Friday, 27 March 2015

Plastic Fantastic

Sometimes I think that Britain is changing, becoming a place where people are at last disentangling themselves from the impeding but very British distraction the rest of the world calls snobbery*, which in my childhood was so pervasive that it was practically a collective mental illness.

I know that sounds a bit extreme but take the case of my next door neighbour's mother-in-law. She could never accept that her son lived in what she considered the socially inferior district covered by the post code SW10. Therefore, for the entire two and a half decades he lived there, she never sent him a letter addressed to anything but SW3, (much classier, in case you hadn't guessed). 

To me at least that behaviour does seem to justify the well-known medical diagnosis, 'stark raving bonkers'. 

Anyway, I had a vague impression that such funny little preoccupations were on the wane. I imagined that no-one made judgments based on silly little details any more.

Then I came across an article about credit cards in this week's Sunday Times and I realised the whole absurd game of "what are your vowel sounds and what school did you go to and do you live in the right post code and who were your parents" is still being played, with the same desperate me sir, pick me sir, elbowing eagerness as it always was. 

The article was headed thus:

To fill up the space below the heading, various so-called celebrities were asked to tell the newspaper's readers what their views were on credit cards.

I'd barely heard of any of the respondents, but that's beside the point really. Several didn't like cards at all and didn't have them; one or two did, but didn't specify which credit card it was that they had. The amazing part wasn't either of these groups; the amazing part  was that among the throng of self-promoters were three who were deluded enough to believe that even a credit card is a sign of class.

First up, (ever desperate to impress) was the pathetic Piers Morgan:

Poor Piers - it's more than sometimes that the joke is on him, I suspect.

Next came a man for whom the word 'wally' must have been invented**, that prancing fool who goes round wrecking people's houses, Mr Thingummybob Llewelyn-Jones:

(Whoops, it turns out it's Llewelyn-Bowen [whatever] [actually, I have to be fair and admit he does very occasionally make a quite interesting radio programme - but in his case I think it's the exception that proves the rule])

Finally there was a surprise entry: Stephen Berkoff, who I might have thought would be cool enough to know better:

(If Berkoff genuinely thinks that Coutts would be any less careless, indifferent and rude than other banks, should he fall on hard times, he's surely deluded; it all reminds me of the late lamented Linda Smith's mockery of people who say they prefer Waitrose to other supermarkets, "Ooh yes, I do like a place that let's me pay just that little bit more for all my shopping" - and while we're on the subject is there any other nation in the world that has class-gradated supermarkets?)

"Well, but it was only a few of them", I hear you cry, "it wasn't everyone." I know, I know, but the question I want an answer to is this one (and answer me honestly, having first considered the question above re supermarkets): 

Is there any other country in the entire universe that could manage to inject class - even if it is only the illusion of class - into one's choice of credit card?

I think the answer is no.

And, while saying that, I should point out what an utter hypocrite I am, for, unable to rid myself of the hideous English taint, I couldn't help noticing that there was one responder who effortlessly - and if class is about anything, it is about being effortless - trumped the entire rest of the field in class terms.

That person was Ranulph Fiennes, whose languid answer indicated, without direct boastful statement, that he is in possession of large tracts of land - always the true class marker, at least when combined with the implication that you are not merely the owner but the instinctively skilled husbander of same, something Fiennes also managed to convey clearly without resorting to outright skiting - and made the pathetic Coutts card wavers look oh so even more ridiculously silly. 

Fiennes thus demonstrated that old money (I've no idea how old the Fiennes family money is but almost any money is older than Piers Morgan's stash, even if he does keep it at Coutts) still sets the rules of the class game, which, when boiled down, can be reduced to one essential : flash will never ever beat dash:
* (not that the rest of the world is entirely immune - snobbery is merely a less all-consuming preoccupation in many other societies). 
** or was that Piers Morgan actually?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Ear Sore

I have an idea - I've mentioned it before, I admit - that there is a new language growing up around the world, which is English but not as we native English speakers know it.

