Friday 25 December 2020

Season's greetings: sacred and profane

Two images to wish you a reflective day and a better 2021. The first is a detail of two Nativity panels from the magnificent medieval east window of St Peter and St Paul East Harling, greatest glory of our walk this year for the Norfolk Churches Trust. Between four of us we raised £2,700 - but the real achievement was being able to do it, and finding two-thirds of the churches open, with careful social distancing rules fully observed.

The second is a detail of our alternative presepe - Gloria alla Josephine Baker. Yes, we have some bananas. It's a fairly international scene including Czechs, Swedes, Italians, Indians and a famous Spaniard.

I doubt if you'll be short of things to watch, and the day is beautiful, so walk while it's light if you can, but this is what we saw this time last year - a consummate concert performance of Tchaikovsky's glorious score for The Nutcracker conducted by the adorable Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I used portions of it in one of my classes for the 19th century segment of the Russian Music course on Zoom, and again in the one-off session on The Nutcracker I held on Monday, to try and atone a bit for the fact that some students were bereft of the live Nutcrackers they'd planned to see. Today we'll finally catch up with Balanchine's Nutcracker - a quick dip shows that he does the crucial tumescing-Christmas-tree sequence justice, AND includes the usually excised Mother Gigogne number.

Enjoy the day and switch off from all dire news from the outside world. We meet again for two hours on the complete Sleeping Beauty score on the afternoon of the 30th - let me know if you'd like to join. More on next term anon.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

60 days of London autumn: 2 - October

Since a mostly golden October declined into a sombre November and December, with a few hours here and there of light and the most spectacular sunsets, I've managed to keep the afternoon walks up on days when I don't have Zoom classes (it's already dark by the time those end at 4.30-5pm). There's a certain beauty to the skeletal frames and shapes of leafless trees. But this sort of autumnal peak seems like a very long time ago. October was also the month when I finally discovered the London Wetlands Centre on my doorstep, a gift that will keep on giving with the winter migrations. 

Yet that will largely be the subject of the November diary. Meanwhile, until the last week of October also comes into the picture, we have the usual suspects. I dealt with the wet but inspiring Mile End weekend here. Two days later, it was back to the Walled Garden of Fulham Palace, which keeps showering us with surprises. On our September picnic, a swarm of giant dragonflies; on 6 October, a flock of goldfinches. I wondered if I one would settle long enough for me to catch it, but this is one of several obliging poses.

 Robin, yes, much commoner, but always singing (several still are - territorial even in November).

And just one rewarding clump of bracket fungus on a noble ash.

Another of those jolly autumn times with ma in Banstead, excurting to the Chai cafe and sitting outside in warm sun, gave me more chance to commune with my favourite churc, because so known over years as a chorister, All Saints Banstead, with its square tower once presumed a kind of defence and lookout (Banstead is one of the three highest places in Surrey, apparently - I know Leith Hill is No. 1).

The light was almost too bright for the faces in the Victorian stained glass, but since it's relevant now, here's an Annunciation

and the Adoration of the Kings.

Next time I must check out the west window, usually difficult to see because you can't get at the belfry, which includes saints designed by Rossetti and Morris. But I've long been fond of the above.

Kensington Gardens was a frequent haunt for social-distance walks with Sophie in the spring - I hope to see her there tomorrow now that our Xmas Day together can't go ahead - and in earlyish autumn it was still lush.

No sign of the solitary, ever-diving Great Crested Grebe, but here's a Shoveller - I've become very fond of this duck with its spade-like beak from observing a constant pair in the Wetlands -

and the cormorants like to hang it with the seagulls on the row of posts across the northern end of the Serpentine, drying their wings.

The sculptures in the Victorian Water Garden also repaid closer examination, a fine ensemble with the water beyond.

Much was still flourishing in the Chelsea Physic Garden on 14 October (I grudgingly renewed my membership despite their depriving us of the Tangerine Dream cafe). Dahlias still thrive well into November; this. I think I'm right in saying, is the 'Honka Pink' in the richest-flowering zone of the Dicotyledon Order Beds.

