Friday, 25 November 2011

God is Small

Over the last few days my attention has been drawn to small things. In part I have David Attenborough’s current enthralling TV series Frozen Planet to thank for this. This week we could view, miraculously: tiny polar bear cubs born to a mother half asleep in the midst of the brutal Arctic winter finding their way to suckle on milk nine times richer than the human variety; starfish failing to escape a deadly column of salinated ice snaking down to their previously secure habitat; a fragile emperor penguin chick being cradled in its father’s feet and so kept away from contact with icy ground that would kill it in seconds. There are many miracles here: the sights themselves, of course, but also what goes on behind the lens in the accumulated ingenuity and determination of the film crews, the technology required to brings us the images and transport the crews to achingly remote and hostile environments.

Emperor penguins and chick (this one made it through the winter).
Among many adaptations that enable it to survive on land and for up to 18 minutes underwater is unusually structured haemoglobin that allows the bird to function with low blood oxygen and not lose consciousness.

Yesterday, I went to my places of work, St Olave Hart Street and St Katharine Cree (both in the City of London), for the first time since my recent treatment. My main destination was St Katharine’s on this occasion, of which more in a moment, but I called in first to St Olave’s, mainly because I love it. One of the few mediaeval churches left in the City, it is a place that rarely fails to touch those who enter it from the mad rush going on outside. Rehearsal was under way for one of the musical recitals that have taken place there at least twice a week for over 50 years, the acoustic enabled by the 15th-century stone interior and 20th-century wooden ceiling (as well as some now rather tired carpet) being quite peerless. The trio performing were a bit out of the ordinary as their performance would include elements of improvisation, including an invitation to the audience to submit their mobile ringtones, on which the group would then create musical variations. The micro builds the macro.

On then to St Katharine Cree for her Patronal Festival, the annual celebration of the saint. St Katharine of Alexandria was a scholar in the 4th century and, in recognition of her status, the address at the Patronal Festival traditionally focusses on the meeting place of faith and intellect. The speaker this year was Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University, who treated us to a lightning summary of his work, which is aimed at assembling and arranging infinitesimally small components for use ultimately in quantum computing. This is bleeding-edge science and a practical quantum computer—incomparably faster than current digital computers—is some years off (say 10, for the sake of putting some sort of figure on it). His title was “Your God Is Not Small Enough”, encouraging us to see God as concerned and involved with the small, often hidden, details of our lives, just as He is with the great things: the World, the Universe, Space etc. It is in the outworking of small decisions and behaviours that our life is built. Heady stuff, not least because it came with the authority of a man who has spent over 30 years studying the tiniest of structures and I fear that I am not beginning to do his fine talk justice. The micro builds the macro.

St Katharine Cree on a previous occasion.
Architecturally unique in London, the present building was consecrated in 1631 by Archbishop Laud,  whose conduct of the consecration liturgy–small actions in the fabric of one day–was used by his enemies
to help build a case of crypto-Catholicism against him and so led to his execution.
Photo by Esperey
I made a small purchase earlier in the week: highlighters with which to mark up the texts I read to research the historical figure on whom I plan to base my fiction. Will this micro build a macro?

An iris in a Sussex garden, Spring 2011
It reminds me of Jesus's words about some of the small things in the world, when he urged his followers to consider the lilies of the field, who "toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon is all his glory was not arrayed like one of these".

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Sleepless in West London

I slept very badly last night. No, I should rephrase that: I slept very little last night. There was a main reason and a subsidiary reason. The minor reason was that at about 8.15pm I had drunk caffeinated coffee. The major reason was that my wife and I had reached an important decision at around 11pm. I am not able to share this with you yet, as it affects quite a number of other people, but I can assure you that the choice we have made is a very happy one and that no animals were harmed in the making of it. The fact is: my brain just would not switch off, other than for about two hours all told, during the hours of deepest darkness.

In consequence I am feeling a bit spaced out today, although not dozy, which surprises me. I have in fact just done ten press-ups in part of my bid to recover some sort of physical fitness. No really, no need to clap…well, if you insist…

Our daughter went back to university yesterday evening, having spent a few quiet days with us reading and preparing for her next seminars. Being selfish for a moment, it is very interesting for me that she is studying history just as I am getting into the subject after thinking for most of my life that I had no aptitude for it, other than of course applauding it  as “a Good Thing”, as the authors of 1066 and All That would have put it.

Cartoon by Royston Robertson
You can see more of his work at

Speaking of history, I took delivery a couple of days ago, courtesy of Amazon, of a second-hand book in pristine condition. I was pretty excited about this, as the work is a brief life of the figure about whom I am planning to write a historical fiction and therefore the best place to begin my background researches in earnest. I was a bit concerned when I opened the package as the book still bears a red and white sticker proclaiming it to be the property of Reading University Library. Inside the cover however there is another assertion of the library’s ownership, but with the word “withdrawn” clearly stamped across it. The copy is in such good nick that I wonder if anyone ever read it during its time in Reading. It would be sad if they didn’t.

