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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Esprit de l'escalier

Esprit de l'escalier, from the French literally meaning 'staircase wit' is a beautiful phrase which is used in English because staircase or escalator wit sounds clumsy and inadequate. The pronunciation is 'espree de lescaliay' (click the words to hear it on You Tube).
It is defined as "A witty remark thought of too late, on the way home [or as you go upstairs]; the clever comment you wish you had delivered". We've all been there!
A good example is from Seinfeld (which is packed with examples):
George has a conflict with one of his co-workers named Reilly, who notices George stuffing himself with shrimp cocktail at a meeting. He remarks: "Hey George, the ocean called; they're running out of shrimp." Slow-witted George cannot think of a comeback until later, while driving to the tennis club to meet Jerry. His comeback is: "Well, the Jerk Store called, and they're running out of you." George becomes obsessed with recreating the encounter so that he can make use of his comeback.    Jerry, Elaine and Kramer disapprove of "jerk store" as a comeback mainly because "there are no jerk stores." Elaine suggests, "Your cranium called. It's got some space to rent." Jerry offers, "The zoo called. You're due back by six." Kramer finally suggests that George simply tell Reilly that he had sex with his wife.
This figure of speech should not be confused with a regular witty response. For example:
John Montagu: "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox."
John Wilkes:"That will depend, my lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
It wouldn't have been the same if Wilkes had written him a letter the next day with his riposte, would it?
I'm listening to Neil Young's Harvest Moon. After all these years I still enjoy hearing it.Click the title to listen.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Jackson Browne

I really like the music of Jackson Browne and have been listening to it for many years and have seen him in wonderful live-performance concerts a couple of times. He writes or co-writes most of his own material and is an excellent lyricist.
So, for your delectation and delight I have made links to five of his best songs on You Tube. Just click on the titles to be taken there!
Jackson Browne, then and now.
We begin with a recording made with the talented Irish musician Sharon Shannon of Man of Constant Sorrow.
Next is a song that he has to play in every live show. This live version is out of synch but it is from a unique album which featured all new songs recorded live in various places including backstage and hotel bedrooms but mostly on stage. For this song he always has the road crew on stage gathered around the piano to sing the backing. Enjoy Rosie.
This is a song which my wife Leah really loves and so do I. It's very different from his usual style but I never tire of listening to Linda Paloma.
Next up is a wistful song called Jamaica Say You Will. It has been recorded by Joe Cocker, Tom Rush, The Byrds and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others.
Lastly one his very best songs: The Pretender. A wry commentary on contemporary life with superb lyrics:
"I'm gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender,
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and soul of the spender.
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender.
Are you there? Say a prayer for The Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender."

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wanstead House


This is the tragic story of Wanstead House, a fabulous Great House which once stood in what is now Wanstead Park in suburban East London on the Essex border. It was recognised as one of the finest houses in Europe, a rival to Versailles. It's not there anymore and this the story of what the building and grounds were like and why the house is gone.
In England it was on a par with Kensington and Blenheim Palaces and it's architecture influenced the design of the Mansion House in central London, (the residence and office of the Lord Mayor of London).
Wanstead has been been occupied back into pre-history with stone-age flint axe-heads being discovered and a magnificent Roman mosaic was destroyed when Wanstead House was being developed. It was a Royal Deer Park bought by Henry VII in 1499 and his unruly son, the future Henry VIII, spent time there, where he could could be kept under parental control. There was a former palace on the site which was visited by Kings and Queens. Elizabeth I rode out there to meet her half-sister Mary with 1,000 knights on horse!
So the area was well-established when. in 1667 Sir Joshua Child, head of the fabulously wealthy East India Company purchased the estate which eventually fell into the hands of his son Sir Richard Child who commissioned the leading architect Colen Campbell to build a great house in 1715. It had a 60 feet wide portico supported by six Corinthian pillars in the neo-classical style which was quite innovative at that time and there were over 70 rooms. The estate passed down the family and it eventually came into the possession of the heiress Catherine Tylney-Long who, at the age of sixteen became the richest non-royal person in the land.
The old house and gardens in 1710 shortly before the new building was begun
Wanstead House at it's finest

