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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Keener's Manual

The late Richard Condon has long been one of my favourite authors. The novel that made him famous was The Manchurian Candidate. Other Hollywood successes were Winter Kills and the Prizzi's Honor series. He specialised in satirical black comedies usually centred around the political world. Winter Kills is a thinly-disguised take on the Kennedy family.
The late Richard Condon
Although his books are very funny and hugely entertaining, this post is about an element in his books that intrigued and puzzled me for years. However the mystery has been resolved for several years now and I am going to describe it here.....
In the frontispiece of every book is a quotation from "The Keener's Manual". As an example, in A Talent for Loving the quote, credited to the Keener's Manual is:
  The gifts that I bring you
  Crowded and shoving
  Are the envy of princes;
  A talent for loving
This is the book that was so nearly filmed by the Beatles as Eight Arms to Hold You but they made Help instead. Another example, from Condon's first novel The Oldest Confession, has this epigram in the front cover:
   The Oldest Confession
   Is one of Need,
   Half the need Love
   The other half Greed.

The title of the book was not always a direct quote. Prizzi's Glory of 1988 has this quote from the manual:
   Seeking good fortune
   As we rise from the mud,
   'Tis often we're paid
   From a purse filled with blood.

But here's the point of this post - although I had tried for years to find a copy of The Keener's Manual, no librarian was able to help me. Eventually I discovered that it has never existed; it's existence was completely fabricated by Condon as were all of the quotes! There are several other examples of this kind of thing. One that springs to mind is the extensive use of footnotes about the scientist de Selbey in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. The footnotes must comprise about a quarter of the book.
Another interesting fact about Condon's novels is that every one of them featured a character named Frank Heller but he was a different person in each book. Condon would often use the names of friends and acquaitances as characters and, at one time, proposed the idea of having a central register of character names that authors could safely use as they wished. I don't know how serious he was about that idea.
Incidentally a keener is some one who mourns at a wake usually by wailing, a word of Irish origin.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli, the name comes from Lapis, Latin for 'stone' and  Lazhuward, Persian for 'blue'. It has been mined almost exclusively, in north-eastern Afghanistan and a part of Pakistan for nine centuries. It was used to fashion the eyebrows on the funeral mask of Tutankhamen over 3,300 years ago.

It is a mineral rock which provides the most intense deep blue pigment. When it began to be imported into Europe in the Middle Ages, blue was a difficult and expensive colour for artists to obtain and it became the basis of French Ultramarine paint for centuries until artificial pigment could be manufactured. This had the effect of making it rare and costly so that it became a status symbol in art in much the same way as gold leaf. 
The Madonna, Sassoferrato, 17th century
Blue colours symbolise Heavenly Grace in Medieval art as well as hope, good health and the state of servitude. The Virgin Mary is frequently depicted wearing blue clothing to indicate heavenly chastity.

It is useful to bear in mind that this rule, as with all symbolism, should not be seen as immutable; artists were free to create alternative values but the 'meaning' of a picture would often need to be 'read' through it's depictions and colours.
I'm listening to George Harrison singing 
Bob Dylan's 'If Not For You' from 
All Things Must Pass.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Painting of the Month (66) Nov 2016: Caravaggio