One striking manifestation of this is businesses selecting names for themselves that they think are puns. Unfortunately, puns made by those who don't really really thoroughly understand the nuances of a language - in a way that is all but impossible for those speaking it as a second tongue - tend to be unsuccessful weird kinds of puns.

I've seen lots of examples in Brussels - but generally speaking I tend to get bored of pointing out the same phenomenon over and over again, plus I haven't seen any that are quite wrongheadedly hilarious and batty enough to go to the effort of making a blog post for.

However, when my husband came home this evening and told me that he had heard a Belgian radio station proudly bellow out its logo on the car radio four times in the short space between his office and our house, I thought it so hilariously awful that I couldn't resist sharing it.

Despite the fact that the adjectival intensifier in question is used in colloquial conversation to an astonishing extent these days, from what I've eavesdropped while in Britain lately, no business run by genuine English speakers would make the mistake of thinking that it is a word that can be glibly chucked about to promote a commercial enterprise. Running an enterprise that sounds as if a bunch of bearded motorbike gang members are in charge is an approach that carries with it some dangers, I'd have thought. Perhaps I move in sheltered circles though - you decide. Here is the slogan (they have taken it, I presume, from the F and the G that are the station's call sign):

Is it misguided or am I out of touch? Or, indeed, hypocritical, given I was only recently promoting that long-forgotten poem, "The Great Australian Adjective".

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Medium of Cake

As well as horses and other farm animals, one element of an agricultural show that I particularly love is the displays of entries in the growing and making sections. There is usually a whole pavilion devoted to these categories. Here one can examine at close range the fleece of many breeds of sheep, as well as a variety of handmade food and homegrown fruit and vegetables.

One of the things that I find intriguing about the exhibits in this area of the show is the methods by which the results of the competitions are arrived at. In most cases, the reasons that allow one entry to gain ascendancy over all its rivals remain entirely mysterious . The entry next to the winner usually looks pretty much as good - at least to the uninitiated eye. What are the high priests of egg judging and tomato grading seeing that I am missing?

Here, for instance, are the winning eggs at Royal Canberra Show this year. While their box was a nicer shade of fawn than the others, the eggs themselves looked pretty much like the eggs on each side of them, eggs that had been passed over for any recommendation - missing out even on that miserable accolade that marks you out as just minimally beyond mediocre, the "Highly Commended" card
 Personally the tomatoes on the right look more enticing to me than the winners, but what do I know?

 Then there are the flowers. These are chrysanthemums, I think - or are they dahlias? If they are chrysanthemums, their growers get a mention somewhere in my first novel. Behind those bright tousled flower heads, there lies a world of envy and desperation, apparently
While I do not wish to sound like Nigel Molesworth's grandmother when she "hound and persekute all shopkeepers" - ("She take you along and you have to listen while she send for the manager. She sa I have dealt here for 30 years why can you not deliver on tuesdays ect while I try to pretend I am not there chiz, also the gorgonzola is not wot it was. Personaly I think no gorgonzola is worth sending for the manager for but it must be diferent I supose when you are 723") - I cannot restrain myself from saying that the Jams, Spreads and Preserves section is definitely not what it used to be.

Only a decade or so ago, you would stand agog, awed by ranks of jars that almost glowed - apricots lurking in amber syrup, plums arranged in deep red depths, each slice placed with such care that the patterns created were equal to those in the mosaics of Samarkand. Mind you, my mother reckoned the same jewel-like jars were entered year after year (the great beauty of preserves is that they do not go off, I suppose, so reuse is an intrinsic danger in competitive circumstances.) Maybe the powers that be finally twigged and rules have been tightened. Anyway, whatever the reason for the change, this is the dismal result:

I will spare you the class called novelty items made from fruit and vegetables - a rabbit made out of a rockmelon narowly beat a monstrous sheep made from a cauliflower an eggplant, grapes and two leeks. No-one should have to see such things. Really.

