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Paranoid Mazurka in C-sharp Minor

October 2, 2012 | by

Before Uncle David’s funeral out at Springvale more than a decade ago, I had no idea that his only daughter, my cousin Janet, who was the youngest of our late mother’s bridesmaids, and in later life nobly accepted the charge and responsibility of being my godmother, served also as a junior member of the staff of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, briefly pursuing a career in counterespionage, and that, at one point in the early to mid-1960s, Cousin Janet covertly tailed a relatively low-level visiting delegation of lumpen Soviet officials when they traveled north by train from Spencer Street to find out all about certain improvements in animal husbandry at the annual Wangaratta Agricultural Show, or such, at least, was the dubious pretext of their expedition, a task of surveillance that would have been much easier if Cousin Janet had spoken any Russian, although she may have been issued with advanced tape-recording equipment or a microphone and a powerful miniature radio transmitter that, concealed inside the bodice, trench coat or handbag, might well have captured for the benefit of more specialist, fluently Russian-speaking analysts in Canberra any stray but pertinent snippets of conversation, the evidence perhaps of sinister Soviet connivance with local fifth-columnist elements, a cadre of enemy operatives bent upon the destruction of the Commonwealth, or else the activation of a communist mole in the Riverina, even, I daresay, a dirty-tricks campaign in respect of the distribution of prizes for dairy cattle and other livestock or maybe cake decoration, the better to sow bitter seeds of discord in an otherwise harmonious rural community hitherto committed to free enterprise and untouched by the dead hand of international socialism or various subtler forms of Kremlin-sponsored Marxist-Leninist ideology, as deeply improbable as any of these scenarios admittedly now strikes one, although it should be remembered that back then the cold war was mighty frigid, and the membrane separating just suspicions from total paranoia was quite porous, so I have no doubt that Miss Wilberforce—for this, I gather, was one of the aliases adopted from time to time by Cousin Janet’s ASIO controller in Melbourne, a gray-cropped spinster lady with somewhat gruff but otherwise impeccable manners and certainly a great deal of common sense, from whom Uncle David boldly sought personal assurances in the beginning that his beloved only daughter would never be put in harm’s way, assurances that Miss Wilberforce politely regretted she could not possibly give, except to state with firmness that every measure would be taken to safeguard each and all of her personnel in the discharge of their important intelligence-gathering duties—Miss Wilberforce, I am certain, would have taken just as seriously the protection of Australia’s pastoral industries against any foreign threat, in Wangaratta no less than in Cunnamulla,Read More »

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Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”

January 26, 2012 | by

I have a weakness for the heroic couplet, and anything comical. Here, for example, is Alexander Pope on coffee, in that part of “The Rape of the Lock” where the Baron gets a new idea about how to gain access to Belinda’s follicles.

For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoaking Tyde.

On those somewhat rare occasions nowadays, when coffee is poured with any modicum of ceremony, usually (but not always) in an expensive restaurant, that last couplet invariably bounces out of some quiet backwater of the brain and makes me chuckle. Following on the “silver lamp” and “fiery spirits,” those “silver Spouts” are already pompous, but especially so when rendered in the plural. Pope is careful, though, to admit of plain cups and spoons, and a straightforward grinder that “turns round.” Mock heroism requires a plain background. Those gliding “liquors,” meanwhile, are perversely “grateful” and, in the next line, amplify in fragrance and volume into a “smoaking Tyde,” with that olfactory hint of seductive acceleration. The previously inanimate cups he deftly turns into a sort of allegorical entity, China’s “Earth,” perhaps lounging there, goddesslike, in receptive mode, or in acknowledgment of the absurd rite performed upon the silly “shining altars of” Japan. All five senses are amply stimulated here, with apparently total lack of effort. But look at the perfect symmetry of the conceit: two lines, each of ten syllables only, five meticulous iambs. By all accounts Pope could rattle off these perfect, cantilevered couplets in their hundreds. No fraught half-hours spent chewing the end of his pencil, or screwed up false starts overflowing from his wastepaper basket. I wonder if he even owned one. Effortlessness, however, was not enough: Pope also exhibited degrees of stylistic polish, cruel wit, and condescension that invariably nailed his intended victim, the better to hold him up to ridicule. The master.

At Starbucks, then, you might as well be dead,
If lattes only came in gingerbread.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

6 COMMENTS

Well-Read Lovers; Constant Rejection

November 18, 2011 | by

This week we asked our friend Angus Trumble to give us the benefit of his wisdom—and received an embarras de richesses. Thanks to all for your questions and to Angus for his answers; there was none we could bear to cut. By day Angus is the senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art. By night, and sometimes also by day, he blogs on such topics as the euro crisis, the Ladies of Bethany, and his own globe-trotting adventures.

Dear Angus,
Do the best readers make the best lovers? Would you be more likely to break up with someone if they never read, or read all the time?