I am back after taking a short break from Blogging 
and hope to visit many Blogs over the next few weeks!
Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes 1598-99
OK, the subject matter is a bit grim; The Book of Judith is in the Catholic Old Testament but not in the Hebrew or Protestant versions. It is found in the Apocrypha because some scholars consider it's many anachronisms cause them to relegate it’s status. It has even been described as the 'first historical novel'!
However, this post is about Caravaggio and his painting.  Michelangelo Merisi Merigi da Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571 and died, probably murdered by any of a number of people out for revenge, in 1610 aged 38. His life was tumultuous even by the standards of those times. He frequently had to relocate his home after being involved in drunken brawls.
His painting style is usually considered to be early Baroque which is complex but broadly can be associated with the Catholic Church trying to re-assert itself in the face of Protestant reform.
This painting has many very interesting aspects. It captures the highly dramatic moment of decapitation. There is another superb painting of this subject by Artemisia Gentileschi  which I have shown below. For me, what separates the two pictures is the expression on Judith’s face in the Caravaggio version. It seems to convey her repulsion and determination at the same time. Caravaggio had witnessed the public execution by beheading of Beatrice Celini in Rome and he has managed to convey the horrific moment when a man loses his life with incredible anatomical detail. One would usually'read' a painting left to right but this composition is unusual in that the two women enter from the right.
Caravaggio is renowned for his importance in developing the style known as Chiaroscuro. This involves the use of strong contrasts often used in religious painting where a dramatic shaft of light illuminates the subject.
Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Beheading Holofernes 1614-20
Footnote:  Judith was a Hebrew woman who got Holofernes drunk in order to slay him. He was a general of Nebuchadnezzar who was charged with subjugating all of the nations who worshiped other Gods than Nebuchadnezzar himself. The painting can be seen as an allegory of Virtue versus Evil.
Artemisia Gentileschi was extremely unusual in being an, eventually, recognised female artist of the very highest quality.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

"The Dutchman" by Steve Goodman

Stephen Joshua Goodman
The Dutchman is lovely song made (a bit) famous by the Chicago-born singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. He didn't write this particular song but his version is by far the best one.
I recommend listening here and coming back to read about it!
The lyrics are printed below if you want to follow along.

THE DUTCHMAN by Michael Peter Smith                      
The Dutchman's not the kind of man                                       
Who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam  
That holds his dreams in,                
But that's a secret that only Margaret knows.           
When Amsterdam is golden in the summer,
Margaret brings him breakfast,  
She believes him.
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow.
He's mad as he can be, but Margaret only sees that sometimes,
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.
The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes,  
His cap and coat are patched with the love
That Margaret sewed there.
Sometimes he thinks he's still in Rotterdam.
And he watches the tug-boats down canals
An' calls out to them when he thinks he knows the Captain.
Till Margaret comes             
To take him home again              
Through unforgiving streets that trip him, though she holds his arm,
Sometimes he thinks he's alone and he calls her name.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

The winters whirl the windmills 'round
She winds his muffler tighter         
And they sit in the kitchen.
Some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew.  
And he sees her for a moment, calls her name,
She makes the bed up singing some old love song,  
A song Margaret learned              
When it was very new.           
He hums a line or two, they sing together in the dark.
The Dutchman falls asleep and Margaret blows the candle out.

   Let us go to the banks of the ocean
   Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
   Long ago, I used to be a young man
   And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

It's a sad story about growing old, dementia and long-lasting love. But, it's not entirely sad, having some wistful elements of nostalgia. I like the lines:
"And he sees her for a moment, calls her name,
She makes the bed up singing some old love song".
Such a clear picture is painted in those two lines.
Steve Goodman died of Leukaemia in 1984 aged just 36. He had known his illness was terminal for some time but kept on working and writing. His most famous song is The City of New Orleans made famous by Arlo Guthrie.

Saturday, 17 September 2016


I love one-liner jokes so I've collected a few favourites together to help lighten your mood!
From Tim Vine:
  • I phoned the local gym and I asked if they could teach me how to do the splits. He said, "How flexible are you?" I said, "I can't make Tuesdays."
  • So I went to buy a watch, and the man in the shop said "Analogue." I said "No, just a watch." 
  • I went into a shop and I said, "Can someone sell me a kettle." The bloke said "Kenwood?" I said, "Where is he?" 
  • So I went to the record shop and I said "What have you got by The Doors?" He said: "A bucket of sand and a fire blanket!" 
  • I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what - never again.
From Milton Jones:
  • Militant feminists: I take my hat off to them. They don’t like that.
  • I was mugged by a man on crutches, wearing camouflage. Ha ha, I thought, you can hide but you can’t run.
  • My wife... its difficult to say what she does... she sells seashells on the seashore.
  • My grandfather invented the cold air balloon... But it never really took off.
  • Hopefully I’ve got a book coming out soon. Shouldn’t have eaten it, really.
From Tommy Cooper:
  • I knocked on the door at this Bed and Breakfast and a lady stuck her head out of the window and said: 'What do you want', I said, 'I want to stay here'. She said, 'Well stay there' and shut the window. 
  • D'you know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen, it said "Parking Fine." So that was nice.
  • "Doctor, I can't pronounce my F's, T's or H's".  "Well, you can't say fairer than that."
  • So I was getting into my car, and this bloke says to me “Can you give me a lift?” I said “Sure, you look great, the world’s your oyster, go for it.’
  • I asked the waiter: “How long will my spaghetti be?” He said: “I don’t know. We never measure it."
From Stewart Francis:

