September 22, 2012

Translating building names

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 9:41 pm

Talking about chateaux makes me think what’s the difference between a chateau and a castle? a chateau and a palais – or a castle and a palace?

A chateau can be a castle – that is, a fortress, with crenellations (with or without its licence to crenellate), turrets, parapets, battlements, meutrieres and a portcullis. (Of course the Tower of London is a castle – but we don’t call it that; another oddness in the way we name our buildings. And technically, it is a palace, as a royal residence, too.)

But a chateau can also be a completely unfortifiable building, a grand house of the baroque or rococo, like Versailles, or Vaux le Vicomte. You’d never call those castles in English; they would be either ‘houses’ (English understatement) or ‘palaces’. In German a chateau would be a Residenz; only a fortress is usually a Schloss, as far as I know (though my German is by no means as good as my French, so correct me if I’m wrong).

Church and chapel; now those are interesting words, as they have two different axes on which they work. There’s church, meaning a big one – a parish or collegiate church – and chapel meaning a little one – a mortuary chapel, a wayside chapel, a side-chapel; but there’s also Church (the C of E) and Chapel (nonconformists, except that of course when you get into it, some of them don’t even have chapels, they have meeting houses. Tricky stuff this nomenclature.) But outside Britain, church and chapel (or ‘hermitage’, sometimes) only work along that first axis; there’s no denomination of denominations, so to speak.

And a chapel built of corrugated iron is a tin tabernacle. Stands to reason.