Instead let's move on to cakes. Once again, the underlying principles guiding the judges eluded me. Why did this win first prize:

while this limped away with HC?
These girls seemed as puzzled as me:
Or perhaps they'd never before realised that cakes did not always have to arrive in cellophane packets, made my unseen hands in factories faraway.

Meanwhile I'm still wondering how this coffee cake rose to the top of a very packed field - (and does anyone else agree that coffee cake is one of the best cakes imaginable, especially the icing?) - when it looks to me to be very heavy and damp:
I suspect a touch of dirty dealing at the crossroads.

I was also amazed to find that there now exists a whole new class, devoted entirely to men. It is called "Man's favourite cake", which I thought indicated that a woman was supposed to bake the recipe that was the favourite of a man in her family. However, it turned out that it was a section in which only men entered - and therefore I assume only they can enter.

Is this a case of discrimination? If so, against whom? Should we women insist on being included in the men's category, or is it merely a sign that the lady judges decided the poor dear males who had suddenly decided to don aprons and get out the sieves and measuring jugs would never stand a chance against their female counterparts?

I'm guessing the latter - no man, it was assumed, could possibly cut the mustard against his sister bakers. I am reminded of the young woman who moved to Yass recently and was thinking of entering the Yass show sponge cake category. When a relative asked how the young woman should go about applying to do this, the show official paused for a moment and then pulled out a form. Handing it over, she observed: "Your grand daughter is either very good or very brave."
Anyway, this man looked like he wasn't satisfied with the standard of the judging, (there's no pleasing some people):

Okay, now we come to the crunch. I may have spared you the novelty animals, but I cannot pass over so easily what must be the most misguided initiative I've ever come across in any field of human endeavour (oh all right, I am, not for the first time, exaggerating, particularly in the context, as we shall see - but only slightly).

This latest example in the long and dismal trail of human error throughout Western history was the baking category introduced at this year's Royal Canberra Show in order to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. For one year only, (I hope), the bakers of Canberra and its surrounding regions were invited to commemorate the First World War through the medium of cake.

They obliged with

a) a cake depicting a particularly black and muddy trench, complete with Tommies:

b): a cake covered in poppies and icing whose colour presumably evokes the glow of endless shelling and fire and as a result suggests to me that it must be borderline poisonous

c) a cake with a digger's hat on the top of it and blackened sides interspersed with grave markers:

d) a khaki cake decorated once again with a grave stone, plus poppies that look worryingly like blood clots:
e) and the winner, another, more skilfully fashioned hat, atop a cake decorated with the figures of weary soldiers plodding across a blackened landscape against a lurid sky:

Helen Garner once remarked that the cake decorating sections at agricultural shows are just a form of showing off, (a criticism that could also be directed towards writing, of course, or almost any field of human activity, if one was feeling mean-spirited, but anyway).

Certainly these cakes - or at least the winner - show astonishing skill. What they do not show is good sense. After all, the main function of cake is to be appetising. Essentially, if any of these settle permanently into the domestic cake repertoire, I will eat my hat - and, of course, if they do, I will probably also eat their hat.

Thursday, 12 March 2015


While I was home in Australia, I went to a couple of shows. Not shows in theatres; agricultural shows, those wonderful events where people - mainly those from the country - gather to show off their horses, sheep, goats, cattle and any other produce they can muster. Trailing horseboxes or driving huge trucks loaded with animals and gear, they'll often come long distances, down bumpy dirt roads and along highways of varying quality. For a few days, they'll pitch their tents among a muddle of vehicles and buckets, horse rugs and saddles, settling down, completely voluntarily, for a few days of fairly major discomfort. All this to gain, if they're lucky, a long felt or satin ribbon that probably costs $20 at most to make.