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Parliament Square, London

View across Parliament Square with Westminster Abbey on the right.
Watercolour by Pete Scully,
Tower Bridge and The Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben are the two most iconic images of London. Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the building. It has a crack which has been there since it was cast and gives it the distinctive sound which is heard all over the world with the BBC time signal. The UK Houses of Parliament are still sometimes referred to as The Palace of Westminster because since the early eleventh century various royal palaces have stood on the site.  
William I had a castle there after the eleventh century Norman invasion.
Westminster Abbey: In the early eighth century a Saxon Church dedicated to St Peter was constructed on the site. The church became known as the West Minster ('west monastery'), while St Paul's, a few miles to the east was known as the East Minster ('east monastery').

Winston Churchill's Statue in Parliament Square
The modern square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry and is famous as the site of London’s first traffic lights.  It is home to 11 statues of British, Commonwealth, and foreign statesmen. In anti-clockwise order starting with Churchill: This 12-foot bronze by Ivor Roberts-Jones shows him wearing a Navy overcoat. HIs 88-year-old widow Lady Clementine unveiled it in 1973, with the help of the Queen. Churchill chose the location himself in 1950. A mild electric current stops pigeons perching and snow forming on Churchill’s bald head!  
Jan Smuts in Parliament Square
Jan Smuts also has a statute, by Jacob Epstein, in the square. Smuts was the South African leader who fought the British in the Boer War but he was on Britain's side as a staunch ally in both World wars and is the only person whose signature is on the German surrender documents at the end of both wars. The other statues are of various British and foreign statesmen; Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are all represented.
However, my favourite statues are both just off the square in Victoria Tower Gardens. Firstly is the suffragette, Emeline Pankhurst, the only female in sight!
Emeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens
Her statue was erected in 1930 just two years after her death, which is very quick by any standards. Her right hand seems to be indicated the way to the Parliament building at her side.
1908 cast of Rodin's Burghers of Calais
The second statue is a cast of Rodin's Burghers of Calais. This one was cast in 1908. The French Government strictly limits the number of casts that can be made of any of Rodin works. This one is the third. The maximum allowed would be 12.
View across the square toward the Houses of Parliament,aka The Palace of Westminster.
You can just see Churchill in front of the red bus.
And on another side of the square is Westminster Abbey......
but that's a story for another time!
I'm listening to Amoureuse by Kiki Dee. This version, on You Tube, has the beautiful lyrics displayed ("When I am far away, I feel the rainfall on another planet"). Helen Reddy's song Emotion is the same tune with different lyrics. That's because they are both new English lyrics added to an original French song.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Painting of the Month (65) Sept 2016: Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley was born in London, England in 1931 and is still working at age 85. She was the darling of the London art scene in the 1960s and was largely responsible for the increased popularity of Op Art at that time.
'Fall', Bridget Riley, 1963

Op Art had its origins in the early twentieth century but it was not known by that term then. Freudian theory and Gestalt psychology were both influences but Riley’s main inspirations were the pointillist George Seurat and the abstract painter Jackson Pollack. She saw an exhibition of Jackson's work in London in 1958. The figure-ground concept describes the perception of the difference between foreground and background object figures. You might say it's about optical illusion. The illustration, below, can be seen as either two people face-to-face or a candlestick - leaving one's eye-brain co-ordination to make the decision.
So, Bridget Riley's Op Art depends on this process to draw the viewer in. If you stare at the top picture (click on it to enlarge), you should see some movement. In fact these works can make you feel a little giddy if seen in large scale in a gallery. Psychedelia was the order of the day and Riley used art instead of pills to reveal a new reality in vision.
Figure-Ground example
Two faces or a candlestick?

