Wednesday 23 November 2022

On the beach at night alone*

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,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. 

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.

Saturday 19 November 2022

Ireland: a lively history and a rich novel

Picked up a copy of Frank Delaney's Ireland in Hodges Figgis when I was last in Dublin, seeking to know more of my new found land in prose that was rather more eloquent than I'd found in the history books on the shelves in Fitzwilliam Street. It seemed unlikely that Delaney would make the novel wrapped around the numerous 'storytellings' work as well, but a brief flick through suggested the semi-mythic embroideries of the facts would be reward enough.

I was wrong: the journey of two souls, the Storyteller's and young Ronan O'Mara's, is no less compelling than the takes on everything from the stone-age miracle of unpromisingly-named Newgrange, via vivid lives of saints and warriors, to the Easter Rising of 1916. Delaney rings the changes on the chief narrator's word-magic by having Ronan himself try his hand in the schoolroom, and then by introducing the donnish playfulness of his tutor at Trinity College, T. Bartlett Ryle, whose didactic quality is actually useful - or at least I found it so - in reinforcing the injustice of centuries of English rule, where (thus Ryle) 

the state, that is to say the ruling body, that is to say the monarchy - and later the elected Mother of Parliaments - felt and exercised the right to interfere in people's lives in a minute, everyday way. To put it differently, it paved the way for oppression on a personal scale, because it struck at the personality of a people. And that is the hallmark of true prejudice, of true despotism.

The don returns at a later stage to reinforce what the Storyteller has had to say about Daniel O'Connell with his personal take on Charles Parnell, reinforcing the important notion that the first took as his cause the abolition of the Penal Reform laws, the second Land Reform, both acknowledging 

this pattern of failure on both sides. The English hadn't succeeded in their different eradication attempts, which ranged from assimilation to would-be genocide, because somehow the Irish clung on to who they were. And the Irish failed to throw them out because the country was simply too small to get anywhere by force of arms.

This is all very useful for a novice in Irish history like myself. But the imagination is what counts in terms of both the novel and the retelling, in many cases the mythologising, of the Irish past.
Clearly both Delaney and our Storyteller have some very fanciful chronicles of the saints to help them make the legends of Patrick and the Devil, Brendan and the New World, flavoursome. But the language is pure poetic prose, especially in the marine flavouring of Brendan's home in the west and his long odyssey. 

And the wanderer's observation of exquisite detail in nature chimes with where I am now. On, then, to the third volume of Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy, A Book of Falsehoods. It's been a long wait for Merike Lepasaar Beecher's translation - Volume Two appeared in 2017, when I first wrote about my excited discovery of the Estonian genius - but last week the treasured tome arrived in the post from my dear friend Katharina Bielenberg of MacLehose Press. More anon.