But it's one of those instances in human life where the cost of the thing doesn't actually matter, and nor does the effort. For show people, to receive one of those coveted ribbons is a pleasure so pure and wonderful that it is worth more than money.

Mind you, these days a great deal of money is spent on showing - at least in the pony classes. As a result, clothing has become extremely competitive. Being merely neat and tidy is no longer enough, however peripheral your role in things. While it was always the case that in hacking and turnout classes, the most unlikely people, the kinds that never normally got out of a t-shirt and ancient jeans, were prepared to climb into jodhpurs and tweed hacking jackets and fiddle about with stocks, if necessary, now things have got to such a pass that even the people who do the leading have to look as spliffy as if they were spending a day at the races.

If my mother's to be believed, this trend is not new, (is anything?) She has often told me of her loss of innocence in the face of Mammon at Noorat show. Noorat is a small town in western Victoria and, as small children, she and her sisters and brother would take their ponies over and have an excellent time, entering everything and winning some classes, but generally just enjoying themselves and having a go.

Then one year, when she was about 8 or 9 - but she can still remember it vividly - they arrived to find that Noorat show had got serious. Dozens of flash cars with Melbourne numberplates came winding up the narrow road on the show's first morning. Each dragged a float and in each float there was at least one expensive pony, polished to a dazzling brightness, mane and tail plaited professionally. In the front seat of each car was an equally expensively prepared child, in brand new jodhpurs and Harris tweed hacking jacket and shod in the best boots money could buy. There was no more fun and there were no more ribbons for my mother and her siblings. Something had happened; the show had become grimly serious business.

It didn't put my mother off though. She still has horses. She shares them with other people, who drive them in harness. One of them did very well at Gunning. The other was very naughty at Canberra. Both of them are beautiful and, if only I was brave enough to learn the art of driving horses, when the oil runs out I'd be able to turn to them as an alternative means of transport.

While mum was talking with her mates about bits and shafts and some of the other finer points of harness driving, I took some pictures at the second show we went to, the Royal Canberra. Today, I'm including the outdoors ones. Tomorrow I want to talk about the produce pavilion, another part of shows that I especially love.

Looking at some of the little girls in my pictures, I can't help thinking of a Betjeman poem I've always loved. If you want to read it (it is quite funny) you can find it here.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Mystery of the Past

I have already done a couple of posts on my trip to the NSW art gallery the other day, and this is my final one. The last two dealt with Australian art, but, as the section that displays the gallery's collection of slightly later Australian work was closed for renovations, I had to leave my own artistic shores eventually and look at the gallery's paintings from other places

On my way out of the Australian area though, a couple of pictures caught my eye. One was this one, called Midday, painted in 1896. It is by Sydney Long, who was born in Goulburn in 1871, but died in London, (the traitor). I thought it a great improvement on his more usual kitschy scenes of pan-pipe playing sprites et cetera, (I bet he was corrupted by the decadence of the English - if he'd stayed in Goulburn, things might never have gone awry; on the other hand he might never have made any money either):

The other was this painting of Henry Lawson. It was painted by John Longstaff, who was born in Clunes, the only place I've ever been that contained a cafe that does not open to sell coffee until lunchtime, (that was a long time ago though, just at that moment when the town was thinking about getting gentrified - hence the possession of a cafe at all - but had not yet fully achieved gentrification; I gather it has come a long way, "baby", since then.)

But enough of this idle nonsense about coffee and gentrification - the point is really not so much who painted the picture, but who Lawson was. He was a poet and writer of short stories. According to the picture's caption, his work in the lamented magazine The Bulletin "helped create the image of the Australian bushman as the epitome of egalitarian and national ideals".

This portrait was actually commissioned by the editor of The Bulletin, who at the time was JF Archibald. It was painted very quickly in 1900, as Lawson was about to go away to England, (as the gallery seems intent on calling the British Isles - did Lawson never intend to set foot in Scotland or Wales, let alone Ireland?)

