Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Exhibition of Women's Fashions: The madness of a Wasp Waist

We women like to blame men for some of the foolish fashions we espouse, saying it’s what men like.  But the truth is that men can be conditioned into ‘liking’ a certain style of fashion and then began to expect their women to follow it.   Once a woman is seized by the idea that a certain look is attractive, she will go to any lengths to adopt it, even if it is harmful, punishing her body to conform with the fashionable look. Thankfully, fashions flow back and forth like the tides of the sea while some particularly obnoxious ones are washed away forever.

Amongst obnoxious fashions was the binding of feet by upper class ladies of Old China. 
tiny pointed shoes for bound feet
Young girls had their toes broken and bound from an early age so that they would have tiny little stumps to hobble on for the rest of their lives.  This was deemed feminine and attractive.   Apparently it made women walk in a certain way, much as very high heels do nowadays, which had an erotic effect on the men.  Such dainty, feminine, shoes no more than three or five inches at the most!  Can you imagine walking on such feet?  Imposed imprisonment and madness, typical exploitation of the female body we might say these days. . . . yet this fashion was apparently started by a tenth century court dancer, Yao Niang.  The men liked it, of course, as it kept women weak and in their place but they were not entirely to blame.  It was the
Bound feet
mothers who kept this up because it was not considered feminine to work in the fields and no self respecting upper class girl wanted to look like a servant or a farm woman with huge boats for feet.

Another horrible fashion or custom is genital mutilation (and there's a case for male circumcision too but that's another issue) Again it is the mothers who perform this ceremony on their daughters, a custom intended to reduce the dread threat of female sexual desire and promiscuity, keeping the girls virginal and pure.   All it does is make coitus and childbirth very painful, creating a lifelong trauma in the women and ghastly health problerms.   As for the mothers, well, it’s what they had endured, it was the ancient custom, it was what ‘men liked’ and deemed to be right – so why should their daughters escape what they had suffered?  Plus who would marry a girl with normal feet or genitals?   By now, their men wanted and expected such abnormalities.

It seems a woman's lot will always be connected with her body image and the pain of trying to conform to some current fashion.  Nowadays it’s all about dieting and keeping fit in a gym so that women should look toned and healthy which is certainly better than some of the weird practices of various native cultures and the ridiculous, distorting fashions of so called civilised societies. We’re into muscles now, not the soft, plump feminine flesh loved by men of yore.   It's as if women want to look more like pretty young boys.  And the usual desire to play about with the body is evident in the craze for breast implants, liposuction, botox, hair colourings in astonishing dreamy shades and all the other aids to youth and beauty – even though these are often proved to have harmful side effects.  The recent fashion is for youth and nowadays men also enter with enthusiasm into these fashionable ideals.  We cannot bear to age, we want to be eternally young, mobile and energetic, always busy, always rushing around in a frenzy of activity.  Age and its limitations, its calmer pace, its philosophical time for contemplation no longer has dignity but is viewed with horror.  The psychologist, Carl Jung would have called this a ‘puer/puella’ mentality.  The puer is the Greek name for the Eternal Youth, the Peter Pan syndrome in other words.  We are all, men and women, becoming Peter Pans.

All fashions that involve, mutilation, piercing, tattooing are ways of enhancing, elaborating or mortifying the flesh.  The popularity of thin stiletto heels  and the cramped pointed toes of the 1960's often created deformed feet and bunions in women (apart from ruining parquet floors and linoleums)   And we still want to wear enormously high heels despite the fact that the woman is constantly walking on tip toe and they can throw our pelvis or back out and are so uncomfortable when worn for too long a period.  They are considered erotic and make legs look longer and more shapely . . .  and so we wear them. 

Intriguingly, fashions also move around the body parts, the so called 'erogenous zones.'  The prudish Victorians showed considerable areas of flesh round shoulders and bust when young and single or when dressing up for theatre, opera and evening activities.  But showing an ankle or petticoat was most inflammatory it seems.  Hats also seem to have had an interesting significance through time and the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a trend setter of her day, introduced hats that almost swept the ceiling with their enormous plumes and piles of false hair.  They were often threatened by the candles in the chandeliers.  And the wide skirts of the 18th and 19th century were equally dangerous if a lady got too near to a fire or oil lamp.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

The advent of the corset is perhaps one of the oddest of all fashion items used to alter a woman’s figure.  Men have also used a corset, of course, and still do so (one of my Greek uncles used to wear one in his forties when his belly began to expand with too much moussaka).  Nowadays a strong corset may be used medically to help those with back problems, or in order to fit comfortably into certain clothes, or for erotic purposes and fetish wear but they are not as dangerous as some of the corsetry worn in other periods. The fashion went to its greatest extreme in the Victorian age when wasp waists became the rage.

