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Saturday, 25 March 2017


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Shelley’s famous poem is in the form of an Italian sonnet; a stanza of eight lines followed by one of six lines. It is written in iambic pentameter which is five pairs of beats, or iams, with an accent on the second beat. For example “If music be the food of love play on” or “Now is the winter of our discontent”. However I am not really interested in the technical aspects of this brilliant little poem. It packs a real punch and demonstrates that less is more! 
It is about the futility of tyranny. Ozymandias was a king of ancient Egypt, full of his own importance but in the end his huge statue crumbled into the empty sands (like Saddam Hussein?) The inscription "Look on my works ye mighty and despair" tells us much about him. We learn that the sculptor showed a sneer of "cold command" on the lips - so there's one person, at least who saw through him.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shelley has used the exotic ancient past of Egypt to demonstrate that art can critique power and, perhaps, to make a statement about the politics of his own time. Ozymandias may have been a despotic tyrant but his Empire and his monument have been reduced to rubble – only the sneer remains and the inscription. The traveller who is relating the story looks about him after reading it but only sees the “Lone and level sands that stretch far away”. Nature is mightier than the king and all of his power and glory is reduced to dust. The vast desert is mocking human vanity and hubris. For me, this is an absolute masterpiece

Footnote: What does this poem have in common with Breaking Bad?
The final season of Breaking Bad follows Walter White as his meth-producing empire, metaphorically crumbles into the sand in the desert of New Mexico. Near the end of the consistently brilliant series one of the best episodes is called .........Ozymandias.

I have been listening to the brilliant but tragic Judee Sill singing The Kiss. You can hear it here. There is also a live version from the BBC which I find very emotional (but I'm a bit soppy).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Painting of the Month (69) March 2017: Picasso

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
This is one of the most famous paintings ever made but, even now, a hundred years after it was first exhibited it tends to cause a strong reaction, often a negative one. I would like to try to show why it is such an important picture and to explain some of the pictorial elements and provide some contextual background. Pablo Picasso painted the picture in 1907 but did not show it until 1916, knowing the reception it was likely to receive. And the reaction was strong, even from his fellow artists. Matisse, in many ways the antithesis of Picasso and his rival to lead the avant-garde of modern painting, expressed his dislike as did Georges Braque. Braque eventually began to appreciate the work and he and Picasso went on to develop Cubism together.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (The Young Ladies of Avignon), is clearly in a proto-Cubist style. It ignored the then-current style of European painting; it was very two-dimensional lacking perspective and, although clearly representative, it is beginning to break up the picture surface into lines and angles. Picasso had recently seen an exhibition of African art and owned Fang masks similar to the one shown here. The two figures on the right of the picture clearly show this influence while the three on the left have typically Iberian faces.
The picture portrays five prostitutes in a brothel on the Carrer d'Avinyó (so: young ladies of Avignon Street, Barcelona, not of Avignon in south-east France). The ladies are not demure, staring out of the picture in a slightly aggressive or confrontational manner. It was meant to shock - and it did! The work was deemed to be immoral when first exhibited in public. Picasso originally called it Le Bordel d’Avignon but it was given it's famous title by a critic who probably helped prevent total public outrage. Picasso always disliked it's newer title and always preferred his original title. He always would refer to it as "my brothel".
Every new breakaway movement in art, however radical, owes much to what went before and below I have shown some works which are acknowledged to have been influential in the creation of this work.
El Greco, The Vision of St John, 1608. Often cited as an influence.
 Paul Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Note the defiant stare.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Painting of the Month (68) Jan 2017: John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917) was a late-comer to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood school of painting. He worked at a date which was late enough for him to show influences of Impressionism in some of his later  work. His themes were pretty consistent throughout his career; ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, often depicting women in a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Lady of Shalott by J W Waterhouse, 1888, Tate Modern, London
The first and best of three versions he made of this subject.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalottbased on medieval legends of King Arthur, in 1833 with a revised version in 1842. The story is that the lady was a prisoner in a tower on the island of Shalott which was situated in a river leading downstream to Camelot. We don't know who she was or why she was being punished but she could only see images of the world in her mirror. She weaved these images into a multi-coloured web but was under threat of an unknown curse if she looked upon Camelot or any of it's people. One day she saw and fell in love with Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table and her fate was sealed. We see her floating down toward Camelot and to her tragic demise.
The painting is an interesting mix of both symbolism and realism. The palette (range of colours used) is very autumnal as is the low-cast light level. I have sampled some of the these colours below to illustrate this point.
The artist has succeeded in maintaining a balance between realism and what we might call 'other-worldliness'. Her unkempt hair and the untidy reeds in the foreground along with her expression symbolises her despair. She could also be said to symbolise the position of women in Victorian Britain - she is not in control of her destiny. Waterhouse has kept a sense of realism with his clever use of depth in the background landscape and the surface of the water. As she emerges from the dark woods behind her she is brightly lit so she remains the focus of our attention. To her left you can see some steps leading down to the water, which I think she has just walked down to begin her fateful journey. There are three candles on the far side of the boat, only one of which is still burning and toward the bow of the boat is a crucifix, all of which symbolises her impending untimely death. Draped over the side of the boat is one of her tapestries, a direct reference to Tennyson's poem.
In summary, we have a realistic scene of a 'fairy-tale' woman heavily symbolic of both the time in which it was made and of faithful reference to Tennyson's poem.
Below are Waterhouse's two other paintings of this subject. In both works we can see her tapestry loom and, in the background, the mirror, her only view of the world until she looks at Lancelot.
Having just got back from a long weekend in France I'm feeling all Frenchified and I am listening to Françoise Hardy: 
La maison où j'ai grandi (click to listen).
I used to be in love with her - probably still am. My wife understands....

