Wednesday 14 December 2022

A Day Like Any Other Day, Again

I have things to do, places to go, and people to see over the next few weeks (Look out and look lively: just in case you hadn't heard, Christmas is coming!). I imagine you, too, have better and more urgent things to be doing at this time of year. So I'm going to pack up the blog slightly earlier than usual this year to relieve some of the pressure to write stuff – an entirely self-imposed task anyway – and I'll take this opportunity to wish you all the best for the coming year. It's only weeks away, after all... I should be back early in January.

As I have started a certain amount of recycling of old posts, I thought it would be appropriate to revive this seasonal one from December 2012, lightly revised, and brought up to date.

A Day Like Any Other Day

I have confessed several times in this blog that my understanding of history is poor, and arranged around various tropes from popular culture. For me, there are the Pirate Days, the Age of Wigs, Top Hat Times, and so on. In recent times (that is, the Internet Era) I have been attempting to address this failing, mainly through the medium of historical novels, films, and TV series. If I now have any greater understanding of the Napoleonic Wars, it is by following the adventures of Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey. I am aware that this is rather like trying to grasp the politics of the Cold War Era by reading John Le Carré and Len Deighton, but I simply can't handle too many books without pictures and conversations any more, and it's not as if I'm going to be sitting any exams.

One thing this approach has revealed is that popular culture has its historical blind spots (not unlike the school history curriculum). The 17th century, for example, is quite poorly represented, even that period of turmoil known variously as the Civil War, the War of Three Nations, or the English Revolution. This is very odd, given that the conflicts of this era and their outcomes are the crucible of our modern British world. I'm not sure whether Germans have a similar amnesia about the Thirty Years War, but I suspect they might.

It's largely to do with religion, of course. Most modern Brits have reverted to a sort of secular paganism, which is our default spiritual setting, one which regards cruelty to animals as the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, and Live And Let Live (except for paedophiles, dog abusers, and queue jumpers) as the whole of the law. I doubt many today could point out the dogmatic differences between a Protestant and a Catholic, let alone the internecine issues that separated the official Church of England from the various emerging "low church" protestant sects in previous centuries. These once heartfelt things are complex, "unrelatable", and difficult to dramatize.
"So, Ensign Brown, we are agreed that rule of the church by bishops is an outrage?"
"No, colonel, I hold that all priests are usurpers of God's word!"
"Why, sir, I go further, and hold that God's presence in my soul means I am saved and therefore free to do whatsoever I do like. And I do quite like your wife!"
[A scuffle breaks out]
Complexity is pop-culture poison, and the whole thing is as mystifying now as, in Jorge Luis Borges' words about the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb.

The broader issues of liberty, democracy, and freedom from tyranny are easier to grasp. When I was a student, in the heyday of the New Left, there was a vogue for seeing the radical wing of the Parliamentarian cause – the so-called Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters – as an alternative, dissenting strand in British history, suppressed and sublimated, but eternally bubbling under. There is clearly a great deal of truth in this, but it is equally clearly a demonstration of the idea that we make history in our own image. In 17th-century reality, the demands for liberty, democracy, freedom of worship, and religious reform were as inextricably linked as a box of tangled Christmas-tree lights.

A puritan Christmas flag

Which brings me conveniently to Christmas. Oliver Cromwell is remembered as The Man Who Banned Christmas. Gasp! In the Disneyfied world of 2022, what greater crime against consuming humanity could be imagined? Unless it were to be the closing down of the TV and streaming channels – nooo! – which, if you consider the theatres were the contemporary equivalent in Cromwell's day, is exactly what they did do. Strictly Come Dancing is henceforth banned. Graham Norton is to undergo re-education. The revolution will not be televised.

That said, a whole fourteen years ago there was a TV miniseries set in the Civil War, The Devil's Whore, the first part of which showed Croyland Abbey under siege by the troops of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough – the highest ranking Leveller in Cromwell's New Model Army – on Christmas Day. In a brave attempt to dramatise some of the ideological conflicts within the roundhead ranks, Rainsborough is shown turning on a subordinate who has suggested that bombarding the Royalists sheltering in the Abbey on Christmas Day is, well, perhaps, just a little OTT?  Rainsborough snarls, "It is a day like any other day!"

At which point, either your inner Roundhead or your inner Cavalier is roused. Christmas: blessed occasion for revels and extravagance, or wasteful descent into mindless hedonism?