In the late sixties she started working with colour and her work certainly had a different appeal from then on. I have shown a selection of her work below and, whatever one thinks about modern art, especially Op Art, ('op' is short for optical of course),  She became interested in the visual and emotional response to colour.
I find much of her colour works have a wonderful calming influence and I could easily live with one on my wall.

A 1989 portrait of the artist. I think this a wonderful photo. (by Jane Brown).
I'm listening to the only version of the much-recorded song Mr Bojangles that I really enjoy. It's by the man who wrote it; Jerry Jeff Walker and here you can hear the version I prefer.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

My Heroes (41): Jake Thackray

It's been a few years since my last post in this series so I am going write about and probably introduce you to Jake Thackray.
Jake Thackray 1938 -2002
John Philip 'Jake' Thackray was a true English eccentric who wrote and sang wryly comical and poignant songs. He was also a teacher, poet and journalist and his music is rather hard to pigeon-hole. He was the epitome of 'lugubrious' and can be compared to the French chansonnier singers like Jaques Brel and was a good friend of Georges Brassens.
Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey, Ralph McTell and Jasper Carrot were also influenced by his style. He accompanied his rich baritone voice with his nylon-stringed classical/jazz-style guitar playing. He is very English and may not have much appeal beyond these shores but he was a great talent who died too young, aged 64 in 2002.
He was a modest man who has been called 'The Noel Coward of the North' but he refused to accept that flattering comparison. I feel that he never quite achieved the acclaim he deserved.
My favourite of his songs are 'La-Di-Dah' - see above and Sister Josephine, below:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Painting of the Month (64) August 2016: Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, 

My American friends will have to excuse this Brit for writing about what is possibly the most famous of American paintings. Emanuel Leutze, 1816 – 1868, was a German-American ‘History Painter’; History painting was at the summit of the hierarchy of genres, meaning that it was considered the most important because, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it required all of the skills that were needed for all other types of painting.  This painting was completed  in 1851, around the time that those hierarchies were starting to become less important.  In keeping with the genre, it is of a monumental size, measuring more than 12ft by 21ft., (3.78 by 6.47m). He started to paint the picture in 1849 but it was damaged by a fire in his studio in 1850. It was restored only to be destroyed in Berlin in 1942 by a bombing raid. He did, however, make at least two copies and many other artists have copied and pastiched this painting.
E G Leutze
I think it is a very beautiful picture which has been executed with great skill. There are various inaccuracies and ‘impossibilities’ of which it may seem petty of me to mention. However, it won’t stop me because they are all interesting points. Firstly, the man standing on Washington’s right (who is James Munroe, a future President), is holding the Stars and Stripes flag which did not exist as such until well after this depiction – on the dawning of 26th December 1776. The Delaware is much narrower than depicted here at that crossing point and when it freezes over it tend to be in sheets, not chunks as depicted. The artist used images of the Rhine to create the river, where the ice does form chunks. Incidentally, Washington was leading a surprise attack on the Hessian troops based in Trenton, New Jersey, who were German mercenaries employed by the British; they formed fully 30% of British troops in the War of Independence!
The boats, shown carrying a selection of ‘types’, eg. a Scotsman, a Negro, a Frontiersman etc, are of the wrong kind with sides that are much too low. The light is all wrong, appearing to come from several different directions at once. Also, Washington, reasonably enough, is shown in an heroic pose but would not have been able to stand up like that. None of this matters much- it is a magnificent piece of work which creates real depth by the way in which the background boats are spread into the distance and one can almost reach out to touch the ice-chunks.
I'm listening to Carole King singing her own song, "I Wasn't Born to Follow" made famous by The Byrds but I love her version best!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Abbey Road Studios