Monday, 16 January 2017

The wonderful story of Agloe, New York

The protection of intellectual property can be a very difficult area for map-makers. The London A-Z map book is known to contain various non-existent streets. 
The idea is that anyone copying the work of the publishers would be trapped in any legal action because they would copy the deliberate errors and be exposed. This is an age-old practice to keep the copycats at bay. Companies that create maps get their work pirated all the time. You might hire surveyors and draughtsmen, you might checks all of your spellings, you might get all of the towns and cities in the right place and another company comes along, say for example a tourist agency, and steals your work.
You cry 'Piracy!' and take them to court.  "Prove it" they say "It's a map, it describes what is. Because there's a real world out there, obviously maps are going to be identical. So we're only guilty of describing the same world the other map described". Jurors think, "Hmm, sounds reasonable," and the pirates get away with it. Unless the mapmaker runs a little scam. 
I am going to relate the fascinating story of what happened to a map published in the 1930s. The map-makers, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company of Convent Station, New Jersey, used an anagram of their initials, OGL and EA, to create the fictitious town of Agloe, New York. They sited it in a spot that they knew to be uninhabited 100m from the junction of Highway 206 and an, at-that-time, dirt road called Beaverkill Valley Road. So, were any plagiarist to copy their map, Agloe would in turn show up on the stolen property, and General Drafting Co. would have their proof.
Google maps Street View couldn't get me any closer.
Then one day it happened! Rand McNally, a big map distribution company, published a new New York map that showed Agloe on it. "Aha" thought Lindberg and Alpers "We've got 'em". But they were in for a shock when the case got to court. 
A couple had bought a legal copy of General's map from Esso, who were the distributors, and chose Agloe as the spot to open a General Store. (You might wonder why they chose to open a store in a non-existent place but the town of Roscoe is very nearby and, anyway, that's what they did). Rand McNally countered the plaintiffs accusation by asking "How come the Agloe General Store exists (for that is what the couple had named their business) if there is no such place." And they won their case. Lindberg and Alpers had legitimately created a 'Paper Town' to protect their work but it became a reality and voided their legal claim that they had made it up and that it 'did not exist'!
The American Map Company bought and swallowed-up General Drafting in 1992 and Agloe continued to be included in their maps (maybe they didn't know it's history?). Google reportedly only removed it from their maps in 2013, eighty years after it first appeared. However, I just put 'Agloe' into a Google Maps search box and the location of the 'Agloe General Store (Closed)'  was shown on Beaverkill Valley Road! 
So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed.......and then didn't! 
FOOTNOTE:     John Green, who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars, based his mystery novel 'Paper Towns' on Agloe in 2008 and it was made into a Hollywood film in 2015. Apparently the film stinks. Perhaps it will disappear......
I am listening to Dave Edmunds 'Queen of Hearts'

