Monday, 26 September 2016


Above is the view from my hotel room, looking over to the Giudecca and Palladio's Redentore, the most intellectually rigorous of his Venetian churches, a brilliant exercise in pure architecture. Oddly the fa├žade - one that repays endless contemplation - looks better close up than it does from across the canal. Which is a pity, in view of its location...
 And below is the same view obscured by one of the monstrous cruise liners that sail into Venice every day to tie up and disgorge their thousands of day trippers into the clogged streets around San Marco.

These gigantic floating hotels are extremely unpopular with the locals. Stickers and banners proclaiming 'NO Grandi Navi' are everywhere in the city, and on the day we left a big demonstration against them was just getting under way. The administration, however, having effectively bankrupted the city, has little choice but to encourage anything that brings in money. A sad state of affairs, but such is the resilience of Venice and the Venetians that you feel they will somehow survive and thrive, come what may.

Venice Notes

Well, the week in Venice was wonderful (what else could it be?) - and there were even butterflies: tiny Long-Tailed Blues were flying everywhere, along with more familiar Red Admirals and Commas. I had the most satisfying tour of San Marco I've ever had, thanks to the excellent queue-jumping system and the fact that the balcony overlooking the Piazza was open. The glittering mosaics inside never looked better - I'm sure they've improved the lighting since my last visit - and the crowds were at quite bearable levels.
 There were also things I was experiencing for the first time (in getting on for 50 years of visits to Venice), including a visit to the cemetery island of San Michele. The more recent parts feel very much like warehousing for the dead, who are mostly represented only by tablets (with photographic portrait and tribute of artificial flowers) arranged over every surface of numerous massive slab-like blocks. It is, if nothing else, a potent reminder that the vast majority of us humans are dead. However, the older and less crowded parts of the cemetery are more atmospheric, and in the Russian/Greek section are the graves of Igor and Vera Stravinsky (two large but plain horizontal slabs) and that of Diaghilev, a grander affair, touchingly hung with votive offerings of ballet pumps.

Also on San Michele, hidden away in the Protestant section, is the remarkably unostentatious grave of Ezra Pound - a small incised tablet in danger of being overgrown by vegetation, but still evidently attracting the odd floral tribute. (Somewhere among the Protestants, too, is the grave of Joseph Brodsky, but we weren't able to find that one.)
 Another Venice first for me was a visit to the Palazzo Fortuny, home of the great textile designer whose dresses were made of such fine silks that it was said you could pass one through a wedding ring. Naturally I was expecting a display of gorgeous textiles and dresses - but alas, the Palazzo, when we eventually found it, had been taken over by an extravagant display of the Contemporary Yarts at their most tiresome, including a massively dreary installation devoted to stirring our consciences over Syria and such. I was neither stirred nor shaken.
 Elsewhere some Fortuny textiles were indeed present, but hung in dim light and mostly behind works of Contemporary Yart, or indeed behind the so-so paintings of Fortuny himself. Whether it was just bad luck to find such a state of affairs at the Palazzo Fortuny I do not know, but it was certainly a sad disappointment.
 And then there was the Acqua Alta bookshop, which I didn't even know existed but just happened to spot as we were walking past. This is up there among the most eccentric, not to say mad, second-hand bookshops I have ever come across, in parts less like a bookshop than some kind of junkyard. However, despite appearances, many of the shelves are actually quite well organised - which is more than you can say for some bookshops I've known. The impression of chaos, however, prevails - especially when the dishevelled proprietor is wandering about the premises, cigarette in gesticulating hand, talking apparently to himself in a voice raspingly harsh and guttural even by Venetian standards (which is saying something). There's more about Acqua Alta - which has quite a cult following - here.
 And there will be more about Venice here in my next post...