Perhaps, like that subordinate, you are conflicted, but will take a firmer grasp on your 16-foot pike or matchlock musket, remembering Rainsborough's rousing words at the Putney Debates:
I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.
Turning the home of some aristo into rubble on Christmas Day would certainly have seemed a small price to pay for that, wouldn't you say? It was surely a high point in our history, but one that doesn't get celebrated much or mythologised in popular culture. Instead, like the left of the Labour Party today (never mind those even "lefter" than that), it is regarded more as an embarrassing smell emanating from history's bad plumbing, best ignored in polite company, or covered up with the latest political air-freshener (New! Plug-in Starmeriser!).

A certain number of Brits on either side didn't like what happened next, and what they foresaw would happen after that: the betrayals, the compromises, the broken promises, the restoration of the monarchy, enclosure of common land, industrialisation, rule by top-hat wearers, Christmas as a retail opportunity, and endless repeats of The Snowman on the TV... So shiploads of them decided to head over to the New World, and become Americans.

Sorry about that, you Wampanoags, Pequots and all tribes west. They meant well. Puritans always do, but it somehow never quite works out, and always seems to end in tyranny and massacres. And as for the discomfited Royalists who headed for the plantations of Virginia, southern slavery may fairly be regarded as their rotten legacy. As Pascal famously wrote in the Pensées, "J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre" (I have discovered that all of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room). An admirably Quaker-ish sentiment for a Jansenist, but the sad truth is that it's life's restless fidgets who make the history the rest of us have to deal with.

So, all best wishes for a tolerable Christmas, if Christmas is your thing, and a happy and fulfilling New Year!

Friday 9 December 2022

A Day Out

 I had a brilliant, if tiring day out in London on Wednesday. Our son had booked a family outing to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican. Despite having enjoyed Miyazaki's animated film when we saw it some years ago I have to confess I was reluctant to go: it was hard to imagine how that curious edgeland between sentimentality and horror that Studio Ghibli productions tend to occupy would translate to the stage, and I was not anticipating with any great pleasure two and three quarter hours of toe-curlingly cutesy musical pantomime, not least with Shakespearean actors pretending to be Japanese. But, you know, sometimes you just have to push yourself out of your own comfort zone...

My partner had work business to attend to during that afternoon, so we travelled up to London together, and I went on to the Royal Academy to see the William Kentridge exhibition in its last days before it closes next week. I confess I had never even heard of Kentridge before the show opened in September, but it has had rave reviews, so it seemed a good way to spend a few hours before heading to the Barbican. Of course, rave reviews do not guarantee a worthwhile exhibition, as my experience at the National Gallery with Winslow Homer demonstrated so vividly, so I was pre-skeptical, so to speak.

As it turned out, the reviewers were right: I was amazed, enthralled, and enthused; in short, gobsmacked. What a show, what a consummate artist, and what a shame you won't get to see it, if you haven't already been. I won't try to describe the experience, other than to say it is humbling to see what truly engaged creativity looks like; most of us aren't even trying by comparison. You can get a taste of Kentridge's work by viewing this online video, William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, produced by Art21 [1]. The video runs for 53 minutes, but you'll probably either abandon it after one minute, or watch the whole thing. I like to think that you, too, will be amazed, enthralled, and enthused.

As for Totoro, it is also a really top-class piece of work, which you also won't get to see, unfortunately, unless it is to tour somewhere near you, as it is completely sold out until the end of its run. Which is not surprising, as it is a delightful feat of stagecraft. The sets, puppetry, and coups de théâtre are amazing, and establish a wonderful sense of suspended disbelief, even in a crusty old cynic like me. And, thankfully, the actors are East Asian; mainly Japanese, too, it seems. That said, Totoro could not fairly be described as Shakespearean in its scope; the storyline is pretty linear, and Miyazaki's characteristic turn to Japanese animism is enchanting, but not really a match for, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream [2]. We did have to leave after the intermission to get a train back to Southampton, but I think it's safe to say we had seen the very best of the show by then. We know how the story ends, after all (although I admit I had to be reminded).

When we arrived at Southampton station, I was astonished to find that our car was already covered in thick frost: a final little theatrical surprise. The weather has taken a cold turn, but I hadn't thought it was that cold yet. It took quite a while to clear off, evoking memories of early winter mornings with fingers and wrists aching with cold and the effort of scraping ice before heading off to work. It's a fine thing, being a pensioner at leisure; although not so much if, like so many this year, you can't afford to heat your house. We eventually got home around 11:30.