Corsetry has been used for centuries, even practised by primitive tribes. Before this period,  corsetry was used by the Tudors but these corsets, which were fortified by 'buckram', a canvas material stiffened with glue, were intended to flatten the bust and not make impossible tiny waists.  In fact they were considered to be quite comfortable and supportive of all the heavy skirts and clothing of the period.  There is also mention of whalebone for stiffening in the lists of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe.   In the usual shifting of erogenous zones, this was a time of flat busts.  Even nowadays, the flatter bust of clothes models is preferred to the big and busty look which is always associated with more erotic clothing and activities.  Though we all know that men generally prefer the latter shape!

However, like the process of footbinding and genital interference,  corsets were introduced early in a girl's childhood.  She was put into tiny little corsets to train her body into shape.  In the mid to late 19the century the fashion amongst young women took over to pull the waists in tighter and tighter until an incredible tiny waist was achieved making the body a very strange, wasp like shape.   They were very proud of having a waist that a man could span with his hands.  These began to be made less restrictive as doctors and wiser people began to realise just how some of the wasp waists were affecting a woman's health, squeezing her insides into a narrow and unnatural space.  It certainly must be one of the reasons heroines in books and in real life too were always fainting all over the place!  Interestingly there are also adverts for young boys using corsets at the time. But we don't hear of them lacing up and making wasp waists.  It isn't a dead fashion either.  There are still exponents of the wasp waist, both male and female in this day and age.

DonnaFugata, Sicily exhibition

The look in the Edwardian era shifted again and the oddest shape, the 'S' bend now emerged , where the bust was thrust forward and bottom thrust back.  Tiny waists as well.  Again, it affected a women's walk and posture.   Oh, oh, oh...the madness of wasp waists!

At a recent exhibition at the Villa Donnafugata in Sicily there were several examples of corsetry for children and ladies.   It has to be said these corsets look attractive and sexy.  The clothes of the time so beautiful.  But also uncomfortable and fussy and formal.  All the same, I'd rather like to sweep around in some of these dresses I found in an old fashion magazine!

child corsets
a child corset and two varied adult shapes.

Interesting sites:

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Making his Homes reflect Art and Character

 Rossetti was one of those unique, brilliant men who stand out amongst their contemporaries and remain fascinating figures for future generations.  It is true that his deep, searching, sometimes tormented poetry may no longer be considered of such interest, but his art still draws us with its colour, sensuality and mythical themes.

A home is a reflection of its occupants.  And it is interesting to see how homes change or are altered along with the character of the occupants, each new inhabitant putting their personal stamp upon them.  To my mind, a house, or anywhere we consider as home, becomes a reflection of our feelings and physical bodies, the symbolic place the soul inhabits.  Often when a building becomes neglected and starts to need repair, a person’s health also suffers as if the house is an outer shell to the human bodies within it.  Jung might have considered this as synchronicity but I have observed a definite relationship with bodies and surroundings and the places that draw us to them or the type of house we may want to live in but which life and fortunes deny us.  We still dream.  I always yearned for a villa in Italy but that’s not going to happen in this lifetime!   It isn’t because I couldn’t do so but I choose to stay in a country with which I am now familiar, near family and the English countryside I love. 

On the whole, woman was and still is largely the home maker and a house reflects much of her taste.  It’s always interesting to see how single men furnish or neglect their home!  Their taste is generally more sparse and utilitarian but perhaps things are changing as men and women share the task of homemaking far more. Gabriel Rossetti did share his first real home with his eventual wife, Lizzie Siddal, but after her death remained a widower till he died.  In his case, both of his important homes tended to reflect his own dominant, energetic, eclectic personality far more than a shared one.   And it was by no means a utilitarian or sparse taste.  It befitted such an artistic, flamboyant nature with a love of unusual and beautiful objects to delight the eye.  

Rossetti moved around London at first, renting studios.   He and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt, Stevens and Collinson chanced upon a beautiful old house along the riverside at Chelsea.  It was said to be built on the site of a mansion used by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry the Eighth’s last wife, and named Queen’s House or Tudor House.  It had a many bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms and a kitchen and cellars.  The young artists easily envisaged having a studio each.  But the rent and the long lease were more than they could afford and they regretfully gave up the idea, going for separate studios instead.  Gabriel took a room in Newman St. over the top of a dancing academy and continued to live at his parental home.

