

I'd already admired the renovated Temperate House and the new dragons on the Pagoda on an October visit, and J was suitably impressed. We took a spin around the upper walkway, where the harmony between glass and iron above

and greenery from Australasia below

was most apparent. If the great height of many of the plants in the pre-renovated building has now been much reduced, the sense of light and space is overwhelmingly impressive.

Then to the pagoda

and its guardians.

The lower denizens are carved in cedar, like these three above and below; those higher up were achieved by more 3D printing.

On to the Japanese landscape around the Chokushi-Mon (Japanese Gateway), with live denizens this time. The purple berries behind them belong to Callicarpa japonica.

The ailing but content other half then made his way back to the cafe while I took a semi-ritual route, down to the great red oak by the river opposite Syon House, tantalisingly labelled Quercus X benderi Q. coccinea x Q. rubra,

enjoyed the deciduous firs by the lake

and the beech grove

before discovering rather two many mechanics being set up for the annual, moneymaking festival of light and heading back to the Victoria Gate via the Palm House, always vividly lit at sunset - no artificial lighting can surpass this -

and the view across to what's now called 'Museum No. 1'. Such resources on the doorstep.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Captain George Nice, survivor

Nothing new to report about my paternal grandfather, George Nice born George King*, since the revelatory day at my cousin Diana's back in 2014 when I saw photographs of him for the first time, and the consequent revelations about his origins from a lady in Colchester. Yet every 11/11 I want to remember him, with some sadness at this proud, lonely figure standing to attention with a banner on many Armistice Day commemorations, as he is above in the front line towards the left. He fought throughout the War in the dragoon guards, and survived it. We know, albeit not in detail, that mustard gas poisoning left him an invalid, with who knows what impact on the adolescent years of my father, so often melancholy in my memories of him (though Diana and his goddaughter Sara remember him further back as a happy, laughing person).

Here, again, then, is the Croix de Guerre, the reverse side this time, which he was awarded (I repeat this ritually from The History of the 5th Dragoon Guards, remarking on the events of 7 April 1918 in Fampoux field to the east of Athies) 'for his gallantry in reconnoitring under heavy rifle and machine gun fire to try and find a route for the regiment to make a further advance in the direction of Greenland Hill.' I feel fortunate that ever since 2014 I have much of a more specific nature by which to remember him.

Other than Britten's War Requiem, I can't think of a more powerful commemoration in musical terms than his (pacifist) teacher Frank Bridge's Oration. After 1918, the gateway of international modernism was open to this underrated figure, a truly international British composer. Appropriate that the soloist should be a German of true Mensch status, Alban Gerhardt.

*Though the indefatigable Josie Holford - see comments - has now added this:

'His half brother Henry Thomas Nice died on July 27th 1917. He was serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal welsh Fusiliers – London Welsh – the same battalion as David Jones of In Parenthesis. This was just before the start of Passchendaele.

'He is memorialized on the Menin Gate'.

So there was loss there too. As I've mentioned before, my grandfather was actually a King, the illegitimate son of a chamber maid who married a Mr Nice several years later; the boy later chose to take his stepfather's name. So we are not in fact Nices at all.

Friday, 9 November 2018

An audience with Siegfried

I'll admit I had my doubts about interviewing Heldentenor Stefan Vinke for the Wagner Society. I'd only heard a touch-and-go tenor solo in Mahler's Eighth at the Proms; I asked the keen young organiser, Henry Kennedy, if I could wait and see until I'd reviewed the Royal Opera Siegfried in the recent revival of Keith Warner's Ring cycle. After all, it would be ungallant and embarrassing to be sitting there with him if I'd written anything adverse.

My doubts were more than banished: this was easily the best Siegfried I've heard after Jerusalem's in Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring. A colleague whispered in my ear at the end of Act One, 'I shouldn't be saying this to another critic, but that was sensational, wasn't it?' - and it was. Though at the beginning of Act Two he was recovering from an allergy attack in the interval, Vinke had all the extraordinary stamina needed to come out sounding fresh as a daisy in the final duet with Nina Stemme's  Brünnhilde- indeed, it's the only time I've heard that with both singers sounding equally good. Talk  photos courtesy of the Wagner Society's Ben Tomlin - I'll spare you the ones of me gesticulating, but I rather like them for once - while the images of the Royal Opera Ring are by Bill Cooper.

Unsurprisingly, given his well-acted characterisation, Vinke turned out to be a supremely intelligent and engaging person. Which leading Wagner singer isn't? Well, both he and Stemme the following week in Stockholm could mention one exception each to the general rule of collegial Wagner singers (though they didn't name names, and I didn't press). But they both agreed that, yes, supportiveness and team spirit were paramount in Wagnerworld.

How I wish this interview had been recorded, since all he had to say was fascinating and often very funny (Wagnerians need a sense of humour too - look at Birgit Nilsson)  It turned out that, though the splendid idea of Siegfried's kissing Mime on the top of the head before rushing out into the forest in Act 1 was Warner's, the likable characterisation was one with which Vinke was in agreement. He certainly doesn't see the young hero as brute or born killer, more wild child who has the intuition and intelligence to learn from his experiences in a way we should find touching.

If a director wants a different view, then he expects to be told why, as he was by Graham Vick, whose ability to listen, think over and return to explain, one way or the other, he very much admires. It was clear he had no respect for Frank Castorf at Bayreuth, who could never come up with a convincing justification for his random ideas. We listened to Vinke in the end of the forging sequence on the Seattle recording, complete with rhythmically accurate hammering - not possible, he said, at Kirill Petrenko's fast tempo in Germany - and he reacted by acting a lot of it out while listening: critical, but not unduly so, of what he'd achieved there. I can't embed it but it's here, and worth a listen.

Vinke loves working with the top Mime of our time, Gerhard Siegel, who's also sung Siegfried, and will listen to his suggestions; at one point. Siegel asked why he was wearing himself out with so much stuff before a big entry, advising him to save himself a bit, which he did.

Conductors: he made an interesting comparison between Antonio Pappano, who marks out key points but allows singers some freedom in between before everything comes back in line, and Kirill Petrenko, who controls more bar by bar, note by note: he prefers the former, but respects both approaches.

Trained in organ studies and choral music, Vinke has a firm favourite in the concert repertoire - Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, which following its heyday when Strauss commended Elgar as 'the first English progressivist' at the 1902 Lower Rhine Festival in Dusseldorf, still meets with resistance in Germany (so do the symphonies; so does Sibelius, so Elgar's in good company). Still on the list? The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten, coming soon, and the time when he can sing Loge, Siegmund and Siegfried in a single Ring cycle (two of the three are imminent). Lively responses to some interesting questions, and then he was off on a rainy Saturday afternoon to indulge his kids in shopping down Neal Street. Great guy.