The Muse Among the Motors by Rudyard Kipling

‘A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the style of earlier writers’

a) Kipling was an early enthusiast for motor cars from the moment his friend, the newspaper tycoon Lord Harmsworth, arrived at his Sussex home in one in 1900. He quickly bought a very early model – in fact a soon-to-be redundant steam-powered car, a ‘Locomobile’ – and employed the first of a series of chauffeur-engineers to drive and maintain it for him.

b) Kipling’s family was very artistic and throughout the children’s childhood and youth, the whole family read poetry and plays together, especially Shakespeare. Encouraged by this cultured environment, Kipling showed a precocious ability at writing pastiches and parodies from an early age. One of his first books was a self-published collection of parodies titled Echoes, printed when he was just 19.

After the turn of the century, when the South African war was over and Kipling had settled into his new home in rural Sussex, the two interests came together in a series of light-hearted pastiches of early, medieval and romantic poetry, with Kipling copying the styles of various classic poets (Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Donne, Milton, Byron Wordsworth and so on) as if they’d written poems about motor cars.

The first 14 were published in the Daily Mail in 1904 – to which he added six more in 1919, and a further six in 1929, making 26 in total. Some are very short. None are masterpieces. Some are mildly amusing. I like his take on the alliterative four-stress line of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

The Advertisement

(In the Manner of the Earlier English)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.

and his spoof of Chaucer (I particularly like the line about Paris, that is exactly the kind of thing Chaucer says about his characters):

The Justice’s Tale

(Chaucer)

WITH them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance,
That, by the Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backés on an horné hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and doggés wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake—
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake.

and this one, copying Adam Lindsay Gordon who I’ve never heard of, but which has the combination of sentimental pathos and humour of the Barrack-Room Ballads and also the punchiest final line.

The Dying Chauffeur

(Adam Lindsay Gordon)

WHEEL me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part –
No more for me the record and the run.
That cursèd left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart
Is pinking past redemption – I am done!

They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load.
My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes.
I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed Road
To the Maker of the makers of all makes!

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Other Kipling reviews

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson (2013)

An entertaining and eye-opening survey of the role of the spy since 1945.

The sub-title is Modern Spying from the Cold War to the War on Terror, but in fact the book reads as if it is in two distinct parts: 1. The Cold War. 2. The War on Terror, each of which has completely different rules and atmosphere.

Also it is a history of the spy, not of spying as a whole. As it progresses you begin to realise that a full and complete history of spying would itself be huge, and also just part of a wider history of ‘intelligence’ gathering in the broadest sense. This would be a vast, maybe an impossibly huge task, bringing in all kinds of electronic, remote and automatic surveillance and communications monitoring.

Simpson describes some of the most vivid instances of this kind of wire tapping and phone cable intercepting, but the focus of the book is on the stories of individual spies. He very usefully sets the stories against the main geopolitical events of the past seventy years, which are briefly described, but always to revert to the book’s core content, which is a set of 100 or so potted biographies of notable spies and summaries of their activities.

Sample spy stories

  • Igor Gouzenko, a lieutenant in Russian intelligence, defected in 1945 and implicated 21 Canadians as Russian agents, including Fred Rose, the only communist ever elected to the Canadian parliament.
  • Elizabeth Bentley, ‘the red Spy Queen’, who’d been working for the KGB since 1933, confessed to the FBI in 1945 and named 150 Americans working as Russian agents, and wrote a 107-page document detailing all aspects of Soviet spycraft and organisation in the US.
  • Georges Pâques, a key advisor to various French ministers through to the early 1960s, was a KGB agent with access to the entire NATO defence plan for Western Europe.
  • Gunvor Galtung Haavik worked at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1977, and was a KGB agent the whole time, passing secrets to the Russians.
  • From 1953 GRU officer Pyotr Popov supplied the CIA with details of the organisation of Soviet military command, the structure of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the USSR armed forces) and with names and operations of Soviet agents in Europe, before being caught and executed by the Russians.
  • Army sergeant and part-time pimp Robert Lee Johnson tried to sell his services to the KGB several times before getting lucky and getting assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service at Orly airport. He was able to break into the top secret vault there, photograph and send the Soviets information about cypher systems and defence plans for the US and NATO.
  • Canadian economist Hugh Hambleton worked for the Russians from inside NATO between 1957 and 1961 and provided so much material that the KGB had to provide a black van equipped with a photographic library so that it could be speedily copied and returned. He spied for over 20 years.
  • British naval clerk John Vassall worked in the Admiralty and sent the Russians thousands of classified documents covering naval policy and weapons development. He did this for five years.
  • By 1960 the KGB had three agents working in the newly-founded US National Security Agency (NSA). Two cryptologists, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected to Moscow and gave a press conference in which they revealed the NSA was spying on all sorts of countries ‘friendly’ to the USA.
  • Staff sergeant John Dunlap was chauffeur to the chief of staff of the NSA and from 1960 onwards supplied the Soviets with instruction books, manuals, and designs for the Americans’ cipher machines, up till 1963.
  • Head of the East German HVA (the intelligence wing of the dreaded Stasi) Markus Wolff, was said to have up to three thousand agents working for him at every level of the West German state. He became well known for the honey trap whereby handsome young men seduced older female secretaries working in West German government positions. Thus Irmgard Römer who worked at the Bonn Foreign Office, was persuaded by her handsome lover, a KGB agent, to give him copies of all the top secret telegrams she handled. Leonore Sütterlein, another secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was eventually convicted of passing over 3,000 classified documents to her husband who was in fact a KGB officer. When she realised he had only married her in order to access the documents, she killed herself.