The picture so pleased Mr Archibald that he set up an annual portrait prize, the Archibald Prize, which is probably the best known art prize in Australia. Its outcome is usually reported on the evening news and it has spawned a rather awful offshoot, the Bald Archie, which consists of really horrible caricatures of well-known Australians:
Until writing this post I had also laboured under the delusion that Lawson wrote a poem called The Australian Adjective which we stuck up in the lavatories when I was at boarding school and, as a result, got into a lot of trouble. It turns out it was written by quite another person - one WT Goodge. This is how it goes:

The Great Australian Adjective

The sunburnt bloody stockman stood
And, in a dismal bloody mood,
Apostrophized his bloody cuddy;
“The bloody nag’s no bloody good,
He couldn’t earn his bloody food -
A regular bloody brumby,

He jumped across the bloody horse
And cantered off, of bloody course!
The roads were bad and bloody muddy;
Said he, “Well, spare me bloody days
The bloody Government’s bloody ways
Are screamin’ bloody funny,

He rode up hill, down bloody dale,
The wind it blew a bloody gale,
The creek was high and bloody floody.
Said he, “The bloody horse must swim,
The same for bloody me and him,
Is something bloody sickenin’,

He plunged into the bloody creek,
The bloody horse was bloody weak,
The stockman’s face a bloody study!
And though the bloody horse was drowned
The bloody rider reached the ground
Ejaculating, ” bloody!”
” bastard!”

- W. T. Goodge
Anyway, having paid my ignorant respects to Lawson, (and, unwittingly, to WT Goodge), I moved on. Round the corner, I found this woman, who I rather liked:

She is made of blue Pyrenees marble, white and grey marble and red cement. Her maker was Ossip Zadkine, who was Russian/French and lived from 1890 to 1967. The gallery received her as a present in 1963 from Dr and Mrs HV Evatt, (Doc Evatt was an extremely complex man and politician, but this is not the place to go into his career, I don't think). I hope the gallery was grateful.
Across from Zadkine's woman with the red cement lips was a huge and very impressive painting by Lucian Freud.

I was puzzled that it should have been the one and only painting in the gallery that a male teacher of about 60 had chosen as worth instructing a group of young girls in uniform about.

"There is nothing soft about this painting", he was telling them as I approached, "nothing soft at all".

I wasn't sure he was right about that - I'd be interested in other opinions on the subject.

For a change, I then made myself go into the part of the gallery that has always baffled me, the part that holds a collection of European works from the late 19th century.

I started with this one, which I thought the gallery had hung rather spectacularly:
It is called Vive l'Empereur and was painted in 1891 by Edouard Detaille. It shows the charge of the 4th hussards at the battle of Friedland, which the label helpfully explains took part in 1807 and was a minor incident in an engage4ment that ultimately led to Napoleon's defeat of the Russian army (hang on - I thought it was the Russians who beat him). Apparently in the distance on the left Napoleon can be seen directing things.

Detaille, we are told, did not want to celebrate but to show how chilling the scene of hundreds of young men thundering to gory deaths in gold braid was. I'm not sure he succeeded - the gold frame and the gold braid all do their bit to make the thing look more like glorification than not to me:
This picture was a little distance away, but since we're on the men-in-uniforms theme, this seems a good moment to turn to it:
Called The Gordon riots 1780, the thing was painted in 1879 by John Seymour Lucas and shows a scene from, you guessed it, the Gordon Riots. I knew nothing about these. so at least I learned something - they took place in 1780 and were inspired by the protestant zealotry of Lord George Gordon, according to the label. The scene is London and the protestors shown are opposing the Papists Act of 1778, which sought to mitigate anti-catholic discrimination. The label describes the painter as a "fashionable late Victorian historical painter". What he is showing here is a "'desperate and infernal gang' ransacking the house of Lord and Lady Mansfield in Bloomsbury Square. A magistrate, having first read the riot act, twice gave orders to fire on the mob, but to no effect. The house was destroyed."