This was followed by a studio in the garden of a house called The Hermitage on Highgate’s West Hill. During this time, Gabriel was painting and falling deeply in love with his red-haired muse, Lizzie Siddal.   His fascination with the great Dante Alighieri, his namesake, led him to see Lizzie as his own Beatrice.  He often painted her as such in his varied pictures with Dantesque themes.   However, it was a complicated relationship due as much to the fact that their social standing was very different and so marriage seemed unlikely in those class-ridden times. They were said to be engaged but it was nothing definite or declared publicly. 

Lizzie Siddal (Rossetti archive)
Chatham Place, Blackfriars:

For various reasons, of which Lizzie was one, Gabriel needed a new ‘crib’.  He and his brother, William,  (who purportedly shared it and paid half the rent) eventually found rooms on the second floor of a house in Chatham Place, very close to Blackfriars Bridge and over the confluence of the Fleet and the Thames.  The buildings no longer exist sadly, part now of Blackfriars Station.  There were two rooms; one was to be the studio, the other a small bedroom with a balcony overlooking the river from whence arose the stench of sewage, meat thrown in from Smithfield’s and other unpleasant odours.  Londoners were used to the foulness of their river.  It was a busy river in those days and no doubt interesting.  It had its charms according to Gabriel’s visitors.

Lizzie as Beata Beatrix painted after her death
The rooms had windows on all sides and virtually hung out over the river, which made it light and cheerful. As always, Gabriel begged and borrowed furnishing from home, particularly mirrors which he considered essential for his studio. He was always fond of mirrors.  This, his first home, so to speak, reflected the young Rossetti.  It was cheerful, bright, adequate to his simple needs and his beloved Lizzie lived just a short distance away in the Old Kent Rd.  A convenient place therefore for her to model as well as remain and dine with him, allowing them to enjoy each other’s company without interference.   George Boyce, an artist friend, wrote that it was a picturesque place, especially at night with the gas lamps on the bridge and wharf side shedding their wavering reflections on the river.  Here was enjoyed the intelligent, good-hearted  company of gentlemen who could speak freely without need for coarseness or fear of public mores and opinions.  The whole ethos of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood . . . and they did indeed feel like brothers at first . . . was that it was to be about truth, freshness, no pretentious nonsense, secrecy or chiaroscuro.   It seems that these were Gabriel’s happiest days; deeply in love yet uncommitted, his greatness rising and manifesting itself in his poetic and artistic works with more beautiful work still to come.  Poetry in his heart and soul.  Simplicity was the order of the day then.  He disliked ‘tobacco, tea, coffee, stimulants’, drank water, allowing others in his usual easy going and uncritical manner to imbibe what they would.  How different he became in later life when disappointment, tragedy and depression overcame that sweet, pure young soul.

Rossetti at last committed himself to marriage with Lizzie in 1860.  They had been together for so many years that love had altered to companionship and mutual understanding but the fires of passion had long gone.  By this time Lizzie, always a sensitive, refined woman had become sickly, perhaps a little hypochondriac, unhappy and sad, reliant on laudanum to ease her pains of mind and body, feeling that Rossetti was now replacing her with younger models and perhaps in love with them.  But his love for her was real and constant in its way even though, as with all long-term relationships, well past the ‘first fine careless rapture’.   He had at one point broken off their engagement but knowing she was very ill, married her as much from pity as anything else.  Sadly, in 1861 she lost her eagerly desired first child, a stillborn girl, becoming pregnant again almost immediately that year. Whether she suffered from postnatal depression, or was heart broken because she felt that Rossetti’s love was slipping away and thus committed suicide, we shall never really know.  Ford Madox Brown destroyed the note she left and the verdict was recorded as an accidental overdose.

Tudor House, Cheyne Walk  

Cheyne Walk in early 1800's
By 1869, Gabriel had changed greatly.  He was now addicted to drugs and alcohol . . .  this the young man once desirous of being clear-headed and inwardly pure!  From a slender, handsome young man he was now corpulent, said to eat enormous amounts of food where once he had lived simply and lightly. 

After Lizzie’s death, Rossetti was able to achieve his earlier dream of renting the house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, the large, rambling place called Tudor House. Thus, his new home was now enlarged like himself!  It was a quiet, out of town location along the Thames close to the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Hospital.  Now as the centre of the bustling London Metropolis, it is hard to imagine that it was once such a quiet peaceful backwater with moorings, landing places and boats and barges sailing past.  There was no embankment built at that time and occasionally the tides would flow over from the river and flood his cellars. The house itself is still there and very imposing, with its elegant courtyard and well-proportioned windows and doorways.