And so on and so on, the book selecting some hundred – from what it suggests could easily be thousands – of similar stories.

1. The Cold War

Three or four big themes emerge fro this litany of betrayal:

Russia versus America

Simpson’s book overwhelmingly focuses on the conflict between communist Russia and capitalist America. The text proceeds decade by decade, setting the scene of major geopolitical events – the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and so on – to explain the pressure of events which often motivated individual defectors and agents. For example, the KGB operatives who were disillusioned by the way the Russians crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. But the axis of battle is always between East and West.

There are sub-sections on other countries: Britain recurs, presumably because this is a British book by a British author, maybe also because we are so closely tied to the Americans thus there is a substantial section about the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge spies in Britain, and brief references to the reorganisations over the period of MI5 and MI6. But of other security services with hefty histories of their own – BOSS in South Africa or Mossad in Israel – there are only fleeting references. Mostly – as with the East German Stasi or the Czech StB – they are only referenced insofar as they connect with the book’s main CIA-KGB axis.

A treachery of spies

Maybe the biggest revelation of the book is simply how many spies there have been. And how often their betrayals were on an epic scale: lots of the individuals mentioned here didn’t hand over bits and bobs to the other side, a file here or there – but spent years and years systematically copying, photographing and handing over the most sensitive, top secret material imaginable. Some needed sets of filing cabinets or even lorries to cart away the huge amounts of documents they betrayed. Others sent so much to the enemy their material was still being sifted and analysed five years later.

The sheer scale of the material these agents sold, passed on and betrayed raises two thoughts:

a) An impressive number of the traitors described here were obvious security risks: known alcoholics, unreliable, erratic, greedy or amoral materialists. As the list of traitors grows steadily longer through the post-war decades, it makes you seriously wonder about the ‘vetting’ techniques of all these so-called ‘security’ bodies. When you consider that the British traitor Kim Philby, a committed agent for the KGB, almost became head of MI6, you wonder whether the word ‘security’ actually means anything.

b) There was so much to betray. In movies the McGuffin or thing being stolen is always small and portable, nowadays just a disk or flash drive. But in reality, it consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, if not truckloads – of documents. The sheer weight of information betrayed and sold by both sides is staggering. And how can the security apparatuses on either side have survived having so much stolen and given away?

For example, the Manhattan Project which produced America’s atom bomb appears to have been riddled with Russian spies. So much so, that the Russians themselves detonated an A bomb just four years after the Americans (1949), based entirely on stolen US technology.

Looking back, did it matter that security around the bomb was so tight, when it appears to have been so comprehensively broken? As you read page after page of shocking revelations about how much has been betrayed, you begin to wonder whether anything can be kept secure.

Bureaucracy

Spying is about finding out information someone wants to keep secret. The modern industrial state generates information on a colossal scale, itself increased by many orders of magnitude by the advent of digital technology.