While I find the story interesting and recognise that the painting is handsome enough, I don't want to live with it and I don't understand why anyone else would. It is somehow rather boring, it seems to me.

Still it isn't nearly as boring as the next offering, in my view. I find this one quite unspeakably dull - a doomed attempt to do what was done so much better by artists many centuries earlier:
Of course it is competent, but is it moving or beautiful? I don't think so. It's by Roddam Spencer Stanhope and it's called Why seek ye the living among the dead? It shows the three Marys (as the label writer calls them, giving them the faint air of a team of vaudeville performers touring the seaside piers and working men's clubs of north-west England in the 1970s, their last ditch shot at the big time), arriving at Christ's tomb and encountering an angel who tells them he has risen again. Stanhope painted the same thing in the chapel of Marlborough College, in case you're in that area and want a closer look. He was a friend and follower of Byrne-Jones, which is fairly evident, and he was also affected by a visit to Florence. Indeed, he ended up living just outside the city in 1880.

We come now to the kinds of paintings that baffle me in exactly the same way as a fondness for fantasy literature baffles me. First we have The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, painted by Edward John Poynter between 1881 and 1890:

and then we have A Juggler, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1870:

What are they for?

The labels tells us that Alma-Tadema reconstructs the scene of an itinerant Egyptian entertainer in a luxurious Roman villa with scrupulous attention to historical detail, while conceiving the subject casually, as if it were a snapshot, while Poynter used details from the Bible and evidence of Assyrian remains unearthed in the 1840s to create his scene.

I suppose both pictures are fascinating, in the sense that there is lots of sumptuous detail to attract the eye -  costumes, and rich patterns and peacocks and monkeys and so forth. That is what reminds me of fantasy novels and the vogue for Game of Thrones - the triumph of fiddly bits over substance and deeper meaning.

To me both these paintings are just escapist spectacles, providing the viewer with no emotional interest or insight. I suppose they are also both part of that strange vogue for the oriental that Edward Said used to make such a song and dance about. I wonder, if I'd been born at the time that they were painted, would I have loved them? Probably yes - plus I'd probably have married a man with those weird mutton chop whiskers that they all grew (at least all the men; not all the women could achieve such feats of oddness) and that nobody seemed to notice were actually grotesque.

A quite different painting in this area of the gallery was this one, by a German painter called Friedrich Kallmorgen:

It is called A spring day and was painted in 1887. The label writer cheerfully points out that many of the children depicted probably ended their days in the trenches of World War One. What interested me about the painting was that it reminded me of the Chinese propaganda posters that used to be produced in the Cultural Revolution.I used to have one that was very similar: it showed the interior of a classroom with cherry blossom in full bloom outside the window:


Somehow I was unable to resist turning from Spring day to a painting that has always made me feel uneasy. It is by Evariste Luminais and is called The sons of Clovis II. Supposedly the two in the picture were rebellious in the 7th century and were punished by their mother, who ordered them to be hamstrung and set adrift on the Seine. They ran aground and were later reunited with their parents - I'm not sure at what point in the story we join them in this picture.

What bothers me  though is how creepy the picture is - who could possibly want to live with such a nasty scene? I don't know what hamstrung means - I hope it wasn't gory or permanent - but the boys look as if they are about to die. For me, the picture is simply ghoulish and disturbing, (so why do I always look at it?) Is there anyone out there who would actually enjoy having it hanging in their house? If so, what would be the pleasure of it? I would really love to understand the thing's appeal:

I had to cheer myself up after Clovis sons by looking at a couple of very fine hounds:
Requiescat by Briton Riviere, 1888

Study of a Bloodhound by Wlliam Holman Hunt 1848,

I left then, stepping out into the sunshine of the Domain, already looking forward to my next visit to the gallery, when I hope the other Australian gallery will be reopened.