Cheyne Walk today

 16 Cheyne Walk.  You can just see the blue plaque behind me.
The Sitting Room at 16, Cheyne Walk by Henry Treffry Dunn (a studio assistant of Rossetti)

At first, Rossetti hoped to be able to bring all the women of his family together in the large house to take care of the place and himself.   Marriage held no attractions for him.  One doubts if it ever did and if his release from the invalid, Lizzie, was not a relief deep down in his heart, much as he grieved her loss and grieved for old memories of passionate love.  However,  grief or not, within a very short while, he installed Fanny Cornforth, his golden haired model of many years, purportedly as the housekeeper.  Fanny, who did love Rossetti, had by now left her husband whom she had married in a sort of pique when Rossetti married Lizzie.   She was followed by Swinburne the poet, Meredith the novelist and William Rossetti who also now occupied the large house.   Rossetti was an individualist and a loner, yet like many such loners, he did not want his own company for too long.   He needed people around him, needed recognition while at the same time spurning it.  A complex character.  The whole idea of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded on the idea of non-conformity to the given artistic values of his day.  Rossetti steadfastly refused to enter his pictures in the Royal Academy and exhibited them privately if at all.  Yet as he grew older, hopes of nomination did arise.  Thus do we all change our tunes as we grow older and become the very thing we once despised!

Tudor house began to take shape in the style of Rossetti.  The large, spacious, beautiful rooms slowly filled with amazing and unusual items picked up from curiosity shops, a mix of high quality articles and junk.  Many of the items were used in his pictures as background; furnishings, materials, peacock feathers, pieces of jewellery.  None of the decorative jewellery was of any real value, his favourite being the pearl pin, which features in many portraits.  Sadly, this has not survived though other items did.  While away with his brother William in Antwerp, the two men enjoyed themselves scouring old shops for brooches, ‘a large jar with blue birds’ old prints and varied items.  When a fried, Henry Munby, dined with Rossetti he was amazed and fascinated by the wonderful drawing room filled with so many objects, curios, mirrors on ever wall, pictures and Italian cabinets, Dutch blue tiles on the fireplaces.  He walked up and down the room, examining everything with delight absorbing ‘the aroma of its manifold romance’.  On another occasion, an evening this time, he found the room bathed in the glow of the firelight with huge Elizabethan candlesticks gleaming on ebony furnishings, silver gilt dishes  and flagons, creating a delightful ambience of poetry and beauty.  Rossetti lived out his inner romance through his house and his unique style of furnishing.  The intriguing and eclectic mix also reflected Rossetti’s own interests and the breadth of his conversation which all those who loved and knew him acknowledged to be erudite and filled with arcane as well as modern knowledge.

Rossetti's bedroom reflected in a mirror by H T Dunn.

The strangest room in the house was Rossetti’s bedroom, which was particularly dark and heavy.  In it he installed a dark black mantelpiece that rose to the ceiling. 
According to Hall Caine, the bedroom ‘was entered from another and smaller room, used as a breakfast-room. This outer room was made fairly bright and cheerful by a glittering chandelier (the property once, he said, of David Garrick), and from the rustle of trees against the window pane one perceived that it overlooked the garden; but the inner room was dark with heavy hangings round the walls as well as the bed, and thick velvet curtains before the windows, so that candles seemed unable to light it and voices sounded thick and muffled.’
The thickly curtained windows, the heavy hangings around the dark oak four-poster bed reflected Gabriel’s inner state.  While the rest of the house glowed with colours, imagination, brilliant objects as did his portraits, here were the dark, depressed thoughts with which Gabriel lay down to his slumbers and to which he awoke. 

Rossetti now turned to becoming an avid collector.

Blue Porcelain:

One of Rossetti’s most obsessive and passionately acquired collections was for blue porcelain.  When living with Lizzie, he had begun with standard willow pattern pieces.  (Intriguingly, the willow pattern design appears to have originated in England based on a tragic Chinese love story and then adapted by the Chinese for their designs.)  Then Gabriel began to collect beautiful pieces of ware from Nanking.  This particular porcelain, painted with greater precision and detail and with finer glazes, was considered superior to the Canton china.  China produced a great deal of the blue and white ware in the 18/19th century when it became highly popular both in the States and in Europe. The exquisite blue colour was derived from Persian Cobalt, exported to China and used to make bowls, ginger jars, vases, plates and so on.  The craze for this blue found its way to Europe, where it took hold in Parisian circles.  One can imagine how it might appeal to the artistic society: something about this colour draws us to it all the time, spiritual, sky, heaven, purity, calm and peaceful.  Certainly, something needed in the rather zany household of Rossetti and his friends.