But even between 1945 and 1991, reading this book makes you realise that the spying, information and counter-espionage agencies were just part of vastly bigger military and political bureaucracies and organisations, themselves just part of vast nations with tens of millions of people, engaged in the enormous, multivarious tasks of creating and running the modern world. An indication of this is the six page glossary of organisation acronyms at the end of the book – ASIO, ASIS, AHV, BND, CSIS, CTC, DCI, FAPSI, FSB, GRU, HVA – and so on and so on.

The book gives the sense that there seems to be no end of projects and initiatives and reorganisations going on at any one time, and no end of alcoholics, gamblers, sex addicts or ideological fanatics ready to betray everything they know for money, love or political conviction.

2. The War on Terror

Al-Qaeda was set up at the end of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. It pledged itself to destroy America, kill Jews and restore Islamic purity. It funded and organised a string of attacks against US military and civilian targets throughout the 1990s, and ushered in a completely new era.

Looking back, various CIA etc experts make the point that the Cold War had rules and was played by ‘gentlemen’. Prisoners were interrogated, sent for trial and imprisoned. Periodically there would be prisoner exchanges, their spy for our spy. Both sides knew the rules and kept things more or less under control. (The Sovs routinely executed their traitors but then, so, in the 1950s, did America, for example the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

There is none of that with Islamic terrorism. They are not ‘gentlemen’. They want to die and take as many people as possible with them. It is almost impossible to infiltrate their small, loosely-organised cells. It presents an altogether different challenge.

The two most notable events in the ongoing Century of Islamic Terror were 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Simpson briskly retells the stories as colossal failures of intelligence:

9/11 There were lots of intelligence leads suggesting some kind of spectacular was about to take place against America, and even suggestions it might be done with planes acting as bombs. Some of the hijackers had been marked by intelligence services. There was just a complete failure to pull this intelligence together and to realise what it meant. Personally, I think hindsight is a great thing, everything is obvious once it’s happened. If the previous 200 pages had shown anything, it is the challenge presented by the sheer volume of intelligence information, the challenge of making sense of it all.

And there are some obvious historical parallels for the complete failure to anticipate major attacks which, in retrospect, seem obvious. For example, nobody at all expected the Great War. A lot of people were alarmed at the arms race with Germany, especially the naval arms race, but nobody expected the war to become quite the epic catastrophic it turned out.

And whereas the Second World War was a lot more expected, it still contained several stunning intelligence failures. The failure of America to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is something historians still debate. More intriguing is the decisive event of the war, and of the 20th century, Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. If he hadn’t, Nazi Germany might have enjoyed prolonged hegemony over occupied Europe, but even though (this book says) over 80 separate reports reached Stalin about an imminent Nazi attack, he rejected them all as Western propaganda and so the red Army was completely unprepared for Operation Barbarossa when it kicked off on 22 June 1941.

Iraq Ironically, the opposite case: there was a dearth of solid intelligence but that didn’t stop politicians, specifically George Bush encouraged by Donald Rumsfeld, from twisting what intelligence there was into ‘evidence’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use against the West at any point.

This is such a vast subject, and such an ongoing nightmare for the Middle East, all recently raked up again by the Chilcot Report, that there’s no point trying to summarise it. Suffice to say this book gives a useful historical perspective to recent events by briskly describing previous Western invasions or attempts at regime change, including the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez Crisis) and the American attempt to foment an armed uprising against Castro in Cuba (1961), or the successful Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, or the CIA-assisted overthrow of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

The debacle in Iraq didn’t stop NATO from intervening in the Libyan civil war to bomb Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, and the British Parliament from voting to approve UK involvement in air strikes on Syria in 2015.

What is a spy?

In movies and fiction a ‘spy’ is a special agent who goes on a ‘mission’ often into enemy territory, to capture a gizmo or rescue a person or – in the more grandiose fictions – to foil a plot for world domination. The real life cases given here suggest that secret service work involves either:

  • being based in your home country
    • managing networks of agents overseas
    • analysing the ‘product’ ie trying to make sense of the reams of information they send back
    • doing counter-espionage ie trying to spot and control enemy spying going on in your home country
  • being posted overseas, generally working from an embassy, or being funded by your home government
    • engaging in propaganda work of some sort or another, providing money and materiel to political parties or activists
    • actively recruiting and running agents in sensitive positions who could supply ‘us’ with useful information

John le Carré is probably the novelist most associated with emphasising the humdrum, desk-bound, essentially administrative nature of most intelligent work, with only the occasional flash of violence out in the real world.


Credit

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson was published by Robinson in 2013.