September 20, 2012

Two French chateaux – Maintenon and Villebon

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — podtourz @ 9:41 pm

After a recent trip I thought I’d post on these two chateaux, both a half hour or so of driving from Chartres. They’re two castles that compared to, say, Amboise or Chambord, are of marginal interest, and yet none the less worth visiting for their atmosphere and historical/literary links.
The chateau is set just off one side of the main square, an oddly formed space, and the chateau’s placing is odd, too – not like Anet or Rambouillet at the end of a long approach, but aslant, separated off from the town by a courtyard and a low wall. There’s a great medieval gatehouse, but it leads into a courtyard that’s open to the back; the grands appartements are all in a wing on the left, not in the main body of the castle, and the huge grey medieval tour carrée is unused. It’s only at the back of the castle that geometry takes over, with the long canal laid out by Le Notre, flanked by avenues of beeches, running towards the great arches of the ruined aqueduct in the distance. The back of the castle, for its eighteenth century inhabitants, must have been the real front.
The aqueduct is one of the glories of Maintenon, and you don’t have to visit the chateau to see it. This wasn’t the work of Madame de Maintenon, but of Louis XIV; it was meant to carry water to Versailles, which must have seemed at the time like one of those huge planned Chinese new cities that are sprouting up, half building site, half urban sprawl, with the great palace at the heart of it – or, more accurately, to one side. The Versailles gardens needed ever greater quantities of water, not just for the plants but for the fountains, canals, and waterfalls; first the local ponds were used up, then the great machine at Marly, taking water from the Seine, proved insufficient. Louis decided to take water from the Eure at Pontgouin, 80 kilometres from Versailles, and commanded the military engineer Vauban to work out how.
I’ve been told that Vauban, being smart, proposed a siphon as the best way to cross the Eure valley here at Maintenon. (The river here is lower than the canal, since the river falls much more steeply. Taking the water from Pontgouin, 80 feet higher than Versailles, allowed for a gradual and steady slope all the way.) Louis refused; only an aqueduct would do justice to the Sun King. It was a doomed project; only the first of three tiers of arches was ever completed.
Yet the aqueduct is grander in its ruin than it ever could have been complete, I think. Look up from beneath it, and you can see how the middle of one vault has fallen away completely, leaving just a tenuous arch one stone thick on each side. And still it stands.
Back to the castle; through the little arch – no great gatehouse (the original forecourt was demolished long ago) – and into the courtyard, where the capitals of the Renaissance arcades are ornamented by lizards and crescent moons. An odd assortment; particularly as this chateau has nothing to do with Diane de Poitiers, whose badge was the goddess Diana’s crescent moon. (She was mistress of Henri II; Madame de Maintenon, before her ennoblement Francoise d’Aubigné, was mistress of Louis XIV.) The three lizards are the arms of Jean Cottereau, treasurer to three French kings, who built the Renaissance part of the chateau at the beginning of the sixteenth century; and while on one of the shields the crescent moon is shining down serenely on them, on another one of the lizards seems to think it’s a croissant and is biting happily into it.
The chateau mixes Renaissance and Gothic in a wonderful fantasy of spires, towers, turrets, and chimneys, with crocketed gables and pinnacle-crested dormer windows decorating the steep roof. Black patterns flash in the red brickwork. Nothing is quite symmetrical. The big square tower unbalances the chateau, its grey stone clashing with the Renaissance brickwork. The river runs right underneath the chateau’s kitchens – there’s even a small boat parked underneath – and on the other side the steps down from the great gallery are carried on a little bridge over another arm of the canal. There’s a sluice over which the water hisses; a swan sails up, his wings raised high as a ship’s sails.
The interior is perhaps not quite as interesting. The paintings are second rate, with the exception of a lovely Van Dyck, full of shimmer and diffused light, of the two sons of the Duke of Buckingham; and when I look at the hands, they seem rather vague, and less well painted than I’d expect from Van Dyck. Then I remember; this painting’s in London… so what is this? A sketch – or a copy? I try googling, but can’t find any reference to the Maintenon version…
And the long gallery is just horrid. It’s a nineteenth-century creation with positively nasty paintings, nineteenth-century dramatising at its worst. There’s a portrait of one of the dukes killed at Agincourt, looking like a sort of unbearded Falstaff, fat and rascally with a black patch over one eye; he could probably join a death metal band without changing his clothes. There are pictures of battles; at Ter (Toroella, 1694), Girona, a naval battle, all commanded by one or other of the Ducs de Noailles, a good two thirds of them marshals of France; it’s dim even on a bright sunlit day, a deathly cavern turning its back on the loveliness outside.
There are compensations. There is one bed with bright painted hangings, huge vibrant pink, purple and dark blue flowers on a cream background. There’s the embossed leather wall covering in the private apartments, glowing with patina and gilt. There’s one lovely Chinese bowl in the long gallery; outside, that kind of dark blue that seems to suck light into itself and glow dimly while breathing it out again, a flared curve to its lip, the base spreading in a reflection of that curve underneath, a classic shape so natural and harmonious it couldn’t be any other way. (But if you’re not a bit of a pottery nerd, you’d miss it.) And strangely, in Mme de Maintenon’s bedroom, full of the kind of tat you get in any celebrity museum – a bit of a spinning wheel, portraits of her in fancy dress – there’s a strange bench seat with little arches cut in the base, and in each of them stands a little pottery pug dog, each with a different expression, one so quizzical I could have leapt the barrier to hug it.
There’s another dog story that is strangely touching, though you have to reconstruct it for yourself. In one of the nineteenth-century rooms – a more comfortable, intimate space than the chilling grand gallery – are two pictures of the Duchesse de Noailles (Yoland de Luynes). One of them shows her as a little girl, teaching a little pug dog to shake hands – a touching little portrait that’s one of the few in this house to have real interest. The other shows the little girl grown up into a lovely young woman, with dark melancholy huge eyes, and a great chained hound lying at her feet, its eyes sad, its muzzle on its paws. It’s as if the dog, too, has grown up… well, of course it’s not the same dog, but none the less, there’s something rather sweet about the coincidence of the two paintings.
The real gem of Maintenon, artistically speaking, is the pair of Chinese salons; two rooms that seem to recreate an orchard indoors, with Chinese printed-then-painted wallpaper. The background is pale blue sky, against which butterflies flutter or rest, their wings folded together, on flowers, and birds flit; nearer the ground, gaudy-plumed pheasants perch or strut. There are fruit trees in bloom – almonds, or peach perhaps, their trunks gnarled as if half-bonsai’d, their branches curved or bent or twisted artistically. Each tree is different; the background may be printed, but the design isn’t repetitive. This is a miracle of landscape that surpasses Le Notre’s design outside; I’m sure I could feel a cool breeze in the painted trees’ branches.
(I should note that the Eure et Loir département has recently funded a complete restoration of these two rooms; a worthy use of public money.)
Maintenon is very much a castle of the valley. Head towards Villebon, and you’re in the middle of the Beauce, a huge open plain of golden cornfields (or this time of year, bleached yellow stubble).
Here, in 1391, a fortress was raised, built of brick from local kilns, for there’s no good building stone in this region. (There are still tile yards on the road towards Dreux.) It’s every bit as fantastic a sight as Maintenon, with its jettied-out battlements and parapets, its cylindrical turrets at each corner, the water murkily reflecting red brick and blue sky; but unlike Maintenon, it’s built to a precise, exact geometrical plan – a square fortress on a square island in a square moat, with cylindrical towers at the corners, and four towers on the entrance front, two at the corners and two guarding the gatehouse, with its drawbridge that is still raised every night and lowered every morning.
There are a few surprises; the semi-domed end of a bread oven sticking out of the wall, a trio of stars of David in black brick picked out on the red, perhaps the trademark of the builder (there are similar stars at Anet and Gien, we were told). The starkness of the medieval walls has been somewhat toned down by the mullioned windows which were opened up in it during the Renaissance; but it still impresses with its bulk and power.
The chateau was the property of the Estouteville family for two hundred years, standing unchanged and defiant; but then change came. Maximilien de Sully, Huguenot general and then finance minister to Henri IV, bought Villebon, and made it into a mansion fit for a Renaissance noble. It may not look much like one from the outside, but the medieval shell is just that – as soon as you cross the drawbridge and enter the interior courtyard, you’re in a different century. An italianate arcade, perhaps originally open to the air, and portrait busts of Sully and his wife assert Renaissance gentility.
Close to the castle is the delicate flamboyant Gothic chapel (with a fine Renaissance Tree of Jesse window, and English medieval alabaster figures on the altar). But I found more interesting the circular pigeonnier, further away by one of the ponds that feeds the moat. (Pigeons, particularly the young squabs, were a delicacy for the residents of the castle. Pigeon by-products were of course also useful as fertiliser, so that was an important part of the country house economy.) A tiny door forces visitors to stoop as they descend the steps into the cool and dim interior. Around the walls are more than 2,000 nest niches; in the centre, a huge pillar, around which a frame with a ladder rotates, giving access to the nests. It looks clunky, but it swings with surprising ease. It’s a strange space, functional but at the same time impressive and vaguely mystical, like a sort of mandala.
Villebon belonged to the Estoutevilles for two hundred years; it belonged to Sully’s descendants, the house of Bethune, for two hundred years; the de la Raudieres, now in residence, are only the third family to live in the castle. It’s been lucky, this castle; Sully’s acquisition gave it a new lease of life in the Renaissance, and it survived the French Revolution thanks to a charitable – and locally popular – chatelaine.
Yet the castle’s relationship to the village has changed. This was originally a feudal village, the houses crowded in the shelter of the castle; narrow arches still span the road at the entrance to the street. But the nineteenth century brought new desires for privacy and exclusion; a great wall was built between castle and street, with a new gateway, and an orangery – now a ruin since a fire in the 1980s. The castle turned its back on the village, facing to the other side, the great park, where Sully used to walk every day for exercise.
Something else has changed, too; because what you see is not just a work of history, it’s a work of fiction. Or at least, it is if you’ve read Proust, because this is the castle of the Guermantes, the aristocratic counterweights to Swann. (There’s a real chateau of Guermantes, but it never had a duchess; it’s within spitting distance of Euro Disneyland. I wonder what Proust would have made of that…) Illiers-Combray – which was Illiers, but has now taken on its fictional name in reality – is a few kilometres down the road, though not (as Proust would have it) within the easy distance of an afternoon stroll.