Artichoke flowers nearby are all but over, yet still striking (more of this sort in Battersea Park still to come).

Last leaves on a potted fig

and plentiful shiny, inviting fruit on Punica granatum (bark excellent for dealing with tapeworm) - the pomegranates last well into late winter, even when the leaves have gone.

Basella alba 'Rubra', with the loveliest of leaves at this time 

and tinted varieties of the long-running sunflower, their heads turned away from the statue of the resident deity, Sir Hans Sloane (*slavery alert*, but we're Fotherington-Thomasing right now).

Lemons in October - Citrus trifolliata from China/Korea

in the formal beds, close to Impatiens tinctoria.

Magnolia grandiflora has lost its flowers and thus its heavenly if sometimes overpowering scent, but the seedhead remains compelling.

Not a fungus in sight here - though a return to Kew on the 16th helped me locate the trees under which I've always found the wax-cap (or related) mushrooms in plenty.

Nearby, a lone magnolia bud was going against all seasonal instincts and hoping to flower.

 Into the wooded zone, and the colours were at their peak on beeches, maples and oaks.

More myceliums at the roots.

The river scene, unchanging except in terms of leafing,

and colour alongside the Temple of Bellona by the Victoria Gate.

More of the same on the main thoroughfare through Kensington Gardens alongside the Palace the next day.

Holland Park was deep into autumn, and visitors packing out the Japanese garden. With difficulty, I excised the crowds and tried to keep my distance.

Carp, meanwhile, swam lazily in the leaf-reflecting pond 

 and acers provided a red backdrop to the ever-growing bracket fungi on a tree in the woods.

Back at Fulham Palace's Walled Garden, or - here - just outside it, the gingko leaves still hadn't turned

and the bees were still finding sustenance in dahlia flowers

while produce was still being gleaned from the vegetable beds (on a last visit, only a netted group of Brussels sprout plants remained).

More towers, the one known as the Shard barely seen through the low rain clouds to the right of the church by Lambeth Palace on my way from coffee with Richard Jones at Tate Britain (good to walk with a handful of others through the collections here).

The Shard's illuminated night-time self is more clearly seen to the right of Southwark Cathedral on 22 October.

I came here with Sophie and J for the first of two inspiring concerts presented under relaxed circumstances by the City of London Sinfonia. Perumbulations were possible - here I'm passing the monument featuring Alderman John Humble, his wife and daughter, made by Flemish craftsmen settling in the area (Southwark is proud to note its long-term welcoming of refugees).

Another excursion westwards, can't remember what for exactly now, to Hammersmith's King Street led me on to cycle around an area I'd never explored, but heard about from our friend Cally who lives on the other side of the Great West Road, blight of late 1950s planning, which now bifurcates a treasurable part of Hammersmith/Chiswick. St Peter's Square has very grand houses with eagles above somewhat pretentious columned porticos.

Eagles, I'm guessing, because of St Peter, the church to whom was consecrated in 1829 when there was nothing around it but meadows, market gardens and smallholdings.

Architect Edward Lapidge followed the neoclassical style, and the stone Ionic columns and portico aren't bad.

Thence to the undisturbed Mall by the river on the other side, where you can't hear the rumble of traffic on the main road. This big house which, like all the others, has a 'front garden' on the other side of the road, right by the edge of the Thames. You can just see its prize dahlias over the wall, where purple-flowering sage (not illustrated here) is still going at the time of writing (23 December). 

And so, finally, to the first revelation of the London Wetlands Centre on the afternoon of Hallowe'en. The first distinctive bird we saw from one of the hides was a solitary visitor listed in their daily round-up, 

Herons of course are ubiquitous, but characterful both in flight and in repose

This one foregrounds the main mere rather well, and we are told to pay more attention to the wintering range of seagulls.