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Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection @ the Courtauld Gallery

In 1882 the 12th Duke of Hamilton caused a national uproar by over-riding objections from the Royal Family and John Ruskin and selling his collection of priceless art works to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum). At the heart of his collection was a set of illustrations of Dante’s famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

This exhibition gives us the opportunity to see these rare and precious works, along with other highlights from the Duke’s collection, namely a selection of invaluable illuminated manuscripts including the celebrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, back in the country for the first time in 130 years.

Dante

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and raised in Florence. He took the style of love poetry developed by the troubadors of the south of France to new heights in the love poetry he wrote to his muse, Beatrice Portinari. Florence was a hot-bed of political infighting and when Dante’s party, the White Guelphs, were violently overthrown in 1302, the poet was driven into bitter exile.

Here he conceived his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, divided into three books, in which the poet is escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, respectively. Although each book is quite long – and the whole poem is 14,233 lines long – they’re built up from quite short two- or three-page cantos (33 in each book), in each of which Dante and his guide meet dead souls who give potted histories of their lives.

Although 700 years old, Dante’s verse still feels fast-moving and fluid, and the often powerful stories of the dead give the poem a timeless appeal. What raises it to the position – in many people’s opinion – of the greatest work of literature in European history, is the tremendous scaffold of Christian theology and symbolism which underpins it. The dead souls Dante talks to not only relate stories but each represents a different aspect of Catholic theology, as well as embodying many levels of medieval symbolism.

For example, at the same time as the poem describes a ‘real journey’ through a precisely imagined terrain, it is also symbolic of the soul’s journey towards the loving Christian God. The more you investigate the poem, the richer and deeper it becomes.

Although the Divine Comedy is long, it is made very readable by being divided into short cantos, and by the interlocking rhyme scheme of terza rima, each verse made of three lines which rhyme aba, bcb, cdc and so on, drawing the reader onwards into the narrative. The famous opening lines are:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Which can be translated as:

Halfway along the roadway of my life
I found myself within a darkened wood,
For I had stumbled off the direct way.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli (1445- 1510) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, famous for the serene expressions of his slender shapely women, exemplified in his allegorical paintings, The Birth of Venus (1486) or Primavera (1482). Like Dante he was born and raised in Florence, and there is evidence that he was especially attracted to Dante’s poem – a near contemporary wrote that Botticelli had written a detailed commentary on the Divine Comedy.

We know that Botticelli was commissioned to create drawings illustrating the poem, most likely for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who also commissioned the Spring and Venus paintings. The Divine Comedy has 99 cantos and 92 Botticelli drawings have survived, dating probably from the 1480s. They are drawn with pen and ink on vellum ie sheep or goat skin. The sheets were created so that the drawings were done on one side and on the reverse was the next canto in the poem. When these were bound together you read the book sideways, by opening the pages vertically like a calendar, with the text of each canto written across one page and the illustration below.

As soon as the codex arrived at the Berlin Museum, the Germans unbound it in order to frame each drawing individually and exhibit them to the public. You can still see the series of little holes along the side of each picture where the stitching has been undone. You can also see the shadowy impress of the columns of text on the facing page, giving each image a ghostly imprint of the poem itself.

This exhibition displays ten drawings from each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, charting Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Sketchy

Your first impression is that they are very faint and sketchy, with an almost schoolboy clumsiness in the way humans and clothes are depicted. Faces, bodies, clothes, expressions, limbs, hands, they all look a bit amateurish.

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli -  (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli – (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

An internet search quickly brings up the comprehensive set of illustrations for the Comedy done by the French artist Gustave Doré in the 1860s which, by comparison, are smooth and sinuous and fill the three dimensional space.

The contrast reminds us that the Botticelli created these nearly 400 years before Doré, right at the start of the western tradition, right at the moment that perspective was being rediscovered and the position of figures in a three dimensional space explored.

Some of the drawings have vestiges of colour, prompting the theory that they were initially all going to be coloured in. But something – maybe the size of the task, maybe artistic reasons – led them to remain uncoloured, fragile pen lines on a blank cream background.

Dynamic

In the poem Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the great Latin poet, Virgil (70-19 BC). (It is notable and touching that he doesn’t select a theologian to be his guide through Christian belief, but the greatest author of the ancient world and a fellow Italian.) The entire poem is a journey in which – to take the two most obvious levels – Dante is shown the geography of the afterworld and gains a deeper understanding of Christian theology.