Sunday, 18 September 2016


Enough of stinkpipes - tomorrow I'm off to Venice for a week of aesthetic overload in the most beautiful city on Earth. Unfortunately my best strolling shoes came apart at the seams the other day, so I was obliged to look for another pair - Venice is a city that demands stout footwear.
 It was not easy to find anything at all in my size (it never is, not since Clowns R Us closed down), and I was on the point of giving up when I happened on a shoe shop called Deichmann - a new one on me, German I believe. There, finally, I found a pair of shoes of acceptable design in my size - perfect. And the brand name of those shoes was (drumroll, please) Venice.
 I have my Venice shoes.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Stinkpipe Days

Reading this interesting piece on London's lost rivers (which has been shared on The Dabbler), I was intrigued to come across the phrase 'Victorian stink pipes'. It took me back (like a rather less fragrant madeleine dunked in linden tea) to the autumn of 1959, when I arrived from Ealing, the alleged 'queen of suburbs', at my new home in the Surrey suburban demiparadise of Carshalton. Here was a streetscape - and water-woven parkscape - notably unlike what I had been used to, and it had its mystifying features.
 Among these were the tall, green-painted cast-iron columns that decorated so many streets. A number of these had ornate crowns, some with wind vanes, some with three or four trumpet-shaped openings. What on earth were they, and what were they for? None of my schoolfriends seemed to know, but there was a quite plausible theory that during the war they had housed air-raid sirens.  Gradually I began to realise that they must in fact be some kind of ventilation system, presumably for sewers or underground rivers - but by then they were mysteriously disappearing anyway (I never saw one being taken down). Now I know just what they are/were - 'stinkpipes', aka 'stenchpipes', both good no-nonsense names which we schoolboys would have relished had we known them. They are so popular there is even a blog devoted to the stinkpipes of London.
 Pictured above is a surviving ornate stinkpipe just down the road from where I live.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

From Waterside to Mainstream

My admiration for David Attenborough has, I must admit, faded considerably in recent years - too much substandard work (excusable at his age, of course), too many dubious public pronouncements. However, Sir David can still come good - as his latest excursion into radio, The Waterside Ape, proves. A Radio 4 two-parter, which ended today (available on the BBC iPlayer), this explored the 'aquatic ape theory' - that much of what makes us human evolved not on the open savannah but by the waterside - and brought us up to date with the latest findings. I've always been attracted to this hypothesis, for which there is ever more compelling evidence, and I was glad to discover that what was once dismissed as cranky pseudoscience has now entered the mainstream, many of the keenest proponents of the (exclusive) savannah theory having  admitted that it was never that simple and that an aquatic phase was crucial to human development (growing our brains and making speech possible, among other things).
 It took a long time for the aquatic ape theory to be taken seriously because it first came to public notice in a bestselling book, The Descent of Woman (1972), by a non-scientist, the screenwriter Elaine Morgan. Though she followed it up with more rigorously scientific treatments of the theme, very few in the science community were taking any notice.
 Elaine Morgan was first alerted to the aquatic hypothesis by a passing reference in a book by Savannah man Desmond Morris, who directed her to the eminent marine biologist Alister Hardy. As long ago as 1930, Hardy had begun to think that there must have been an aquatic phase in human evolution, but he had kept mum for 30 years. As he frankly admitted, he was still young when the idea struck him and he wanted to build a glittering career within the scientific establishment; if he had published a paper on such a wildly heterodox theory, his career would have been over.
 How's that for an eloquent statement of How Science Works (and how it worked even back in the 1930s)? Whatever science might be in theory, in practice it is decidedly prone to 'groupthink' and devotes huge resources to buttressing orthodoxies rather than opening them up to heterodox thinking. With the practice of science heavily dependent on research grants, it is all too easy for scientists to play it safe, proposing work that pushes an established line of research a little further along a beaten path, will duly be published in the appropriate peer-reviewed way, and will swell the CV and sustain the career. This only encourages the strengthening of orthodox ways of thinking, to the point where it is almost impossible for scientists working within the system to overthrow the received wisdom. Yes, it can happen - as it eventually did, for example, with the received wisdom on stomach ulcers - but it usually takes a maverick with little to lose to take on the might of 'settled' science (not to mention, in the stomach ulcer case, the pharmaceutical industry).
 It's good to know that the 'maverick' aquatic ape theory finally proved so strong that it is now widely accepted. Let's hope future TV series re-creating the lives of our hairy, bone-crunching forefathers take a break from the obligatory savannah hunting scenes and show us a bit of the lacustrine good life.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Gaiety of Nations