I am flattered that you feel I have the necessary qualifications to provide an accurate answer to this question. In my experience, the well-read can be excellent lovers, although there are times when a specific literary prompt may inhibit the natural flow, as for example when one’s partner genuinely believes himself to be some sort of Vronsky, when in fact he lacks the magnificent build, military bearing, disposable income, or even the remotest capacity to smolder. I can quite confidently say that it is unlikely that I would ever commence a relationship with a person who never read, which removes the need to break up with him. My parents’ marriage survived a period in the late fifties, when my mother read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott, evidently led in his direction by a genetically encoded taste for the lowering mist, gloomy crags, and bloodstained crofts and glens of the Highlands of Scotland. On the whole, therefore, I am for readers—although it is also true that I would immediately eject anyone whom I caught in bed with a romantic novel by the late Dame Barbara Cartland.

Have you ever had a story accepted for publication through a slush pile?

As a matter of fact I have, although it was a book review and not a story. My first long article for The Times Literary Supplement was entirely unsolicited and dealt with what struck me at the time as a wholly new and remarkable historical analysis of, of all things, the epidemiology of the Black Death. To my astonishment, in due course this offering propelled me onto the front cover, together with an enormously magnified photograph of a plague-carrying flea. So there is hope.

What should you do if you don’t like a book halfway through? How do you know when you should give it up?

For years, far too many years, I fell into the dangerous trap of being determined to finish a book despite having reached the conclusion half way through—or at the very least having become deeply suspicious—that in all probability this would not give me pleasure or profit. Yet essentially I am an optimist, and therefore, I suppose, when faced with undeniable evidence that a novel in which I am immersed is, for example, a bleak and depressing saga of frustrated sexual longing and entirely populated by characters of scarcely conceivable dullness, part of me hopes that twenty pages hence there awaits bright flashes of comic genius that may yet salvage the experience. Optimistic though I continue to be, from the vantage point of comfortable middle age I can now say that this is never true and that certainly the healthiest, most sensible, and efficient strategy is to abandon ship.

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Rain Men

August 24, 2010 | by

The lost language of Italian parasols and the men who made them.

Photograph by Almanac Piemonteis Times.

Last month, on a visit to Piedmont in northern Italy, I chanced upon a small museum in the hill town of Gignese that is devoted to the local craft of umbrella-making. At first, I wondered how this particular region along the west shore of Lago Maggiore became associated with the production—through the past few centuries—of quality umbrellas and parasols, but the reason is not hard to find. Every year more than thirty-three inches of rain falls over the neighborhood of Turin, and more than thirty-nine around Milan. That’s at least a third more than what London gets. Meanwhile the northern Italian summers are hot and sunny. The word umbrella descends from the Latin umbraculum, which means a convenient device for providing shade.

The ancient Romans were very fond of umbrellas, and regularly exchanged them as gifts. Yet umbrellas were virtually unknown in England and America before the 1780s, and the traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one. The problem before the mid-nineteenth century was that Regency umbrellas were oily, not necessarily reliably waterproof, and tended to run—and the harder it rained, the worse it was. Oil and dye in roughly equal measure dribbled and spattered onto silk or muslin dresses. Gloves, bonnets, and satin slippers were maculated by nasty black spots. So at first umbrellas were used in England much more as shelter from the sun than the rain, and exclusively by women. It took several early Victorian decades for the English umbrella to shed its reputation for effeminacy, and more than a century and a half for it to burrow its way into the national character, and take up its dignified position in the crook of Neville Chamberlain’s elbow.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ombrellai of Piedmont were a relatively closed community of highly specialist craftsmen. They engaged child-apprentices from among the poorest families of the region. Upon signing up, the apprenticed ombrellaio received a pair of shoes, somewhere to sleep, two square meals a day, and, of course, an umbrella. He said goodbye to his family for at least a period of four or five years—effectively, for good—and as well as learning to make umbrellas, he hiked from town to town selling braces of them to wholesalers, agents, and traders for export, mostly through Genoa.

As with so many other northern Italian industries (most famously the glass factories of Venice) the relevant production techniques, recipes, and other trade secrets were jealously guarded and protected with much paranoia, even ruthlessness. To that end the ombrellai used an in-house language known as Tarùsc, which seems to have existed in one form or another among the hill-dwelling people of Piedmont and the southern cantons of Switzerland since at least pre-Roman times. And while it came to be associated almost exclusively with the ombrellai, it was also used for related purposes by smugglers, thieves, spies—indeed a comparatively large proportion of the population whose occupations were covert. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Angus Trumble, Curator, Part 2

July 29, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Trumble's culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FOUR