Monday, 9 January 2017

Painting of the Month (67) Dec 2017: Gilbert & George

Forward, Gilbert & George 2008, Stained Glass
Gilbert and George are an oddity in the art world. They are Conservative, monarchists and anti-socialists. They do everything together, are never seen apart (they are a couple) and have been together since art school days. Gilbert Prousch was born in Italy in 1943 and George Passmore in England in 1942. They are often seen walking along together in the trendy parts of London's East End. They declined to be photographed with me when I ran into them a couple of years ago (I don't blame them really). They are strongly anti-elitist and have questioned why so many artists are left-wing socialists whom, they claim, tend to be all the same. Surely, they ask, artists should want to be different and individual? Their trade mark is that they are very often featured in their own work which they describe as 'scuptures'.
Family Tree, Gilbert & George 1994, Photos pasted onto board
They are irreverent, witty, obscenely rude, playful and fun. They are always immaculately dressed and are renowned for their highly-formal appearance, always in the same matching suits. I have made a collage of some of their photos below.
I'm listening to the original version of  Lets Stick Together by Wilbert Harrison 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Keener's Manual

The late Richard Condon has long been one of my favourite authors. The novel that made him famous was The Manchurian Candidate. Other Hollywood successes were Winter Kills and the Prizzi's Honor series. He specialised in satirical black comedies usually centred around the political world. Winter Kills is a thinly-disguised take on the Kennedy family.
The late Richard Condon
Although his books are very funny and hugely entertaining, this post is about an element in his books that intrigued and puzzled me for years. However the mystery has been resolved for several years now and I am going to describe it here.....
In the frontispiece of every book is a quotation from "The Keener's Manual". As an example, in A Talent for Loving the quote, credited to the Keener's Manual is:
  The gifts that I bring you
  Crowded and shoving
  Are the envy of princes;
  A talent for loving
This is the book that was so nearly filmed by the Beatles as Eight Arms to Hold You but they made Help instead. Another example, from Condon's first novel The Oldest Confession, has this epigram in the front cover:
   The Oldest Confession
   Is one of Need,
   Half the need Love
   The other half Greed.

The title of the book was not always a direct quote. Prizzi's Glory of 1988 has this quote from the manual:
   Seeking good fortune
   As we rise from the mud,
   'Tis often we're paid
   From a purse filled with blood.

But here's the point of this post - although I had tried for years to find a copy of The Keener's Manual, no librarian was able to help me. Eventually I discovered that it has never existed; it's existence was completely fabricated by Condon as were all of the quotes! There are several other examples of this kind of thing. One that springs to mind is the extensive use of footnotes about the scientist de Selbey in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. The footnotes must comprise about a quarter of the book.
Another interesting fact about Condon's novels is that every one of them featured a character named Frank Heller but he was a different person in each book. Condon would often use the names of friends and acquaitances as characters and, at one time, proposed the idea of having a central register of character names that authors could safely use as they wished. I don't know how serious he was about that idea.
Incidentally a keener is some one who mourns at a wake usually by wailing, a word of Irish origin.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli, the name comes from Lapis, Latin for 'stone' and  Lazhuward, Persian for 'blue'. It has been mined almost exclusively, in north-eastern Afghanistan and a part of Pakistan for nine centuries. It was used to fashion the eyebrows on the funeral mask of Tutankhamen over 3,300 years ago.

It is a mineral rock which provides the most intense deep blue pigment. When it began to be imported into Europe in the Middle Ages, blue was a difficult and expensive colour for artists to obtain and it became the basis of French Ultramarine paint for centuries until artificial pigment could be manufactured. This had the effect of making it rare and costly so that it became a status symbol in art in much the same way as gold leaf. 
The Madonna, Sassoferrato, 17th century
Blue colours symbolise Heavenly Grace in Medieval art as well as hope, good health and the state of servitude. The Virgin Mary is frequently depicted wearing blue clothing to indicate heavenly chastity.