This afternoon, stupefied by the hottest September day of my lifetime, I was half-listening to Radio 4's Word of Mouth. This is an often interesting programme about words, devised years ago by its then presenter Frank Delaney (anyone remember him?), and subsequently presented for years by Michael Rosen. These days, however, Rosen has been joined by Dr Laura Wright, a linguist who apparently knows everything and delights in undermining and mildly humiliating Rosen at every turn. Rosen takes it all manfully but is clearly seething, and the tension between the two presenters makes a compelling little background psychodrama. Rosen has his moments though: he recently dumbfounded all present with a little anecdote about the charmless (to put it mildly) behaviour of the ghastly Roald Dahl towards his (Rosen's) son. It's the Dahl centenary today, I believe. No celebrations here.
 But I digress. I was listening, as I say, to Word of Mouth when the phrase 'the gaiety of nations'  came up, with someone remarking that the modern meaning of the adjective 'gay' hasn't carried over to the noun. But what of the phrase 'the gaiety of nations'? I was hoping someone would tell us where it originated, as I didn't know - maybe another one of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's, along with 'the great unwashed' and 'the pen is mightier than the sword'? No, it is actually a phrase of Samuel Johnson's, from his tribute to his friend and former pupil, the great actor David Garrick: 'I am disappointed by the stroke of death which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.' There is a version of it on Garrick's monument in Lichfield Cathedral, where I no doubt read it on my visit last year. It is a fine phrase, 'the gaiety of nations', as is 'the public stock of harmless pleasure'.
 Lord, this heat...

Monday, 12 September 2016

Festival Time

For the first time, my visit to Wirksworth (my spiritual second home in Derbyshire) coincided with the Wirksworth Festival - specifically with the weekend in which, among many other activities, more than 60 houses and public buildings are given over to the display of arts and crafts.
 Generally speaking, I'm no fan of arts festivals (I managed to entirely avoid the Edinburgh Festival while living in that city for a year) - but Wirksworth is different. With very little funding but huge reserves of community spirit and an extraordinary concentration of creative work going on all the time in the town, Wirksworth manages to create something very special and quite unlike other festivals. The key to its unique appeal is, I think, that so much of the art is displayed in people's homes - either the artists' own or those of other townspeople happy to join in.
 There's always simple pleasure to be had in seeing inside other people's homes, and a very high proportion of the houses in Wirksworth are interesting in themselves, and often beautifully laid-out inside. There are some delightful town gardens too - all there for all to enjoy, along with the art, for the duration of the weekend. Making even a highly selective tour with my cousin - a long-time resident who is on friendly greeting terms with le tout Wirksworth and their dogs (it's a very doggy town) - was slow progress, but all the more enjoyable for that. This is a genuinely local, genuinely friendly event, in which truly the whole town is involved and which the whole town seems to enjoy.
 The artists displaying their work included not only well established practitioners who've been around a while but also, happily, an up-and-coming new generation. The artists who poured into Wirksworth back when it was a run-down post-industrial town not only transformed the nature of the place but created something that looks set to run and run - as, surely, will the festival.
 The centrepiece of this year's festival is an installation in the parish church by Wolfgang Buttress, no less, the artist responsible for the hugely successful Hive, currently pulling them in at Kew. It was quite a coup to get him for Wirksworth, and BEAM, his work in the church, is impressive - a reflective, light-spangled, music-bedded presence projecting a series of changing images onto the crossing roof. You can hear him talking about it here. The pictures above and below are my own, and do it scant justice.