Over at the hide by the Wader Scrape, we could hardly believe our eyes - a crane! But surely they're not to be seen in the wild here. On the route to the west, there are zones with wildfowl of the world, each in a separate zone. And here, later, I saw one of the two Demoiselle cranes - this must be the other, and it must have been able to fly out to the wider spaces. Anyway, there's a hope soon that cranes may breed here, just as they have spontaneously in the Norfolk broads, where I heard but didn't properly see them.

The first of many spectacular autumn/winter sunsets over the Wetlands followed - I have some greater beauties in store for November and December - and by the time I cycled into the home square, the full moon was up

and bids this post an elusive farewell between the branches and leaves of the London planes.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Willa Cather's songs of the earth

These are landscapes with people: what landscapes, what people - Swedes and Bohemians in the prairielands of Nebraska, Norwegians and Mexicans in Colorado, French Missionaries among the tribes and races of New Mexico. I actually came to Willa Cather (1873-1947) through Alex Ross who, in his Wagnerism (which I referenced here, as well as in a much too short review for the BBC Music Magazine) devotes a perhaps inordinate amount of space to her perceptions on singing and artistry. Hence I came to The Song of the Lark, central novel of her so-called Great Plains Trilogy. The title is taken from Jules Breton's painting of the same name in Chicago's Art Institute.

The protagonist, Thea Kronborg, has been left money to study in Chicago as a musician (first as a pianist, then as a singer). Cather is careful, as always, to let her break slowly out of her solipsism to learn and observe - and in this case, what Thea observes, on a rare excursion in the city, links the painting to the landscape of her childhood, however different: 'The flat country, the early morning light, the look in the girl's heavy face - well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that that picture was "right". Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain. But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.'

Ross's fascination with the novel lies in Cather's complex take on the artist's calling, which is perhaps better defined in terms of a Wagnerian singer than in any other work of fiction I've read. But equally important is her often ambivalent attitude to her roots, and the essence is of how to bring that into harmony with her new life. Experience is the catalyst, and in Part IV, 'The Ancient People', Thea goes to stay in the San Francisco Mountains of Northern Arizona. Cather is on the verge of preachiness in describing how her heroine finds herself in mystical touch with the indigenous people whose deserted rock homes populate Panther Canyon. Ansel Adams' 'Canyon de Chelly' is a helpful point of reference here, as are so many of his photographs. A detail of it is actually reproduced on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Song of the Lark.

Cather stops short of stating the obvious - that the time-machine effect helps Thea forward in her impersonations of Wagner's mythic heroines - but that's clearly implied. 

Thea Kronborg is a compelling creation, a fusion of the opera singer Olive Fremstad and of Cather herself, though the author's upbringing was not in Colorado but in the green landscapes of Virginia (until the age of 9), and then the prairie of Nebraska, the preferred pays d'adoption of her fiction. She must have felt at first just as she describes it in O Pioneers!

of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening...The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings. 

Nebraska is where the shorter and in some ways less complex outer panels of the Great Plains trilogy are located. Two more strong women are at their core. Cather describes the mind of Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! as 'slow, truthful, steadfast', but she loves the difficult, seemingly unyielding land: 

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of the geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower that it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

She makes a success of the poor farm bequeathed to her. 16 years pass, and her first (and only) love asks how she and her neighbours did it with the land she saved and borrowed to buy.

'We hadn't any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all it once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found that we were rich, just from sitting still.'

Others move away to seek a new life; tragedies unfold, not least in a parallel plot featuring a brutal husband accorded remarkable understanding by Cather. But Alexandra endures, and there is a quiet, optimistic ending in which she concludes: 'The land belongs to the future...We come and we go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it for a little while'. The same is expressed by my good friend Kaupo Kikkas in his website section on the photographs of 'Ansel', which I had the good luck to see last summer in Pärnu, with music by Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks to complement them: 'My “Ansel” is the 500 million-year-old landscape. It was here before the arrival of man. It will remain after the last of us is gone.' Just an excuse to introduce one of his stunning images. I wish I'd found the time to write about them on the blog after what had to be an all-too-brief mention in my Arts Desk article on the 2019 Pärnu Music Festival.