The Abbey Road Studios and that crossing, St John's Wood, London
The Abbey road studios in north-west London are, of course, famous for being the place where the Beatles recorded nearly all of their singles and albums but it has an interesting story of it's own to tell.
Firstly a brief bit of historical background: In the year 1130 Kilburn Priory was established for a community of nuns and lasted until the Dissolution Of the Monasteries in 1537 by Henry VIII. The property at number 3 Abbey Road was originally a nine-bedroom Georgian private townhouse built in 1830 on the lane that lead to where the priory had once stood. There was never an abbey as such but the road was so-named after the religious community. The building is now an English Heritage Grade II Listed Building - for historical rather than architectural reasons. Incidentally, it might be of interest to British readers to know that the Abbey National, now part of Santander, was founded in Abbey Road in 1874 as The Abbey Road & St John's Wood Permanent Benefit Building Society.
In 1931 The Gramophone Company bought the building and Sir Edward Elgar then conducted the recording of some of his own music. They soon combined with The Columbia Gramophone Company to form EMI. Many famous recordings of classical and popular music were made there over the years by artists ranging from Pablo Casals and Paul Robeson to Pink Floyd. George Martin, worked at Abbey Road from the 1950s mainly producing comedy records for people like Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan. Brian Epstein had tried in vain to get the Beatles signed to a record label but George Martin was the only one who saw something in them. After their first recording session he asked the Beatles if there was anything that they did not like. George Harrison said "Yes, your tie for a start!" and a rapport and a mutual admiration was formed which propelled the recordings and the band into a sensational world-wide phenomenon. On August 8th, 1969, at 11.35am the Beatles walked onto the pedestrian street crossing outside of the studios for a ten-minute photo session for the cover of their new album, Abbey Road. 
Abbey Road, 1969
Now the crossing itself is also Grade II listed and is the most famous street-crossing the world. The studio and crossing has people from all over the world hanging around in awe all of the time. There is even a website where one can observe the scene, live on camera twenty four hours a day!    
(PS: OK, I just visited that camera and there is nobody around at 6:30 on a Sunday morning. So sue me!)
Finally an interesting footnote. The studios were actually named after the Beatles album, in 1970. Before that they were known as The EMI Studios!
Sir George Martin, 1926 - 2016
I'm listening to Revolver, my favourite Beatles Album

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Painting of the Month (63), July 2016: Gustav Klimt

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1907-8, Ã–sterreichische Galerie, Vienna
 In the opening decade of the twentieth century Klimt had been vilified for his work, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudencewhich he had painted on the ceiling of the University of Vienna. It was derided as “pornographic” and “perverted excess” for it’s nude images. It was, of course, none of those things, especially by today’s standards. His reputation had been damaged and his career was in a downward spiral.
He painted The Kiss in 1907-08 and it was a huge success being sold before it was even finished for a fee much higher than the previous record for an Austrian painting. It is now, beyond any doubt, one of the most iconic and well-known pictures in the world. It’s a huge square painting measuring 1.8 metres, or 6 feet, along each side, although it is often truncated to a rectangle for marketing purposes.
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter born in 1862 in Vienna. Symbolism is the expression of an idea over a realistic description or depiction of the natural world.
Like many great works of art it reflects a collision of artistic styles. The prevailing style of the day was Art Nouveau, characterised by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms but the simple form and bold patterns of their cloaks also shows influence of the organic forms of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement.
A few years before creating this beautiful work Klimt had seen the Byzantine mosaics in the San Vitale Church in Ravenna. He was inspired by the use of gold-leaf and the flatness of the paintings and lack of perspective which had the effect of making the gold seem to shimmer and stand-out. He achieved a similar effect by combining gold-leaf and oil paint. Other clear influences were the fin-de-siecle spirit of sensuality and decadence. Also, I think it’s clear that Japanese painting had an influence.