5:30 A.M. I have been mining the poet, critic, journalist, playwright, sometime minor colonial official Richard Henry Horne (1802–1884). He was one of the most picturesque, occasionally lionized but accident-prone literary figures in Victorian Britain. According to his biographer Cyril Pearl, Horne “finished a wild and adventurous career as a rather pathetic, rather tiresome, very poor old man, living in two shabby rooms of a London apartment house, still determined, in his eighties, to be a distinguished man of letters. Forty year before, no one would have questioned his claim to the title. He had been extravagantly praised by Poe, who ranked him with Milton, and enthusiastically praised by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, by Carlyle and G. H. Lewes, by Leigh Hunt and Douglass Jerrold, and many other of his contemporaries. Critics spoke of him in the same breath as Browning or Tennyson. He was, for many years, one of Elizabeth Barrett’s most valued friends; Dickens, with whom he worked, had a warm regard for him; he was the patron, almost the discoverer, of Meredith…No writer ever affirmed the dignity of literature more, or himself behaved with less dignity.” Quite so.

1:30 P.M. The reason for my present interest in “Hengist” or “Orion” Horne is that I think he was the conduit through which the term “art for art’s sake” migrated from the neighborhood of French criticism in the 1830s (when in England “l’art pour l’art” was generally treated with disdain) and crash-landed in the circle of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Rossetti et al. during the 1870s, thereby laying a sort of foundation of Aestheticism in British art and letters. Horne was obviously insane. In 1873 he entertained the idea of representing Her Brittanic Majesty as consul-general in Tokyo, and duly sent to Mr. Gladstone in Downing Street, and to the Meiji Emperor complimentary copies of his privately printed Ode to the Mikado of Japan. Even if your command of the English language is surefooted, the text is truly bonkers—so goodness knows what Emperor Mutsuhito made of it.

There was a Dome, like midnight

Lit up by blood-red lightning!

And deep within

A demon din,

With many a sight

Of ghastly horror whitening

Faces and Forms, e’en while the flames were brightening!

The screams of those wild massacres

Long echoed down the shuddering years;

And yet we know the self-same creed

For which those proselyting [sic] martyrs died,

Hath caused unnumbered victims thus to bleed

Before its symbols deified1!...

To cover against the possibility that it might just be good, the Emperor sent back two lavish volumes of Japanese poetry. An invitation to tea with His Imperial Majesty’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s was thrown in also. To His Excellency’s dismay Horne promptly accepted it. Read More »

Annotations

  1. Horne seemed to feel that this evocation of the Japanese flag and the long imperial tradition of military prowess would come across as complimentary.

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A Week in Culture: Angus Trumble, Curator

July 28, 2010 | by

DAY ONE

4:45 A.M. Reviewing two new books about Caravaggio—books that are about as different from each other as it is possible to be: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and The Moment of Caravaggio, a series of illustrated lectures by Michael Fried. Almost everything we know about the man himself comes from evidence meticulously transcribed by hugely diligent notaries attached to the Roman civil and criminal courts: a litany of threats, assault, battery, and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder.

6:00 A.M. Until two years ago it was axiomatic that Caravaggio did not draw. Thanks to a new infra-red camera, however, we may now observe what was previously thought not to exist, namely short choppy lines in ink—unmistakable evidence of fairly extensive under-drawing by which the artist set down on the primed canvas his principal points of reference. There is also evidence of scored lines and even tracing, à la carbon paper. None of this overturns the basic fact that draftsmanship was not very important to him. But at least we now know Caravaggio certainly practiced it when he needed to, the crafty devil.

12:30 P.M. I am re-reading My Memories of Six Reigns, by H. H. Princess Marie-Louise, having some months ago suggested it as an ideal summer book for readers of the Yale Alumni Magazine, especially connoisseurs of that neglected subgenre of dotty royal memoir. “Cousin Louie,” as she was known, was the fourth child of Queen Victoria’s bad-tempered middle daughter, Princess Helena. Her book is a fantastically weird combination of out-of-sequence table-rapping reminiscence; reverent reflection upon the burdens of monarchy, and innumerable flecks of interesting detail1.

1:45 P.M. Louie’s Edwardian wedding to Prince Aribert of Anhalt was the bright idea of Cousin Willie, the Kaiser, but more accurately an example of his total lack of judgment. It seems the Prince was soon afterwards caught in flagrante with an attractive young male servant in, on, or more probably beside the marital bed, and, concluding from this that her marriage was no longer viable, Louie promptly undertook an extended tour of Canada and the United States. Returning to Britain she immersed herself in charitable and artistic work, set up a Girls’ Club in Bermondsey, kept an eye on her mother’s nursing homes, and lent modest support to the imperial trade in dried fruit. Wholly guileless, Princess Marie Louise is irresistible. Read More »

Annotations

  1. For example, during the darkest days of the Blitz, Louie and her older sister Thora (Princess Helena Victoria) were discreetly evacuated with the Polish ambassador and his family to borrowed accommodations in the attic of an old house near Ascot. She radically overstated the spartanness of the arrangement.

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