Practicalities: Maintenon is open every day. Villebon is only open on the first and third Sunday of the month (April to September), and for the Journées de Patrimoine in September.

January 27, 2012

Our household gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 10:13 pm

Lares et penates; the household gods. We think of God as a single, omnipotent presence; but if you were Roman, you had your own gods, the gods of your household. Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, were all very well, but it was the household gods who had to be propitiated every day, and the ancestors, whose masks were kept in the house.

In India, too, there are household gods; Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, guards thresholds and ensures wealth, or Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and learning. Near me in Norwich, an Indian cafe has a little Krishna shrine in it, just the way it might have a Cats Protection League calendar on the wall. In a house just outside Aleppey, where I waited for my canoe to pick me up, I took tea under the watchful eyes of two Krishnas and a hologrammed Shirdi Sai Baba, as the portable TV flickered.

That’s the great thing about household gods. We worship them but we also take them for granted. They’re not distant, transcendent gods, but involved with the business of our lives – the baking, the banking, the sweeping of the floor, the joys and the sorrows and even the frustrations.

In Russian Orthodox homes there’s a ‘red corner’ for the ikons. Protestantism, alas, offers no household gods, but instead an all-seeing eye to watch for and punish transgression. It’s unforgiving in that way. Nor is a pious text a household god; you can’t go to a text and ask it for help, nor weep in front of it. You end up making your own little shrines, of dead butterflies or airfix skeletons or collections of shed cats’ claws, whatever it is, some kind of magic like the mummified cat built into the wall in the Aitre Saint-Maclou, in Rouen.

I suppose the Athena poster of the girl in tennis whites scratching her arse would be understood as a household god by any earth-visiting Martian with half a degree in ethnology.

But the days of our household gods are numbered. There’s a new shrine on the block. The television first replaced the hearth; it became the centre of the household – so obviously where people have excavated the chimneybreast to put a screen there instead. (O tempora, o mores: I remember sitting in an inglenook in a friend’s home in Somerset, reading in the warmth for an entire afternoon, undisturbed.) Now, it’s replaced the household gods, too. We give our lives over to Big Brother instead of Ganesh, Nigella Lawson instead of Lakshmi.

We need better gods.