I am getting back into regular work mode as strength returns and am just about to start putting together some publicity for a monthly lecture series beginning at St Olave Hart Street in the new year (yes, we are nearly there). Ideal work to do at home, away from the ringing phone and the whirring printer. Before I go, here is an image that a friend kindly shared with me after reading the last blog entry.

Heaven's Court
A scene from the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, another instance of cinema showing the influence of earlier art and particularly recalling the sense of scale and perspective apparent in Satan in Council by John Martin.
In the film, an RAF bomber pilot (played by David Niven) is given another chance at life after a mixup by a heavenly bureaucracy. The heavenly scenes were shot on a vast scale and the film cost £320,000 to make (a huge sum of money at the end of WWII).

Friday, 11 November 2011

Graphically Put

On Tuesday 8 November I had one of my regular a follow-up hospital appointments and my wife and I decided to make a day of it by going to an art exhibition beforehand: Apocalypse at Tate Britain.

This is a rehabilitation of John Martin (1789-1854), who worked in the Romantic tradition, in particular as an artist of “the Sublime”, which can be defined as “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic…especially [referring to] a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” After initial failures and discouragements, he made a name for himself as the painter of vast, spectacular canvases mainly on Biblical or historical themes.

John Martin (1789-1854)
In the middle of his career he turned more to printmaking, again having success, notably with wonderful illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Creation of Light

Satan in Council
The Prince of Darkness addresses his minions from atop a mysterious sphere. In this illustration Martin makes ambitious use of the mezzotint technique,  most of the image being given over to inky blackness.

Martin has influenced filmmakers and their designers.
Here the evil Senator Palpatine addresses the Galactic Senate in Star Wars. The scene is reminiscent of Satan in Council.
His efforts to market and distribute a series of Biblical illustrations were however less successful and led to financial difficulty. He also devised a grand scheme for the construction of an integrated sewer system along the Thames Embankment and drew up a plan for a railway encircling London. These proposals were visionary and displayed considerable engineering competence, but they were not taken up, it being left to others to pursue these ideas later in the 19th century.

It was time for Martin to go back to big artworks and the centrepiece of the exhibition is the three enormous paintings painted in the closing years of his life, The Plains of Heaven, The Last Judgment and The Great Day of His Wrath. These caused a great stir when put on public display and have a spectacular impact even now.

To my eye, the first two images in this series suggest why Martin fell out of favour in subsequent years, his stock reaching an all-time low in the opening decades of the 20th century. The first one shows a grand vision of Paradise, with rolling green country in the foreground sweeping away to the dazzling domes of the Heavenly City and massive mountains in the far distance. It is beautiful in many ways, but too gaudy and literalistic, with the deep ultramarine of the sky proving sickly. The second painting shows Christ sitting in judgment. On the left side of the picture are those who are being admitted to Paradise, including, tellingly, Low Churchmen and a number of identifiable historical figures (I think I spotted Shakespeare). On the right a train hurtles over a cliff into the eternal darkness of a vast chasm, while in the foreground the damned cower and fall in terror, their number notably including Roman Catholic clerics and The Whore of Babylon. A bit naughty all this, particularly in view of Christ’s injunction that we should not judge lest the finger of judgment point right back at us.

The third painting is however in a different league both in the competence of its conception and execution and in its power to resonate with contemporary sensibilities.

The Great Day of His Wrath
This pixellated version cannot do the massive image justice. Again the debt cinema owes to Martin comes to mind: on the right of the picture whole cities are perched on the surface of the land that is being turned through 180 degrees, reminiscent of some of the scenes in Inception.
Martin’s command of scale and technique is awe-inspiring, even when his pictures do not entirely convince.The critics of his day could be very sniffy about his work and attention was often drawn to the fact that he began his career as a decorator of glass and ceramics rather than in the fine arts; they were particularly hostile to the shades of blue he employed, as their vividness seemed in particular to hark back to his origins as a decorative artist.

In the end it was the smaller works that often had a deeper impact on me, including one from his late years.

The Last Man
The last survivor of some apocalyptic event stands in a landscape of corpses unnaturally lit by a sickly sun.
This theme was treated by other artists of Martin's day and feeds directly into modern preoccupations with plague and disaster. The expression on the man's face is poignant in the extreme (you will have to take my word for it, I am afraid, or go and see the exhibition).

After a light lunch in the excellent café in the gallery’s basement, we had about half an hour to take in some more paintings and we decided to stay with the Romantics, being bowled over by some large-scale works by JMW Turner.

