Context is all-important, and I'd like to be honest on here: last Thursday morning I had a second biopsy under general anaesthetic at Charing Cross Hospital. There's a tumour in my bowel and my vivacious surgeon Maria needs to ascertain the type of cancer before proceeding with further treatment (probably a limited form of chemo- and/or radiotherapy to avoid a big operation). Fortunately it's not spread, so I'm at a fairly early stage, and all should be well.
As with the previous procedure, I had an afternoon nap and then went out to see a life-affirming performance: two Thursdays before this it was Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard at beleaguered English National Opera (sign the petition, please) - not the finest of productions, but with some excellent performances, and anyway I have such a soft spot for the work, even if it's not as funny as the vintage topsy-turveydom. Last Thursday it was what turned out to be a very deep and moving Vaughan Williams evening at the Royal Festival Hall, culminating in his first great masterpiece, A Sea Symphony.
I've waxed lyrical about the profundity of the experience in my Arts Desk review, but I wanted to say a few more words here in praise of Walt Whitman, whom I scoffed at too much in my youth. The sentiments seem all the more remarkable given the times, but even the long, long lines seem to me to work now. And I appreciate all the more how Vaughan Williams set them, or parts of them, in his first great spiritual achievement. "On the beach at night alone" forms A Sea Symphony's second movement, its dual achievements the beauty and mysticism of the themes and the way the baritone is stilled towards the end so that the orchestra carries the essence alone.
My image up top is of midnight on a solitary walk around Bergman's beloved island of Fårö - by then, the stars were not up, but it still suits my mood. Whitman's poem, 'Similitude', is worth quoting in its entirety.
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her savage and husky song,
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time - all inanimate forms,
All Souls - all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes - the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colours, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths - all of the past, present, future;
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned, and shall forever span them and compactly hold them.
Time and again in A Sea Symphony, VW supports the 'all is one' philosophy with themes and colourings of surpassing beauty, reminding us how he was at best a 'Christian agnostic'. In the first movement, there's 'one flag above all the rest, a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death...A pennant universal'. And in the finale, it's the soul's sealike journey, 'fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail'.
You can see why it chimed with my present thoughts on mortality and the universal. For the same reason, I'm inclined ever more to look at the beauty of the infinite - no shame in getting all purple-prosy about this - and after a splendid lunch yesterday with my new best friend Melinda at Daquise, I went back to the Natural History Museum. The late afternoon winter light made the building itself look more glorious than ever (which it is),
I'd seen a pic of the model Tyrannosaurus rex wrapped up in an 'ironic' Christmas jumper, but he was doing without on Thursday afternoon. Still, this was a good excuse to be struck afresh by how much has been dug up of dinosaur remains hundreds of millions of years old. The full frames, whether assembled from real bones or casts, are so impressive
but just look at the armour plating of this Scolosaurus, uncovered from the surrounding sandstone.
What I came for again, though, was the Mineral Gallery at the east end of the ever-amazing building, on the first floor. As it's in effect a dead end, not on the way to anywhere, unless you seek it out you may miss it, as I had done for years. Then I read Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and he opened my eyes as surely as Simon Winder's Germania did to the fabulously beautiful Vogelsaal of Bamberg's NHM.
As Fortey points out, this room is rare in still housing the bulk of the collections originally intended to be housed there, and the display
has been preserved in something like its original state. The Victorian Society is delighted. It is an airy space, well lit from the generous windows, and with glass-topped cabinets running in ranks transversely across the gallery, each of which includes a fine selection of specimens. The arrangement of minerals in the cases is by natural 'families' of minerals - so the sulphides will be found together, as will the native elements like gold and copper, or the oxides, and so on.
It is a teaching collection in a way that no longer exists elsewhere in the building. An eager visitor might spend weeks in here learning, and would emerge at the other end as something of a mineralogist.
I've decided to try and do so with a combination of regular visits, and the museum's own handbook, which arrived today.
That should help me to be a bit more systematic. But I see nothing invalid in the aesthetic approach I took yesterday - simply looking more at the most beautiful things, like the opals.
And the NHM's gorgeous rooms help if you just want confirmation that nothing in art is more wonderful than nature itself. Take, too, this brain coral, which I saw en route from dinosaurs to minerals.
*Whitman's line does without the comma between 'night' and 'alone' which features in the way the poem is punctuated in the score of A Sea Symphony.