January 13, 2012

The anti-technology backlash

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 2:44 pm

Technology is a wonderful thing. But from helping us to achieve what we wanted to in life, it has started to fill our lives with things that it wants us to do. Facebook is useful when you want to organise a rehearsal schedule, or communicate with friends in another country. When you end up sitting in the pub looking at Facebook instead of talking to the person next to you, it’s stopped assisting and started taking over.

Mobile phones. Wonderful things, except for people who expect me to have it turned on at all times and take calls at three in the morning. Except for marketers who want to send me relentless texts flogging some damn crap or other.

It’s perhaps not surprising that we have something of a technology backlash. For instance The Artist has looked at James Cameron’s idea that 3D is the future of cinema and said “I don’t think so” – let’s go back to the silent screen, to black and white, to simplicity. There’s a real wilfulness in this – it’s partly looking back to a more innocent and simple age in the way of recession-driven nostalgia through the ages, but also I think it’s a refusal of technological capabilities that have come to seem too fussy, too overwhelming. (I really hated Avatar; it made me feel seasick, and my eardrums were simply crushed by the overdone soundtrack.)
Vinyl fans are pushing sales of vinyl records back up to levels last seen in the 1980s. A number of photographers and film makers are also heading back to the old tech. There are even those who are adapting their digital cameras as pinhole cameras, to work with the potential of a very limited technology indeed; blurry photos, often in greyscale, where the smeary, blurred nature of the image enables them to focus on atmosphere, to create photographs of incredible abstraction, like Chinese calligraphy.
I have no intention at all of reverting to longhand for my travel writing or novels. The computer has become part of my writing practice; I draft the plot within the document, then start writing the chapters within that plotted structure, gradually replacing the sketch by the worked-out version. But when I’m working on poetry, or thinking out vocabulary and characterisation, for some reason I naturally want to do that on paper. Journal keeping, too, wants a pen; on the PC I can’t doodle, play with calligraphy or form, put little drawings in the margin.
And I utterly abhor technology in writing implements. Felt tip and ball pen are alike abominable (except when I’m travelling, and even then I’m picky about the pens I use – either one-euro mauve transparent plastic fountain pens I bought in a sale at Carrefour a few years back, of which I have about twenty, or little Rotring-style disposables). But at home, it’s fountain pens; Waterman or Cross, since though I might aspire to a Duofold, my stingy Puritan heart won’t let me pay three hundred quid for a pen; or sometimes, an ancient calligraphy pen with a broad nib, that makes swash capitals just the way I like them…
The anti-tech backlash is definitely with us. It seems to be driven by the same desires as the craft and the slow food movement; the desire to feel the real natural material in your hands, not to be alienated or distanced from it, the desire to disintermediate oneself, in a way. The act of writing and the writing itself are linked in a very intimate way by the stream of ink, in a way they aren’t when you type on a keyboard.
And I think there’s also a desire not to be distracted; to liberate oneself from the flickering fascinations of Facebook and Twitter and Perez Hilton, from the excessive photo-realism of the Photoshopped three-dimensional oversaturated picture, and be able instead to focus on the essence – a mood expressed in a haiku, the silhouette of a mountain, the monochrome lines of a sculpture, the effect of light shining on a grey day.
This of course has nothing to do with real tech refuseniks such as the Amish, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who eschew blood transfusions. It’s not a religious principle but an aesthetic one; but having been part of some art cultures for a while, I’m wondering whether the anti-tech backlash is now becoming mainstream.

December 22, 2011

A year’s reading – on the road and off it

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 11:03 pm

One of the great things about travelling is that, deprived of the meretricious attractions of the internet, I get to catch up with my reading. It can be slightly random, depending on what I manage to find in second-hand bookshops – India gave me the chance to read children’s versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Henry James, Eric Clapton’s autobiography, and JG Farrell’s marvellous Siege of Krishnapur.

I can heartily recommend reading children’s versions of myths as a first stop in a new culture. If I’d started off reading Valmiki, I suspect I would have got bogged down – children’s books on the other hand give you the broad outlines of the story. Easy reading, too, for Indian trains, in those couple of hours between sunset and being ready for sleep, when you want satisfyingly big print for the dim lighting, and simple narrative for ease of brain.

Henry James. Wonderful. Long meandering sinuous sentences. Perceptions, misconceptions, cross-purposes. The tragedy of life lived as a misunderstanding. I read my copy of his various stories three or four times, finding something new each time; a word that had seemed innocuous on first reading would sparkle away balefully on second reading, with maleficent or sardonic purpose.