His great rival in collecting was the artist Whistler who lived close by.  They tried to outdo one another by buying up choice pieces from antique shops, the Oriental warehouse in Regent Street and abroad.  ‘My pots now baffle description altogether. Come and see them!’ said the exultant Rossetti to his friend Ford Madox Brown.  Whistler was said to eat his heart out with envy if Gabriel secured a particularly splendid piece.  And no doubt vice-versa as well!

The Zoo

His other famous collection was of varied animals, which he kept in his garden.  The garden flourished in a wild state, left as Nature intended for the ‘survival of the fittest.’ In it roamed peacocks, whose irritating noise kept neighbours awake and indeed resulted in Lord Cadogan inserting a clause into the lease of Tudor House forbidding that these birds be kept in the garden. Other inmates of this scatterbrained zoo were a deerhound, a barn owl, rabbits, dormice, hedgehogs, wombats of which Gabriel was particularly fond, lizards, salamanders, parrots armadillos and a kangaroo.  A fierce zebu (an Indian bull) was also brought in which turned out to be so ungovernable, chasing Gabriel into the house and almost uprooting the tree to which it had been tethered, that it was promptly resold.   The animals were mainly kept in specially built cages but unfortunately, Rossetti was as ignorantly neglectful of these myriad pets as he was of the women in his life. Many ate one another, burrowed their way out of the garden or simply died from lack of adequate nutrition and care.  One of the armadillos was said to have turned up in a neighbour’s kitchen much to the horror of the cook.

There was even talk of buying a lion, gorilla or an elephant. Not a garden for the dainty to enter!  Thankfully this didn’t happen.

Images of Jane Morris

Gabriel’s studio also reflected his desire to collect.   He collected feminine beauty in the form of first Lizzie, his Beatrice, then later with his compulsive longing to possess Jane, the wife of his friend William Morris.   He could not quite do so (though it is generally assumed they were lovers (perhaps not physically however) but he possessed her as his muse and model’  Her image looked out on all sides of his studio, the place where he could indeed possess his loved ladies, stacked against the walls, sketches and drawings, paintings and photographs.  Rossetti was searching all his life for this inner muse, his anima figure and felt that she eluded him, as do all writers, musicians and artists for we can never really capture this inner being in flesh and blood.  Both Lizzie and Jane became beauties in his portraits though neither was especially handsome and even slightly masculine in their looks.   Dark haired Jane seemed to reflect the Italian genes far more.  

Jane as Blanzifiore (Snowdrop)

Gabriel did move into Kelmscott with Jane and William later in life but it was never his home as such, rather reflected the taste of Jane and William and their family.   He kept the tenancy of Tudor House till he died.  By then the animals were long gone, the garden totally overgrown and Rossetti a complete wreck.  Fanny Cornforth remained faithful to him all his life but she was never a great love of his, rather a person with whom he could relax, feel comfortable and cared for knowing she truly loved him.  It is always good to feel loved.   However, the mores of the times prevailed and Fanny was not considered a suitable person to attend his funeral and kept away.  In April, 1882, Rossetti died on Easter Day, aged 54, at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, his last and temporary home.

photo of Jane Morris (Rossetti archive.org)

Main Sources:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painter and Poet by Jan Morris Weidenfield and Nicholson, London.   To my mind one of the best accounts of his life.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, An Illustrated Memorial of His Art and Life
Blanzifiore (Snowdrops) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti :: artmagick.com
Google Images

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thessaloniki..A Fair City of Greece

Modern Thessaloniki, the waterfront

Just back from a few wonderful sunny days in my favourite Greek city, Thessaloniki.  My first visit here was in 1966 when I came from England to visit my Greek relations with a scant knowledge of Greek.  I have written many wailing accounts of how much the city has changed.  As we grow older we tend to live more and more in the golden, halcyon memories of our past and the delight of first encounters.  Thus we feel deeply indignant when places we love alter with time and so-called progress.   I miss the open fields and the little red tiled roofs and white houses round Kalamaria where my cousins had their homes.  The houses were small and toilets often primitive but they were cool and airy, marble floored, with beautiful wrought iron doors, sheer curtains that covered windows to the floor like bridal veils, stirring gently in the breeze of open shutters.  At lunchtime, the women went to the baker's to collect the meals they had taken there to cook in his hot ovens; delicous makaronada, moussaka, imam bayildi and papoutsakia. People sauntered past as one sat replete with these good things, sunning on the little balcony and greeted one cheerfully. Ladies gathered in the afternoon in the cool of a porch and sipped coffees and gossiped, relaxing after their morning toils.  It had character and it was Greek.