This helps to explain one of the most striking things about the images – the way Dante and Virgil appear in each one multiple times. In the drawing of the seventh circle of hell the two figures appear no fewer than eight times, progressing through the scene. The wall label points out that Inferno XXVII is unusual in depicting the pair only once.

The way they are shown progressing through each scene gives the pictures a tremendous dynamism. Once you settle to follow them through each scene, you find yourself examining it more carefully and then turning back to reread what it’s depicting. These are book illustrations and are designed to interact with a text: you read about Dante being stopped by an acquaintance in hell and then look down to see the illustration. Then you return to the text to read the soul in hell explaining how the dead are being punished in this particular circle – and look back at the illustration to find the couple in their next position, overlooking the panorama of tortured souls. And so on.

Each picture tells a story, selecting not a moment but a series of moments to capture the physical journey and the spiritual education. This is emphasised by the bridges down between the circles of hell, which Dante and Virgil cross and descend, their figures drawn at the top, in the middle and then at the bottom, moving ever downwards into realms of deeper horror.

Gestures

As I looked at the figures more closely, and followed their progress across each scene, I began to appreciate how Botticelli deploys a whole lexicon of physical gestures: here is Virgil showing, displaying, pointing, indicating, placating, berating, taking Dante’s arm, hand, embracing him. Similarly, it is Dante’s physical gestures rather than features which indicate that he is alarmed, distracted, clutching his head in horror, covering his eyes to blot out the terrible scenes.

A good example is the big illustration of Satan for which Botticelli, uniquely, used two pieces of vellum stitched together – a double-fold centre-spread of evil. Satan is a giant figure with three pairs of enormous bat’s wings, endlessly beating, creating the freezing wind which whirls some of the lost souls around hell. He has three heads and is depicted eternally eating the bodies of traitors, Judas and the two betrayers of Julius Caesar – Brutus and Cassio.

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV,2) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard. Note: I have added the red highlights showing Dante and Virgil.

His body is covered in the shaggy hair of a goat but the most striking thing about it is the way it is wedged right at the bottom of hell, conceived of as an enormous stepped funnel, an inverted circular pyramid, each step down taking the poets into a new ‘circle’ of hell. Here at the bottom is a narrow hole representing the centre of the earth, and Satan’s body is wedged tight into it. Here they must hastily scurry across the body of ultimate evil in order to pass through the hole and out the other side to begin their journey back up to the surface of the world.

Botticelli depicts the scared poets no fewer than seven times in this one illustration (highlighted in red, in the image above), in successive postures of cowering dread as they scurry over the malign body, squeeze through the hole and out the other side, where they emerge upside down. The interactive qualities of the illustrations, the use of multiple figures, and the lexicon of gesture all reach a kind of apogee in this one image.

Mount Purgatory

In the poem the poets climb up a long tunnel to the surface of the earth and there discover Mount Purgatory on an island, rising up through similar stages to the Earthly Paradise at its top. It is immediately noticeable that in these illustrations the human figures are in groups. In hell each figure was scattered and alone, in psychological as well as physical torment, epitomised by the illustration of the circle named Cocytus with over 100 human figures disfigured and dismembered and abandoned to their misery. Here in purgatory, humans are allowed to congregate and speak. And unlike the movement of the poets ever downwards, now their figures move upwards through the pictures.

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Paradise

Dante eventually has to bid farewell to Virgil who was, after all, a pagan. He is taken forward in his spiritual education by Beatrice, the beautiful girl he fell in love with as a young man and stayed devoted to all his life, even though they both married other spouses.

In the ten illustrations from paradise the figure of poet and muse are much much larger than previously, as if by approaching spiritual purity, as if by approaching the most religious territory, Dante is becoming more human. His and Beatrice’s figures become larger, their expressions easier to read, and he is drawn always looking upwards, up towards the light radiating from the abode of bliss and the godhead. These are the most Botticelli-esque of the drawings, with the light swirling skirts and fabrics of Beatrice for the first time really reminding us of the Botticelli of the Primavera and Venus. No coincidence that it’s one of these illustrations which the Courtauld has selected as poster for the show. The wall label tells us that Kenneth Clark thought The ascent to the heaven of fire captured a delicate beauty ‘unequalled in Western art’.