JG Farrell. What a find! The Siege of Krishnapur is a compulsive novel, richly comic despite its bleak subject – there’s a lovely scene in which the young raja wants the Englishman Fleury to admire his scientific outlook, while Fleury is more struck by the ‘oriental’ weirdness that he can’t quite explain… Throughout the whole novel, the political and sociological ideas of the Collector and his bete noire the Magistrate are discussed, and yet neither is able to cope with the scale of the historical events actually occurring. And the one thing that he gets absolutely right about India is the huge boredom of the plains landscape – the dusty, muddy, nothingness of the great flat land.

The Siege of Krishnapur is similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman in its range of references – Victorian culture, political philosophy, history. But it seems so very much more readable. And Fowles never had that wicked sense of humour.

From my perusal of Indian secondhand bookshops in tourist destinations, I note that many travellers read travel books about the destination while they’re there. I’m not sure that’s always worthwhile. Do I want to see Dalrymple’s Delhi, Mark Tullow’s Great Trunk Road? (It intrigues me that no one ever writes about Kochi or Bangalore – perhaps not picturesque enough, and yet Kochi is such a marvellous city. Never mind the tourist bits, Ernakulam is the most amazing mix of Gulf-Arab, American, Indian, and Christian culture. Where else can you eat shish tawuk and shawarma and then go to a Carnatic music gig with electric guitar and German jazzers, and end the day with whisky chasers?)

I found Chetan Bhagat more interesting than any of the more touted Indian writers. He helped me understand the world of the thirty-something Indian professional, and and the regional differences between north and south. And it was a laugh reading his books. Some days, you can’t ask for more.

Meanwhile ‘back at the ranch’ I re-read Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Dante’s Divina commedia. Spenser intrigues me, not so much for the allegory nor for the political aspects of his work, but for what I find almost a prefiguring of space opera – a feeling of the universe as dynamic, oozing and seeping and pathless. It comes through very strongly when he talks about the sea, and in the dream-landscapes he creates; and there’s a brutality in his tales of hostages and robbery that seems gritty, at odds with the pseudo-chivalric allegorical superstructure. It’s very different from what I saw in it when I first read it twenty years ago.

Dante surprised me with his verbal invention and his ripe vein of scatology and swearing. My Italian is good enough to know when the parallel translation takes refuge in euphemism. Dante’s Inferno is a marvellous verbal invention – he coins the language afresh as he goes, both in curses and in imagery. And he gives the spirits real life; Ulysses may be cast into darkness, yet his lines about the need to pursue knowledge –

Fatti non fosti a viver come bruti

Ma per seguire virtute e conoscenza –

have the ring of a real truth about them. I think also what I love about Dante is the sheer size of his ambition; his subject is the whole of history, the whole of literature, the whole world on its axis, the creation of an entire mythos and a whole new language.

I also had a mammoth Terry Pratchett slugfest as a result of acting in Wyrd Sisters. I didn’t quite manage to finish every one, but I got pretty close. Thank the great A’tuin, Mr Pratchett’s infirmities haven’t stopped him producing a new work this year, which I really ought to get my hands on. Some of my friends are a bit sniffy about Pratchett, but his best novels are capable of being read on several levels – as a journalist I particularly loved The Truth, full of good in-jokes but also asking questions about what exactly the media is there for. The only thing missing is a phone tapping inquiry…

This year, I’m reading Gibbon and Proust – two very big tomes indeed. I can already tell you that Proust is often extremely funny – like Waiting for Godot – something you’re rarely told. Tante Leonie with her self-importance and hypochondria is a comic masterpiece; her maid Françoise cursing at the chicken she’s trying to kill would make horribly true stand-up. And since we live an hour or so’s drive from Illiers-Combray, I’m going to treat myself to a trip to Combray and Guermantes (Villebon) when I finish the whole seven volumes.

As for travel writers: I’ve read very little this year, preferring to do the travelling rather than read about it. But I enjoyed Graham Coster’s A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, a book about long distance trucks and truckers; not a classic, but a gently quirky and satisfying story. And I also read William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives; a work in which he has the tact to remain in the background, letting each of the religious figures in the book tell their own tales of India and their faith. Strangely haunting.

December 13, 2011

The missing gene

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — podtourz @ 3:03 pm

Somehow I just can’t get to love Paris.

I can love individual things about Paris. The beehives in the Jardin du Luxembourg, for instance. (Les ruches; they sound so much more interesting in French – you can almost hear the bees’ wings rustling.) The little streets around Saint Gervais Saint Protais where medieval Paris seems so close. The Hotel de Cluny with its turrets and coats of arms; the luminous elegance of the Sainte Chapelle; the creamy stone and plane trees of the Ile Saint Louis glowing on an autumn afternoon.

But there are just so many things I don’t get about Paris. And as a city, it feels very oppressive to me; it resists intimacy. Compare St James’s Park with the Tuileries. In St James’s, you have only to click your tongue and squirrels will flock to you, sitting expectantly, their tails shivering gently, their bright button eyes looking for food. There are the ludicruous pelicans, fat and oafish out of the water, piss-elegant galleons when they’re in it.  From nowhere in the park can you see the whole of it; there are hidden islands, drifts of daffodils that appear and disappear as you walk past, tiny tracks you can take that don’t go where you expect.