Cather is not blind to the exploitation and misuse of nature, and she seems nostalgic for the unfarmed and parcelled out prairie (in its old self, as one character puts it, 'the grass was the country, as the water was the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds, when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running'). But harmony with nature in the farming pioneers is central. My Ántonia is the portrait of a vivacious Bohemian girl as seen through the eyes of the boy she shares her childhood with. Jim Burden, the narrator, is quite a sentimentalist, but there are harsh incidents which course through the softness, as in a devastating chapter about a suicide, and you believe in the final idyll of Antonia's life as fecund mother and farmer. It may seem a rose-tinted picture, but the notion of self-sufficiency where everyone works together is an attainable ideal.

More rock-like is the prose of what has been argued as Cather's greatest masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, set in the varied scenes of the vast territory called New Mexico, where in some places 'the country was still waiting to be made into a landscape'. Its essence is picaresque, with shades of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, though these are no rogues or madmen but two missionaries of contrasting temperaments and outlooks. Father Ferrand and Bishop Latour do what good they can on their own very different terms in a tough land where they could be killed at any moment. The latter, reaching a simple community shortly after being lost, realises that his 'dear Joseph...must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature, but against it'. Later, he tells Ferrand:

 'The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what there is about us always.'

Though Ferrand is much loved by the different people he visits, Cather's sympathies are clearly with Latour, his understanding of people of different faiths and races. His Indian assistant Jacinto, behind whom Latour perceives 'a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him',

liked the Bishop's way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos, the right tone with Padre Jesusm and that he had good manners with the Indians In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces: Father Vaillant's, for example, was kind but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.

The compliment is returned:

Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or bids through the air.

So the perspective in Death Comes for the Archbishop is bigger, more sweeping, than in the earlier novels, though always bounded by perfect prose. The two men meet alarming local autocrats, dark elements of other religions which must simply be accepted, a noble Navajo with whom the Bishop has a moving friendship, changes to the territory ('as Father Vaillant remarked, at Rome they did not seem to realize that it was no easy task for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history'). The Bishop lives long enough 'to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have lived to see the Navajos restored to their own country'. He has seen how 'too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that [Indian] warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going'. Plus ca change. But the Bishop dies in the knowledge that God will preserve the Indian.

There are almost too many quotable passages in these four books, but I'll finish with one that comes towards the end of Death Comes for the Archbishop, sure that I'll find many more in Willa Cather's other novels, her letters and her biography, still on the reading list. I've inserted one more of Kaupo's images before plunging into the last chunk of prose.

But the Spanish Fathers who came up to Zuni, then went north to the Navajos, west to the Hopis, east to all the pueblos scattered between Albuquerque and Taos, they came into a hostile country, carrying little provisionment but their breviary and crucifix. When their mules were stolen by Indians, as often happened, they proceeded on foot, without a change of raiment, without food or water. A European could scarcely imagine such hardships. The old countries were worn to the shape of human life, made into an investiturem a sort of second body, for man. There the wild herbs and the wild fruit and the forest fungi were edible. The streams were sweet water, the trees afforded shade and shelter. But in the alkali deserts, the water holes were poisonous, and the vegetation offered nothing to a starving man. Everything was dry, prickly, sharp; Spanish bayonet, juniper, greasewood, cactus; the lizard, the rattlesnake - and man made cruel by a cruel life. Those early missionaries threw themselves nakes upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants. They thirsted in its deserts, starved among its rocks, climbed up and down its terrible canyons on stone-bruised feet, broke long fasts by unclean and repugnant food. Surely these endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St Paul and his brethren could have had. Whatever the early Christians suffered, it all happened in that safe little Mediterranean world, amidst the old manners, the old landmarks. If they endured martyrdom, they died among their brethren, their relics were piously preserved, their names lived in the mouths of holy men.

Despite the toughness of this writing, I should only add that for all the harsh events featured in the pages of the four novels I've read, Cather has been such a luminous and positive companion through these dark days - the ideal lockdown reading.