My abiding thought as I look back on the day is that contemplation of a painting is the most extraordinary experience. In most cases nothing (sometimes maybe a sheet of glass) stands physically between the spectator and the work of art. The decades—in some cases centuries—can fall away as you examine the object and try to tease out what it said to its original viewers and what it can mean to you. Great art or music can often take us by surprise, but it is the physicality of visual art that often overwhelms in all its perishable vulnerability.

On Wednesday 9 November it was time for moving images, which John Martin’s work surely anticipates. I am sure Tintin has his detractors but I have yet to meet one. It was with some excitement that I and five others, including my brother and son, met at the cinema in Richmond to see whether the talents of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and their team of actors, artists and technicians had brought the Belgian boy reporter convincingly to the big screen. The Secret of the Unicorn cleverly conflates at least three of the original Tintin stories and turns an innocent bit-player from one of them into an arch-villain, but the whole is done with such obvious love for Hergé’s creation that Tintin fans all over the world must be for the most part delighted. There was one episode where I thought the CGI and motion capture (of which the entire film consists) had perhaps been allowed to get the upper hand, but the whole experience was most enjoyable and has been worth the wait.

The cover of Tintin in Tibet, the first image of Tintin I ever saw as I unwrapped my godmother's present one Christmas nearly 50 years ago.

Spielberg's offering is not the first cinematic treatment of Tintin. This is the cover of the book of a French film that came out in 1961, whose title translates as the "Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece", which as been described as "the best Tintin story Hergé never wrote".

A scene from the current Tintin movie, in which Captain Haddock aims the wrong end of a bazooka.

My favourite scenes were of a 17th century sea battle, which reminded me of one of the Turners we had seen the previous day at the Tate.

The Shipwreck (1805) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
There is a story that Turner arranged to be lashed to the mast of a ship in as storm in order to be able to treat such a scene  authentically, although this is thought to be of doubtful veracity. The canvas is massive and the image very vivid, different in style from the misty compositions that we chiefly associate with this great innovator.

Good news at the hospital on the Tuesday, by the way: my haemoglobin is now up to 11.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Rubber Hits the Road

Our son turned 21 last December but it was only last weekend that he enjoyed our birthday present to him in actuality rather than in anticipation. Although the glories of this particularly splendid autumn are now fading, it was pleasant weather and golden colours that buoyed our spirits when we took him and our daughter-in-law to the racing circuit at Thruxton, just to the west of Andover, last Saturday.

We had bought him a “driving experience”. We thought it would make a change from something of the more tangible kind although the distinction between experiential and tangible is looking increasingly thin the more I think about it. Here are some moments from the day.

After a 30-minute briefing about the track and how to take corners, followed by a circuit as a passenger, our son gets into the driving seat of a Porsche Carrera, a family first.
The rubber hitting the road on one of four laps.
Thruxton also offers rides in Peugeots like these. It is the fastest circuit in the country, we were told.
Offspring also got four laps in this Ferrari, which Thruxton is phasing out as it is rather venerable, although much loved.
I think it was at this point that I went green with envy.
We watched proceedings from this platform. The building next to it has a blue plaque stating that it is of historic interest. The circuit is based on the perimeter road of a wartime airfield. The airfield is still in action for light aviation and small aircraft were taking off over our heads throughout our time there.
While this was going on and through the ensuing week the rubber was hitting the road for the European Community, in particular the Eurozone, in particular Greece. The global economic system is such that none of us is untouched by the implications of the specific crisis with the Greek economy; after all the Chinese are being asked to lend a hand, or rather more money than a balanced mind not high on intoxicants can imagine. I have watched events unfold on the European stage with more fascination than that space normally affords and have felt at times as if the UK could get seriously sidelined if we do not play our cards right. I say “we”, but the EU is of course where any notion of direct democracy and influence by common people gets stretched to and beyond its limit – just look what it’s doing to my metaphors. Nearly 100 years ago power struggles took the whole continent to war and once again the juggernauts of conflicting interest are crashing into one another. Surely we will never go to war within Europe again, but there could be more violence in individual countries. Furthermore our economy will take a colossal bashing if there is failure by any European country to meet its obligations, as the City of London is the leading world market for credit default swaps, which few understand but which sound particularly noxious.

On a personal level I am limbering up to face again a matter that I hoped had been put to rest a few months ago. I am currently signed off work, but my good friend and employer, Father Milligan, told me on Friday that he needs to pick my brains on the vexed matter of the office’s photocopier leasing contract. If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know just how much I relish that prospect [irony alert].

Time to de-stress and stroke the cat.

The aforesaid Smudge, photographed yesterday on her favourite bar stool, from which she can survey the whole kitchen.
I love the way cats tuck their paws in when they relax.