In the Tuileries, there are some stunted pollards, and a few lawns, a pond with two lonely drunken nymphs balancing for three centuries already on one foot, without ever quite falling over, and there’s expanse upon expense of firm, gravelly dirt. It’s like a big petanque court with sculptures and a water feature. No squirrels, no pelicans; a single crow sat motionless in a tree, so black he looked more like a gap where the universe had ceased to exist, a piece of dark matter.

There are the great boulevards of Baron Haussmann, with their tall cliffs of apartments. Consider the porte cochère, the double-height, narrow gateway leading to the yards of these great slabs of building, for the coaches to get through. We don’t have them in London; instead, we have the charming institution of the mews, the small cottage and stable streets behind the great houses, a sort of parallel London.

And there’s Louis XIV, a man who, it seems to me, had a sort of inverse Midas touch for art; he took great art and made it interior decor. Paris is full of buildings like the Louvre, which is big, but not very interesting. The Champs Elysées, the Place de la Concorde, are equally, big without really being impressive – so big that your eye gets lost, so big that the lampstands and statues seem stranded in space, as if the flooding Seine had washed them up and then retreated, leaving them stuck there.

The Madeleine really sums up what I don’t get about Paris. The outside is fine, Greek-temple style, nicely posed so that the Madeleine and the Chambre des Députés on the other side of the Seine balance each other along a great axis. But inside, three shallow, saucer-like domes admit light through dim grey glass skylights, floating incompetently above the classical grid of the side walls. It’s got no life at all; it’s as if someone had got three square chapels and pushed them together. Even the statuary seems flaccid.

Even the front door makes you unwelcome; bronze panels of the ten Commandments, each one starting NON… NON…. NON…. the word tolling like a bell. Don’t do this, don’t do that – don’t come in here, you are a sinner. (I seem to remember Jesus stating just two commandments, which were positive commandments, about love – but then sometimes I wonder when the Church is going to catch up with Jesus.) And it’s interesting that these Biblically validated prohibitions were followed by the twentieth century version; NO mobile phones, NO food, NO shorts. In vain did I look anywhere for the word ‘bienvenu’…

(If you want a welcome, go to the other end of the church, where the way opens into the basement. You can eat there for about eight euros, and make a donation too – the Madeleine does follow Jesus in one very practical way, feeding the hungry. Loaves and fishes are things the French know a great deal about, after all.)

I keep reading about Paris the City of Light, the romantic city, the city of love. But Paris as I experience it is Paris the City of Blag, the City of Empire, the City of Bling. It’s a city where humanity has always come second to PR, and intimacy has been ditched in favour of the Big Statement. It’s the city where the Sun King threw cats into the bonfire for Midsummer’s Day, where Haussmann bulldozed his way through, where the Empire thrived on borrowed money and snobbery. It’s a city that makes me very uncomfortable indeed.


December 5, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 10:37 pm

Some things you remember from childhood so clearly. Others fade with time. Some things stay with you for ever, but you can’t remember their names. I remember a gorgeous illustrated book about a family living in a lighthouse on the north-east coast of America, full of icy blue sea and wild cranberries; I’ve completely forgotten the title, but that for me is what Maine should be (if I ever go there, will it be different?)

I-Spy books though remain a readily identifiable part of my childhood. I’m slightly perturbed that they’ve been relaunched – I rather liked the venerable distance that I’d established.

What was the attraction of the I-Spy books? I don’t think I ever actually completed one or sent one off to Big Chief I-Spy for my Indian feather. But the books did something no other books did; they made you read the book and then go back and look at the world differently. (I know, that’s supposed to be what great art does. I-Spy isn’t great art; but it still showed me that a book is something that isn’t escapism, that doesn’t just get read and then put back on a shelf – that a book is a way of looking at the world. Evehalf-decent book is a pair of binoculars.)

And like another favourite format of mine, the Shire paperbacks, the I-Spy book was just big enough, and not too big. There was just enough in it to set you off, and enough for it to seem complete – but it wasn’t daunting to a youngster.

Then there was also the enjoyable fiction of the secret codes, the secret words, OD HUNATINGO, the wig-wam, the badges. All my love I’ve rather loved in-jokes, romans à clef; when I was at Cambridge I made an eighteenth-century pastiche notice for my door stating that ‘the honble Scholler is not now receiving’ (in retrospect that feels rather childish, if well executed). A meretricious pleasure, I suppose, given that way we so often use shibboleths to exclude (by class, by race, by politics)…  but it got into my blood early on.