Such days are what it is all about, I think. Whatever "it" is. I'm glad they don't come along too often, however: that would be exhausting, and – like a superb coup de théâtre – are best when completely unexpected.

1. A site that looks to be packed with other good stuff. Do you admire Richard Misrach, for example? Then try this.
2. Curiously the light-hearted and life-affirming Totoro was released as a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies, which is an utterly grim tale of the last days of Japan in WW2. It's so harrowing, I don't think we ever managed to watch that one all the way through...

Saturday 3 December 2022

Oh Well

Tom Phillips at 50, on page 50

I was saddened to learn that the artist Tom Phillips died this week. He was 85. I suppose I'm now at the age when our heroes and mentors – who are generally a decade or two older than us, rather than our actual contemporaries – will start dying off with appalling regularity, and all too often with the words "after a short / long illness" attached, rather than "tragically young". I won't rehearse Tom's life and achievements: there are obituaries here and here. What matters, of course, and what you want to read about is what role he played in my life!

I'm joking, of course, but there is a serious side to that, too. The purpose of a successful artist of any sort, especially in these media-dominated times, is twofold. First, obviously, they make the work that you absorb and make use of in your own life: the pictures you choose to hang on your walls, the books you have read and keep on your shelves, the music you return to in your particular moods. But, second, they also (whether they like it or not) become public figures whose lives and deeds also belong to us, at least in some caricatured version that suits our purposes, not theirs. Artists may despise biographies, and seek to circumvent them by covering their tracks, but we demand that their lives be served up in a few hundred pages – not necessarily whole, just the juicier bits will do – and what we want someone will find a way to provide.

The cleverer artists and entertainers create a public persona – a sellable brand – that they can comfortably hide behind and live within, dangerous as that is. Think of Keith Richards, for example, as an extreme case, or even David Hockney. Who knows what either of them is "really" like in private company? Nonetheless, it seems that the ultimate price you pay for full-on fame, for want of a better word, can be to lose all control over and ownership of your own life, permanently distorted by the myth like the famous mask that cannot be removed, either because it has become permanently stuck, or in order to conceal the disfigured reality beneath. At the very least you won't be able to walk down the street without someone bothering you for a selfie, complete strangers behaving as if they owned you (which, having sold yourself in the public marketplace, they sort of do, like shareholders); which is not to mention the crazies and stalkers who can turn the life of even quite minor celebrities upside down. I suppose, in a way, we are all potential stalkers of the artists and performers we have invested in, especially now so many have made themselves vulnerable to hostile takeover by playing the social media market.

Tom Phillips was not that sort of famous, obviously: I doubt he had any problems shopping in Tesco, even in the streets of Peckham where he and other locally-based artists like Antony Gormley had designed benches, bollards and streetlamps (can there really be a street called Bellenden Road? Very Tom Phillips...). He seemed like a kind man, and I imagine he'd probably have been happy occasionally to be recognised and asked to pose with any passing admirers. I will now always regret not following up my invitation to the 2017 "varnishing day" at the Royal Academy, where I could have introduced myself (we had exchanged emails and blog comments for a while) and, yes, bothered him for a selfie: I was (am) a fan. In a modest way I have also been a collector of his work. I had a completist phase with regard to his books, not least the amazing Humument in its various editions, but I also picked up a few prints whenever they appeared on eBay – I was often the only bidder – and even scored a couple gratis from the man himself, one a prize for inadvertently first-footing his new blog back in January 2007.

Oh, and I see Christine McVie has also died this week, aged 79? That's sad, too, but I have no real personal investment in her story. I was a fan of the original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green – the series of hits they had from 1968 to 1970 were a large part of the soundtrack of my teenage years, and I recall buying "Green Manalishi" for my then girlfriend's birthday (an odd choice now I come to think of it) – but I am perhaps the only person remaining in the world not to have bought, or even listened to the album "Rumours". The funny thing is, I only realised after reading her obituary that she is/was Christine Perfect of Chicken Shack. Duh! "I'd Rather Go Blind" was another one of those teenage soundtrack songs. I always wondered what happened to her. Oh, Well.

A Humument, page 27