Sir Richard Child & family at Wanstead House
By William Hogarth, 1738
The house was lavishly decorated with murals and painted ceilings and was furnished to an extremely high standard. Members of the French Bourbon family were guests when they had to escape the French Revolution.  Extensive grounds were laid out and a series of large inter-connected lakes were
created in the extensive grounds. Naturally Catherine had many suitors whom she rejected, including the future William IV, uncle to Queen Victoria. Eventually she succumbed to the charms of William Wellesley-Pole, nephew of the Duke of Wellington. The man was a complete scoundrel and as soon as he got his hands on the huge fortune he began to throw lavish parties and spending at an alarming rate. He eventually gambled away all of the money. At the age of 34 Catherine died of either suicide or a broken heart. Her ghost is said to haunts the area nowadays.
Bankruptcy meant the building had to be put up for sale in 1824. It had cost an incredible £360,000 to build but, as no buyer could be found, it was sold off brick-by-brick including all of the interior fittings, raising just £10,000. England had tragically lost one of it's greatest buildings.
Today the beautiful wild park is a tranquil place to stroll around the lakes or in the woods full of oak and sweet chestnut trees. There is plenty of wildlife to see including stoats, weasels and herons. A large part of Wanstead Park is now a golf course. The ruined grotto was where Robert Mitchum filmed the denouement of The Big Sleep. Although within in the London Borough of Redbridge it is officially a part of Epping Forest and is administered by the City of London Corporation. Many of the young families enjoying the bluebells and playing with their children have no idea of it's past and sad history.
All that remains on the grounds today are the ruined Grotto and the Temple, now a Museum
I'm listening to Bette Midler singing 
John Prine's lovely, sad song
Hello in There. You can hear it here.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Painting of the Month (70) April 2017: Chagall

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 near Vitebsk, Belarus, at that time a part of the Russian Empire. He occupies two main areas of modern painting;  Picasso described him as the last of the great modern colourists and he is also considered to be the pre-eminent Jewish painter of the twentieth century. He was uneasy with that description because, although Jewish themes dominated much of his work he was very interested in modern painting generally.
I find this picture very romantic. It shows him with the love of his life, his first wife Bella. He made a few versions of this picture and many others where they are floating through the air in a dream-like state. In this painting they are floating above his home town of Vitebsk. Below we can see the houses but we are not looking up at the couple, instead we are at the same height as them and looking directly across. The painting is heavily cubist-influenced – note the way that their clothing is beginning to be depicted as a series of individual shapes. Chagall went to Paris at a time when Cubism was the major movement in painting although he returned home to paint this just before the Russian revolution.
Portrait of Chagall by his first art teacher
who, it seems, could not paint hands.
There is a suggestion of the Earth’s curvature which accents their height. The symbolism indicates that the couple felt “lighter than air” because of the love they felt for each other. They seem to almost be swimming (I don’t care about splitting infinitives!), in a kind of back-stroke but they are floating as well. So, active and passive at the same time!
Although this is an oil painting on canvas, the houses have the look of a Japanese watercolour and I love the way one of the houses is painted entirely in red. Incidentally, this picture was once considered to be almost pornographic because she is showing some bare wrist!
I don’t want to over-analyze here because I feel that the beauty of the work speaks for itself. Chagall died as recently as 1985 at the age of ninety-seven.
 I'm listening to to the wonderful Joan Baez singing the achingly sad 
Jesse a beautiful song written by Janice Ian. Listen here.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Ozymandias

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Shelley’s famous poem is in the form of an Italian sonnet; a stanza of eight lines followed by one of six lines. It is written in iambic pentameter which is five pairs of beats, or iams, with an accent on the second beat. For example “If music be the food of love play on” or “Now is the winter of our discontent”. However I am not really interested in the technical aspects of this brilliant little poem. It packs a real punch and demonstrates that less is more! 
It is about the futility of tyranny. Ozymandias was a king of ancient Egypt, full of his own importance but in the end his huge statue crumbled into the empty sands (like Saddam Hussein?) The inscription "Look on my works ye mighty and despair" tells us much about him. We learn that the sculptor showed a sneer of "cold command" on the lips - so there's one person, at least who saw through him.
OZYMANDIAS   

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shelley has used the exotic ancient past of Egypt to demonstrate that art can critique power and, perhaps, to make a statement about the politics of his own time. Ozymandias may have been a despotic tyrant but his Empire and his monument have been reduced to rubble – only the sneer remains and the inscription. The traveller who is relating the story looks about him after reading it but only sees the “Lone and level sands that stretch far away”. Nature is mightier than the king and all of his power and glory is reduced to dust. The vast desert is mocking human vanity and hubris. For me, this is an absolute masterpiece

Footnote: What does this poem have in common with Breaking Bad?
The final season of Breaking Bad follows Walter White as his meth-producing empire, metaphorically crumbles into the sand in the desert of New Mexico. Near the end of the consistently brilliant series one of the best episodes is called .........'Ozymandias'.