And I-Spy explained some marvellous secrets. It actually told you what the track signs on British railways meant; something that continues to fascinate me to this day (almost as much as the ‘ghost stations’ of the London Underground).

I suppose the Red Indian concept wouldn’t work any more. I don’t remember an I-Spy book of Native Americans… But there was an English fascination with the American native; I read all of Grey Owl’s books as a child, too, never realising that Grey Owl of the Canadian wilderness was actually an Englishman. (Though not a fake; he married an Ojibway woman and lived with the Ojibway people, and his concern for the environment was real, too.)

So no wonder I remember the I-Spy books. Well, even if there’s no Big Chief I-Spy, and even if writing away to Hawkeye has now been replaced by getting a downloadable certificate, I’m glad they’re being given to another generation of children. But I think I may not want to see the new books myself. Let’s keep my memories undisturbed.

The charm of the pavilion

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 10:03 pm

Some of my favourite buildings in England are tollhouses, gatehouses to country estates, pavilions. They have a certain charm that you rarely find in larger buildings – the same miniature charm that you find, for example, in the tiny hedgehog-prickly chapel of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa,  or the chantry chapels in Winchester cathedral, or the wonderful reliquary of Saint Taurin in Evreux, a Gothic cathedral magically shrunk and ripened into gold.

By an accident of preservation, sometimes the gatehouses are all that remain of once great houses. At Layer Marney, in Essex, the tall, parapet-decked gatehouse is practically all that remains of the Marneys’ plans for a country palace, together with a single range of the projected great courtyard.

I think what I love with these buildings is that despite their small size (though at eighty feet tall, Layer Marney can’t really be described as small) the full resources of monumental architecture are used on them. In fact the architectural content outweighs their size; they are disproportionately stylish, sometimes indeed they are all style and nothing but style. At one end of the spectrum it becomes quite difficult to separate the ornate gatehouse from the pure folly – a building like the Rushton Lodge that is, in effect, more symbol than building.

So you have, for instance, gate cottages which boast pediments – an assertion not just of Classical values but also of a certain importance. This is no gatehouse but a temple, a Parthenon, a monument. And it’s no coincidence that so many of these tiny buildings are severely geometrical – square, circular, triangular, octagonal. Their small size makes the geometry possible (no upper storey requiring a staircase to be accommodated, and only one room deep), and it makes it noticeable.

And then, one of my other great loves in architecture is the centralised building – the great polygon of Aachen’s palatine chapel, the huge dome of Haghia Sophia (a cunning blend of basilican and centralised plan), the rotating arcades of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. These gatehouses and tollhouses replicate that, but in miniature – often quite knowingly contrasting the pretension of their form with the modesty of their proportions.

I thought when I started writing this that such things were of the past. Nowadays, I thought, we’re too functional, too practical, too penny-pinching. And then I thought of some of the marvellous toll booths I’ve seen on French motorways (in among some tediously pedestrian ones); the oversailing twisted leaf canopy on the péage before the Millau bridge, for instance.


October 23, 2011

The joys of the theatre

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 11:07 pm

Ej blot til lyst

There’s a marvellous scene at the start of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, where the camera slowly pans down from the proscenium of a toy theatre to its stage, with the paper cut-out dramatis personae gesticulating, and the footlights flickering; and then, destroying the illusion, the scenery parts to reveal the face of Alexander, the master of puppets, his huge dark eyes looking out at the viewer in ennui, deep and impassive.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Derby. In the marvellous Georgian Pickford’s House Museum, narrow, cantilevered grey stone stairs lead upwards from the well appointed, genteel morning room and dining room, up past the first floor to the low, spare attics where the servants lived.  Off these stairs, a door leads into a tiny room full of display cases; and in these cases, quite unexpectedly, a collection of toy theatres.

‘Ej blot til lyst’ reads one of them; the same inscription as on the toy theatre in Fanny and Alexander – in Danish, copied from the National Theater in Copenhagen. I think this is the same toy theatre we see in the film, though I might be wrong.

One of the things that fascinated me about the exhibition in Pickford’s House was that many of the theatres were set for a particular play, with the right scenery and figures – a jail scene, a romantic robbers’ glen, from classical tragedy or from nineteenth century melodrama. This is theatre history – the theatres were not mere toys, but ways of re-enacting at home the same plays that occupied the metropolitan stage.

And there’s something magical about these theatres. It’s partly the effect of perspective; like peep-shows, there’s something magical about looking into the world of sliding flats, a world foreshortened and logical at the same time. That’s something that’s always fascinated me about Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, with its perspective street seen through an arch (though actually, the scenery is the work of Scamozzi, not Palladio). The perspective makes the theatre into a different world from ours, one in which natural laws seem to work in a more rarefied, more schematic way; it’s a heightened world.