It is useful to bear in mind that this rule, as with all symbolism, should not be seen as immutable; artists were free to create alternative values but the 'meaning' of a picture would often need to be 'read' through it's depictions and colours.
I'm listening to George Harrison singing 
Bob Dylan's 'If Not For You' from 
All Things Must Pass.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Painting of the Month (66) Nov 2016: Caravaggio

I am back after taking a short break from Blogging 
and hope to visit many Blogs over the next few weeks!
Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes 1598-99
OK, the subject matter is a bit grim; The Book of Judith is in the Catholic Old Testament but not in the Hebrew or Protestant versions. It is found in the Apocrypha because some scholars consider it's many anachronisms cause them to relegate it’s status. It has even been described as the 'first historical novel'!
However, this post is about Caravaggio and his painting.  Michelangelo Merisi Merigi da Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571 and died, probably murdered by any of a number of people out for revenge, in 1610 aged 38. His life was tumultuous even by the standards of those times. He frequently had to relocate his home after being involved in drunken brawls.
His painting style is usually considered to be early Baroque which is complex but broadly can be associated with the Catholic Church trying to re-assert itself in the face of Protestant reform.
This painting has many very interesting aspects. It captures the highly dramatic moment of decapitation. There is another superb painting of this subject by Artemisia Gentileschi  which I have shown below. For me, what separates the two pictures is the expression on Judith’s face in the Caravaggio version. It seems to convey her repulsion and determination at the same time. Caravaggio had witnessed the public execution by beheading of Beatrice Celini in Rome and he has managed to convey the horrific moment when a man loses his life with incredible anatomical detail. One would usually'read' a painting left to right but this composition is unusual in that the two women enter from the right.
Caravaggio is renowned for his importance in developing the style known as Chiaroscuro. This involves the use of strong contrasts often used in religious painting where a dramatic shaft of light illuminates the subject.
Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Beheading Holofernes 1614-20
Footnote:  Judith was a Hebrew woman who got Holofernes drunk in order to slay him. He was a general of Nebuchadnezzar who was charged with subjugating all of the nations who worshiped other Gods than Nebuchadnezzar himself. The painting can be seen as an allegory of Virtue versus Evil.
Artemisia Gentileschi was extremely unusual in being an, eventually, recognised female artist of the very highest quality.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

"The Dutchman" by Steve Goodman

Stephen Joshua Goodman
The Dutchman is lovely song made (a bit) famous by the Chicago-born singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. He didn't write this particular song but his version is by far the best one.
I recommend listening here and coming back to read about it!
The lyrics are printed below if you want to follow along.

THE DUTCHMAN by Michael Peter Smith                      
The Dutchman's not the kind of man                                       
Who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam  
That holds his dreams in,                
But that's a secret that only Margaret knows.           
When Amsterdam is golden in the summer,
Margaret brings him breakfast,  
She believes him.
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow.
He's mad as he can be, but Margaret only sees that sometimes,
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.
The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes,  
His cap and coat are patched with the love
That Margaret sewed there.
Sometimes he thinks he's still in Rotterdam.
And he watches the tug-boats down canals
An' calls out to them when he thinks he knows the Captain.
Till Margaret comes             
To take him home again              
Through unforgiving streets that trip him, though she holds his arm,
Sometimes he thinks he's alone and he calls her name.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

The winters whirl the windmills 'round
She winds his muffler tighter         
And they sit in the kitchen.
Some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew.  
And he sees her for a moment, calls her name,
She makes the bed up singing some old love song,  
A song Margaret learned              
When it was very new.           
He hums a line or two, they sing together in the dark.
The Dutchman falls asleep and Margaret blows the candle out.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

It's a sad story about growing old, dementia and long-lasting love. But, it's not entirely sad, having some wistful elements of nostalgia. I like the lines:
"And he sees her for a moment, calls her name,
She makes the bed up singing some old love song".
Such a clear picture is painted in those two lines.
Steve Goodman died of Leukaemia in 1984 aged just 36. He had known his illness was terminal for some time but kept on working and writing. His most famous song is The City of New Orleans made famous by Arlo Guthrie.