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

The images also become progressively emptier, less cluttered, with more space and light, as we climb higher towards the ultimate source of all light. The physical torment and spiritual chaos of hell is partly conveyed by its sheer clutter, its messiness, the busy-ness of the images. In the final illustrations the sketchiness of the lines emphasise the all-encompassing light. It is revealing that the artist seems to have struggled with the final cantos which describe the rose garden at the height of heaven, and opts eventually for the image of holy figures made tiny, remote, by their distance from the profane author.

The Hamilton Bible

Having started by thinking the drawings area bit sketchy and amateurish, you finish the sequence exhausted by the journey the poem and artist have taken you on and utterly won over by their creative engagement with the unparalleled text. I started out preferring the Doré but ended up much preferring the Botticelli. Something mysterious, something very powerful, is revealed by prolonged study of them.

It is a bit of a wrench to turn your attention to the other element in the exhibition, the equally priceless and stunning illuminated manuscripts which are housed in display cases. After the thirty monochrome Botticelli images, there French and Italian masterpieces from the Renaissance, they overwhelm you simply by being in colour.

Centrepiece is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world, the massive and beautifully illustrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, famous enough in its own day to have been depicted in Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X.

Most of these have been artfully opened to display theological illustrations, with several colourful (literally) depictions of hell to compare and contrast with the Botticelli. The Hamilton Bible is open at the first page of Genesis, opposite which is a full page illustration made up of a dozen or so discreet images depicting key incidents from the Christian creation story – the creation of the universe and world, Adam and Eve in the Garden and Eden, and so on.

Cristoforo Orimina - Genesis (in the so called 'Hamilton-Bible'), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Cristoforo Orimina – Genesis (in the so called ‘Hamilton-Bible’), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Botticelli’s altarpiece

If you’ve paid the admission price to see this exhibition, you shouldn’t miss the Botticelli which is part of the Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, and housed on the first floor. It is the large altarpiece of The Holy Trinity with John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dated to the same years as the final drawings of the Dante series.

Botticelli at the V&A

This exhibition has been planned to coincide with a major new exhibition of Botticelli at the Victorian and Albert Museum, scheduled to open in March. It seems to be, fittingly enough, a Botticelli spring.

This is a beautiful, inspiring and moving exhibition to kick it off.

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The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas was producer on this swashbuckling movie of Viking life and love and so it is no surprise that he dominates the screen as Einar, the gorgeously handsome, superbly strong and confident son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (‘Hairy-Breeches’).

The opening sequence voices over rostrum shots of the Bayeaux Tapestry to give a surprisingly evocative introduction to the Viking Age, before getting straight into the rape and pillage as Ragnar kills the English king Edwin and rapes his wife. The result of this union, the bastard son who will grow up to be Tony Curtis, is sent abroad soon after birth with only a stone pendant to identify him. Twenty years later, caught and sold on as a slave, he ends up at the Norwegian base of none other than Ragnar, his natural father, and comes into conflict with Einar (Kirk), Ragnar’s lawfully acknowledged son, all three men blissfully/tragically ignorant of their true blood relationship. Kirk and Curtis are half-brothers and rivals to the death, which feels authentically saga-ish.

And the rest of the plot is the colourful story of their conflicts, particularly over the stunningly beautiful Janet Leigh, fiancée of the horrible Anglo-Saxon King Aella of Northumbria and kidnapped by Ragnar’s Vikings for ransom. And rekidnapped by Tony and taken back to England along with Ragnar as prisoner. And so on.

It’s a great rainy Sunday afternoon film. One one hand, mildly surprising they bothered to use real historical figures, but then it’s based on a historical novel The Viking by Edison Marshall itself based on sagas and the chronicles. On the other it is notably unhistorical – King Aella is reported to have died in battle with the invading Great Heathen Army, not pushed into a pit of wolves by Tony Curtis. And the son of Ragnar who led the revenge attack on Northumbria was named Ivar the Boneless, not Einar. Then again, the sources offer conflicting accounts and the sagas freely shape history for dramatic purposes so why shouldn’t a movie?

It’s a relief the film didn’t show Aella having his ribs being separated from his spine and his lungs being pulled out through his back, the torture or mark of the so-called ‘blood eagle‘, as some accounts report.

They used real Norwegian locations for Ragnar’s settlement which are breathtakingly beautiful. But dominating the film is the super-manly figure of the virile, drunk, angry, superbly confident, scarred and ultimately doomed Kirk Douglas. Watch and adore!