I have been listening to the brilliant but tragic Judee Sill singing The Kiss. You can hear it here. There is also a live version from the BBC which I find very emotional (but I'm a bit soppy).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Painting of the Month (69) March 2017: Picasso

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
This is one of the most famous paintings ever made but, even now, a hundred years after it was first exhibited it tends to cause a strong reaction, often a negative one. I would like to try to show why it is such an important picture and to explain some of the pictorial elements and provide some contextual background. Pablo Picasso painted the picture in 1907 but did not show it until 1916, knowing the reception it was likely to receive. And the reaction was strong, even from his fellow artists. Matisse, in many ways the antithesis of Picasso and his rival to lead the avant-garde of modern painting, expressed his dislike as did Georges Braque. Braque eventually began to appreciate the work and he and Picasso went on to develop Cubism together.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (The Young Ladies of Avignon), is clearly in a proto-Cubist style. It ignored the then-current style of European painting; it was very two-dimensional lacking perspective and, although clearly representative, it is beginning to break up the picture surface into lines and angles. Picasso had recently seen an exhibition of African art and owned Fang masks similar to the one shown here. The two figures on the right of the picture clearly show this influence while the three on the left have typically Iberian faces.
The picture portrays five prostitutes in a brothel on the Carrer d'Avinyó (so: young ladies of Avignon Street, Barcelona, not of Avignon in south-east France). The ladies are not demure, staring out of the picture in a slightly aggressive or confrontational manner. It was meant to shock - and it did! The work was deemed to be immoral when first exhibited in public. Picasso originally called it Le Bordel d’Avignon but it was given it's famous title by a critic who probably helped prevent total public outrage. Picasso always disliked it's newer title and always preferred his original title. He always would refer to it as "my brothel".
Every new breakaway movement in art, however radical, owes much to what went before and below I have shown some works which are acknowledged to have been influential in the creation of this work.
El Greco, The Vision of St John, 1608. Often cited as an influence.
 Paul Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Note the defiant stare.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Painting of the Month (68) Jan 2017: John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917) was a late-comer to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood school of painting. He worked at a date which was late enough for him to show influences of Impressionism in some of his later  work. His themes were pretty consistent throughout his career; ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, often depicting women in a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Lady of Shalott by J W Waterhouse, 1888, Tate Modern, London
The first and best of three versions he made of this subject.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalottbased on medieval legends of King Arthur, in 1833 with a revised version in 1842. The story is that the lady was a prisoner in a tower on the island of Shalott which was situated in a river leading downstream to Camelot. We don't know who she was or why she was being punished but she could only see images of the world in her mirror. She weaved these images into a multi-coloured web but was under threat of an unknown curse if she looked upon Camelot or any of it's people. One day she saw and fell in love with Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table and her fate was sealed. We see her floating down toward Camelot and to her tragic demise.
The painting is an interesting mix of both symbolism and realism. The palette (range of colours used) is very autumnal as is the low-cast light level. I have sampled some of the these colours below to illustrate this point.
The artist has succeeded in maintaining a balance between realism and what we might call 'other-worldliness'. Her unkempt hair and the untidy reeds in the foreground along with her expression symbolises her despair. She could also be said to symbolise the position of women in Victorian Britain - she is not in control of her destiny. Waterhouse has kept a sense of realism with his clever use of depth in the background landscape and the surface of the water. As she emerges from the dark woods behind her she is brightly lit so she remains the focus of our attention. To her left you can see some steps leading down to the water, which I think she has just walked down to begin her fateful journey. There are three candles on the far side of the boat, only one of which is still burning and toward the bow of the boat is a crucifix, all of which symbolises her impending untimely death. Draped over the side of the boat is one of her tapestries, a direct reference to Tennyson's poem.
In summary, we have a realistic scene of a 'fairy-tale' woman heavily symbolic of both the time in which it was made and of faithful reference to Tennyson's poem.
Below are Waterhouse's two other paintings of this subject. In both works we can see her tapestry loom and, in the background, the mirror, her only view of the world until she looks at Lancelot.
Having just got back from a long weekend in France I'm feeling all Frenchified and I am listening to Françoise Hardy: 
La maison où j'ai grandi (click to listen).
I used to be in love with her - probably still am. My wife understands....