But it’s also a world of meaning. A world in which meaning can be manipulated, as it was in the masque of Charles I’s court under Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson (it’s interesting that I automatically mentioned the designer first, the dramatist second; this was a theatre of spectacle, display, and conspicuous consumption – a baroque drama, aimed at the glorification of the monarch), as it is in Fanny and Alexander with its layering of fantasy sequences and reality.

In which sense, that motto on the toy theatre is interesting. ‘Ej blot til lyst’ – ‘not only for pleasure’: theatre is of course a pleasure for its colour, its intensity, its very theatricality. But it isn’t only a pleasure. It is, if we let it be, a monument to meaning. And at the same time, it isn’t only meaning; the very fact that we are imagining things, that we know that we are imagining, or participating in a work of imagination, is significant. In a world full of earnestness, the demand for ‘role models’, for honesty of a peculiarly pedestrian sort, the very existence of fiction is a reminder that civilisation is about lightness and delicacy; that it is about the ability to play, to create illusion, to divide the overlapping, translucent layers of different realities and unrealities. It is a reminder that truth is not always single, and that things are at once more difficult and more intriguing than they might at first appear.

A few favourites:

  • The Markgraefliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth. Not to be confused with Richard Wagner’s Festival Theatre, this delightful baroque opera house is a perfect miniature, with its Margrave’s box, fine ornament, and deep stage, designed by Italian master Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. (Currently closed for restoration)
  • The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire. You couldn’t get more different from Bayreuth – a bourgeois playhouse, intimate and rather plain, but with the amazing treasure of Britain’s oldest theatre scenery, the ‘woodland scene’ of  the 1820s.  (Lovers of the British stage should also visit the Georgian Theatre in Bury St Edmunds, dating from 1819.)
  • Drottningholm, the Swedish royal theatre, retains some of the original stage machinery, including the wave machine. I’ve only seen it in video but really must get round to visiting it. It still stages baroque and classical opera on the original stage; built in 1766, it’s just right for staging Mozart.
  • The Globe, London. Of course this isn’t a historic theatre – it’s a copy of one. And it’s as far as you can get from the illusionistic stage painting and aristocratic perspectives of the royal theatres; instead, it takes after the medieval mystery plays and strolling players’ performances given on carts and in the yards of galleried inns – the scenery is minimal, the illusion purely verbal. Perhaps there’s a reason that we have Shakespeare and Dryden, while the Italians have the opera – the drama of ‘words, words, words’ against the drama of spectacle and illusion.
  • http://venetianred.net/tag/ingmar-bergmans-fanny-and-alexander/ visits the same theatre – with a video of the opening of the film – and has more information on toy theatres, including a quite surreal picture of G K Chesterton cutting out figures for his toy theatre.

October 14, 2011

New post on Velvet Escape

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 12:56 pm

I regularly write for London Hotels Insight and a number of other blogs, and I’m pleased to have contributed a couple of guest articles to Velvet Escape;



As  a former Londoner I’ve always particularly loved the countryside around London – the Chilterns, the North Downs, the great forests of Essex (Epping, Hatfield). True, it’s no longer the green city it was in the nineteenth century, but London still contains great tracts of greenery – Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, Greenwich, Richmond Park… and of course the Royal Parks. Apart from Paris, with the Bois de Boulogne, the Luxembourg Gardens, the park at Versailles, I can’t think of many capitals that have so much parkland within the city and around it.

Cities have different relationships with nature. Norwich was described in the seventeenth century as “a city in a garden”, and it’s still a city punctuated by plains and open spaces, mature trees giving it much of its character. Some German cities and towns included huge spaces of farmland and orchard within the walls; in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, as soon as you turn your back on the much touristed main drag, away from the town hall and impressive gate tower, the walls overlook farmyards and gardens, a vision of bucolic Germany from a Grimm fairytale.

Italian cities, on the other hand, are urban and urbane, setting their face determinedly against the suburbs and the country; there may be gardens, but they’re enclosed behind high walls. Florence is a city of narrow alleys bounded by cliff-like palace faces, or grid-like squares surrounded by arcades; Alberti’s vision of architecture excludes medieval pragmatism and spontaneity as well as dirt and squalor, but it also excludes nature – it is a triumph of art.

In India, there’s no city; the boundaries of dwelling and desert seem random, permeable. You may find a bunch of houses along a road, then nothing till the next batch of houses in a few hundred yards; city gates may once have been an attempt to demarcate the city, but they’re now swallowed up in the general chaos. Only in New Delhi is there a nicely marked distinction of lawn and yard, garden and building, and that’s somehow very, very English. Mumbai seems not a city so much as a collection of villages, which haven’t completely stopped being villages; I wonder if London was such an agglomeration in Dickens’s or Mayhew’s day?


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