Saturday, 17 September 2016


I love one-liner jokes so I've collected a few favourites together to help lighten your mood!
From Tim Vine:
  • I phoned the local gym and I asked if they could teach me how to do the splits. He said, "How flexible are you?" I said, "I can't make Tuesdays."
  • So I went to buy a watch, and the man in the shop said "Analogue." I said "No, just a watch." 
  • I went into a shop and I said, "Can someone sell me a kettle." The bloke said "Kenwood?" I said, "Where is he?" 
  • So I went to the record shop and I said "What have you got by The Doors?" He said: "A bucket of sand and a fire blanket!" 
  • I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what - never again.
From Milton Jones:
  • Militant feminists: I take my hat off to them. They don’t like that.
  • I was mugged by a man on crutches, wearing camouflage. Ha ha, I thought, you can hide but you can’t run.
  • My wife... its difficult to say what she does... she sells seashells on the seashore.
  • My grandfather invented the cold air balloon... But it never really took off.
  • Hopefully I’ve got a book coming out soon. Shouldn’t have eaten it, really.
From Tommy Cooper:
  • I knocked on the door at this Bed and Breakfast and a lady stuck her head out of the window and said: 'What do you want', I said, 'I want to stay here'. She said, 'Well stay there' and shut the window. 
  • D'you know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen, it said "Parking Fine." So that was nice.
  • "Doctor, I can't pronounce my F's, T's or H's".  "Well, you can't say fairer than that."
  • So I was getting into my car, and this bloke says to me “Can you give me a lift?” I said “Sure, you look great, the world’s your oyster, go for it.’
  • I asked the waiter: “How long will my spaghetti be?” He said: “I don’t know. We never measure it."
From Stewart Francis:

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Parliament Square, London

View across Parliament Square with Westminster Abbey on the right.
Watercolour by Pete Scully,
Tower Bridge and The Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben are the two most iconic images of London. Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the building. It has a crack which has been there since it was cast and gives it the distinctive sound which is heard all over the world with the BBC time signal. The UK Houses of Parliament are still sometimes referred to as The Palace of Westminster because since the early eleventh century various royal palaces have stood on the site.  
William I had a castle there after the eleventh century Norman invasion.
Westminster Abbey: In the early eighth century a Saxon Church dedicated to St Peter was constructed on the site. The church became known as the West Minster ('west monastery'), while St Paul's, a few miles to the east was known as the East Minster ('east monastery').

Winston Churchill's Statue in Parliament Square
The modern square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry and is famous as the site of London’s first traffic lights.  It is home to 11 statues of British, Commonwealth, and foreign statesmen. In anti-clockwise order starting with Churchill: This 12-foot bronze by Ivor Roberts-Jones shows him wearing a Navy overcoat. HIs 88-year-old widow Lady Clementine unveiled it in 1973, with the help of the Queen. Churchill chose the location himself in 1950. A mild electric current stops pigeons perching and snow forming on Churchill’s bald head!  
Jan Smuts in Parliament Square
Jan Smuts also has a statute, by Jacob Epstein, in the square. Smuts was the South African leader who fought the British in the Boer War but he was on Britain's side as a staunch ally in both World wars and is the only person whose signature is on the German surrender documents at the end of both wars. The other statues are of various British and foreign statesmen; Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are all represented.
However, my favourite statues are both just off the square in Victoria Tower Gardens. Firstly is the suffragette, Emeline Pankhurst, the only female in sight!
Emeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens
Her statue was erected in 1930 just two years after her death, which is very quick by any standards. Her right hand seems to be indicated the way to the Parliament building at her side.
1908 cast of Rodin's Burghers of Calais
The second statue is a cast of Rodin's Burghers of Calais. This one was cast in 1908. The French Government strictly limits the number of casts that can be made of any of Rodin works. This one is the third. The maximum allowed would be 12.
View across the square toward the Houses of Parliament,aka The Palace of Westminster.
You can just see Churchill in front of the red bus.
And on another side of the square is Westminster Abbey......
but that's a story for another time!
I'm listening to Amoureuse by Kiki Dee. This version, on You Tube, has the beautiful lyrics displayed ("When I am far away, I feel the rainfall on another planet"). Helen Reddy's song Emotion is the same tune with different lyrics. That's because they are both new English lyrics added to an original French song.