Monday, 16 January 2017

The wonderful story of Agloe, New York

The protection of intellectual property can be a very difficult area for map-makers. The London A-Z map book is known to contain various non-existent streets. 
The idea is that anyone copying the work of the publishers would be trapped in any legal action because they would copy the deliberate errors and be exposed. This is an age-old practice to keep the copycats at bay. Companies that create maps get their work pirated all the time. You might hire surveyors and draughtsmen, you might checks all of your spellings, you might get all of the towns and cities in the right place and another company comes along, say for example a tourist agency, and steals your work.
You cry 'Piracy!' and take them to court.  "Prove it" they say "It's a map, it describes what is. Because there's a real world out there, obviously maps are going to be identical. So we're only guilty of describing the same world the other map described". Jurors think, "Hmm, sounds reasonable," and the pirates get away with it. Unless the mapmaker runs a little scam. 
I am going to relate the fascinating story of what happened to a map published in the 1930s. The map-makers, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company of Convent Station, New Jersey, used an anagram of their initials, OGL and EA, to create the fictitious town of Agloe, New York. They sited it in a spot that they knew to be uninhabited 100m from the junction of Highway 206 and an, at-that-time, dirt road called Beaverkill Valley Road. So, were any plagiarist to copy their map, Agloe would in turn show up on the stolen property, and General Drafting Co. would have their proof.
Google maps Street View couldn't get me any closer.
Then one day it happened! Rand McNally, a big map distribution company, published a new New York map that showed Agloe on it. "Aha" thought Lindberg and Alpers "We've got 'em". But they were in for a shock when the case got to court. 
A couple had bought a legal copy of General's map from Esso, who were the distributors, and chose Agloe as the spot to open a General Store. (You might wonder why they chose to open a store in a non-existent place but the town of Roscoe is very nearby and, anyway, that's what they did). Rand McNally countered the plaintiffs accusation by asking "How come the Agloe General Store exists (for that is what the couple had named their business) if there is no such place." And they won their case. Lindberg and Alpers had legitimately created a 'Paper Town' to protect their work but it became a reality and voided their legal claim that they had made it up and that it 'did not exist'!
The American Map Company bought and swallowed-up General Drafting in 1992 and Agloe continued to be included in their maps (maybe they didn't know it's history?). Google reportedly only removed it from their maps in 2013, eighty years after it first appeared. However, I just put 'Agloe' into a Google Maps search box and the location of the 'Agloe General Store (Closed)'  was shown on Beaverkill Valley Road! 
So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed.......and then didn't! 
FOOTNOTE:     John Green, who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars, based his mystery novel 'Paper Towns' on Agloe in 2008 and it was made into a Hollywood film in 2015. Apparently the film stinks. Perhaps it will disappear......
I am listening to Dave Edmunds 'Queen of Hearts'

Monday, 9 January 2017

Painting of the Month (67) Dec 2017: Gilbert & George

Forward, Gilbert & George 2008, Stained Glass
Gilbert and George are an oddity in the art world. They are Conservative, monarchists and anti-socialists. They do everything together, are never seen apart (they are a couple) and have been together since art school days. Gilbert Prousch was born in Italy in 1943 and George Passmore in England in 1942. They are often seen walking along together in the trendy parts of London's East End. They declined to be photographed with me when I ran into them a couple of years ago (I don't blame them really). They are strongly anti-elitist and have questioned why so many artists are left-wing socialists whom, they claim, tend to be all the same. Surely, they ask, artists should want to be different and individual? Their trade mark is that they are very often featured in their own work which they describe as 'scuptures'.
Family Tree, Gilbert & George 1994, Photos pasted onto board
They are irreverent, witty, obscenely rude, playful and fun. They are always immaculately dressed and are renowned for their highly-formal appearance, always in the same matching suits. I have made a collage of some of their photos below.
I'm listening to the original version of  Lets Stick Together by Wilbert Harrison