Related links

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

The Seven Seas by Rudyard Kipling (1896)

To enjoy Kipling’s poetry you have to accept the convention of the ballad. You have to accept that not all poetry has to be sensitive and spiritual. Not all poetry is about the poet’s soul, or superior perceptions or feelings.

Some poetry, and the ballad in particular, is designed to be objective, to tell stories about fictional characters, to have an immediate impact, to be closer in some ways to the short story; to tell a tale and impress moral messages, and is designed to the widest possible audience.

Kipling comes squarely out of this tradition, a tradition that goes back to the Border Ballads, to Percy’s Reliques, via the long, moralising narrative poems of the 18th century, which continued to be written in the Victorian period, but are little read today.

The Seven Seas was Kipling’s first poetry collection since the smash-hit Barrack Room Ballads of 1892. It’s divided into two sections:

  • numbers 26 to 43 are new Barrack Room Ballads, a continuation of the jaunty cockney style he had copied from the immensely popular music halls of his day, all dropped aitches and ave-a-banana rhythms
  • numbers 1 to 25 are freestanding poems, all linked by the ideas of the Sea and – more or less explicitly – the British Empire

‘A Song of the English’ is the longest poem, at around 20 pages – in fact a sequence of often quite short poems powerfully evoking the experience of Empire through a series of poems on English seafarers, the casualties of imperialist expansion, and the exotic and far-flung capitals of the British Empire. The overall effect is awe-inspiring. It is quite dazzling to realise just how large the Empire was, just how far its extent reached.

There are two long dramatic monologues in the style of Robert Browning:

  • McAndrews’ Hymn, where McAndrew is chief engineer on a merchant ship, in love with his gleaming engines and his Presbyterian work ethic
  • The Mary Gloster, a variation on the theme of the novel Captains Courageous where a successful businessman tells his story to his wayward and effete son – with a dramatic twist in the tail!

The final piece in the whole book, the Envoi, epitomises the ballad format, the brisk confidence, the lack of innerness, combined with lines and phrases of real poetic power, which comprise the Kipling effect.

L’Envoi

When Earth’s last picture is painted, and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an æon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall set us to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair;
They shall find real saints to draw from — Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame;
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

Drought

3 April 2012

So we’re in drought and there’s a hosepipe ban. Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been out walking almost every weekend of the year and only once do I remember rain. I’m sure this used to be a rainy country. Now the winters are colder and crisper than they used to be and all the rain comes in July and August, washing out our summers. The north Norfolk show last year was a complete washout, monsooon conditions. Already the top soil in my garden is bone dry, and I’ve noticed roots of trees in the front and back gardens for the first time protruding from the ground sufficiently to be grazed by the lanwmower, as the ground slowly, subtly contracts. And yet over 20% of the UK’s treated water is lost through leaking pipes. Truly this is a leaky, creaky, old Victorian country with a shiny designer gloss patched over its failing infrastructure. Every time I turn on a tap I marvel at the miracle of pure, clean water on demand, mine to drink, cook and wash in. For how much longer, I wonder…

Drought on the Thames Water website

British Museum members’ evening

14 December 2011

To the British Museum for a members’ evening. They only happen five times a year. The woman in information told me there are about 30,000 members. About 2,000 come to any one of these evenings.

In the Great Hall a choir was singing Christmas carols. The main lights were off and a son-et-lumiere effect projected giant snowflakes on the walls and ceiling. The big draw of the night was Grayson Perry giving a talk about the exhibition he’s curated. Quite a long queue for tickets so I gave it a miss. I walked up to room 63, a long gallery, to listen to an Indian woman tell an Indian folk story. Then up more stairs to the top of the building to the Japanese gallery. A woman explaining how one of Japan’s leading manga artists has created a manga adventure story based in the British Museum and an ancient mystery connected with BM treasures. I’d never been to the Japan gallery before. Very stylish and calming, even the full size samurai outfit.

Back through the Egyptian galleries to the bridge to the raised restaurant. People were eating fancy meals to the accompaniment of the choir’s carols. I sauntered round the shop fingering books and scarves and figurines. Christmas is coming!

Finally I sauntered out under the massive portico and into the drizzly London night. I was only there for forty-five minutes but I felt inestimably cleansed, elevated and purified from the trivia of work. I wandered off through the wet London streets, floating a few inches from the pavement.

The British Museum

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