Easter dancing 1973

Now these houses in Kalamaria have been demolished as the old owners died and their children raised high blocks of flats in their place.  It's true the flats are spacious, well equipped, modern, beautiful but they now look like any city suberb in Spain, Portugal or Italy. No character.
I can no longer see the church where my daughter was baptised one Easter Sunday, nor the sea in the distance where we used to go and bathe.  People feel estranged and older folks are lonely, an occurrence that always seems to occur when people live in high rises.  I go there and feel lost and sad.  Only the fig tree remains in the cemented road, a tree planted by my cousin many years ago.

Easter, roasting the goat in Yia yia's garden.1973

Under the fig tree, easter eggs and smiles

Well, these are grumbles I have frequently aired and I understand perfectly that my younger cousins are far happier in their comfy, modern apartments!  Even the Kalamaria I describe is nothing like the place described in the many letters which I read when researching my book The Long Shadow.  In those days it didn't exist as more than a scattered village and the beach at Aretsou was filled with unhappy Greek migrants from Asia Minor who lived in tents and squalid conditions. So many would say things had progressed wonderfully!  As for Thessaloniki as a whole, the first encounter for nurses and soldiers arriving during the First World War was of a very small city circling the beautiful horseshoe bay of the Thermaic gulf.  Minarets vied with churches and synagogues then and the beautiful villas of the rich Jews lined the waterfront.  The city in 1916 was only just liberated from four hundred years of Ottoman rule and not yet predominantly Greek; Jews and Turks formed the main population.  But the Greek numbers swelled rapidly when the afore mentioned refugees from the Greek lands of Smyrna arrived after The Great Catastrophe (as the Greeks still call it)  The ancient lands of Asia Minor fell to the Turks and now form part of that country.
Still some beautiful old apartments in the city centre

The fire of August 1917 

Photo - "Popular Mechanics" Magazine Dec 1919, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5850057

A terrible fire ravaged the city in August 1917 which destroyed most of the Jewish quarter and many of the the lovely waterfront villas.  Very little of the older architecture now exists, not even the attractive apartments and other planned vistas erected after the fire.  Just as we experienced in London after our own great fire in 1666, many wonderful schemes were dreamt up to renew and beautify the city but few ever came to fruition.

Aristotelous Square
However, Aristotelous Square remains the beautiful heart of the city, leading to the waterfront road Leoforis Nikis.  It remains charming, open and interesting. There are many interesting excavations to see and the city has been named cultural capital of Europe in its day with an annual Fair in September and music, film and art festivals. Meanwhile the waterfront is packed with bustling  cafes, wine and cocktail bars, packed solid with youngsters every evening and all weekend.  The Greeks still perambulate along the waterfront (Paraleia) as they did in the old days, taking their Sunday stroll with the family, flirting boys and girls meeting up and enjoying the sunshine and sea breezes.

But I miss those old days so much.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Crime Fiction Detectives become so real; Dorothy Sayers and her hero


Dorothy Sayers

            For those of us who live in the past like myself, Dorothy Sayers mystery novels are a fascinating read.  They were written from the 1920’s to the outbreak of World War Two and thus her authentic depictions of the times she lived in are for me the main pleasure in reading these complex and astute stories.  There are many avid admirers of her fictional hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, and eventually he evolves into a regular paragon of all the virtues.  To begin with he appears as a take on Wodehouse’s delightfully idiotic fop, Bertie Wooster, complete with attendant perfect butler (in this case a devoted man called Mervyn Bunter) who treats him like a baby,  Apparently Lord Peter needs to be bathed, fed, dressed and inspected as to the propriety of his sartorial arrangements before going out. Better than a mother is Mr Bunter!

            At first we cannot help but wonder what this cosseted aristocrat (his antecedents go way, way back, probably to God Himself) is up to, taking a morbid and almost cheerful interest in crime, regarding dead bodies without the normal sense of horror or fear.  In Sayers first book, Whose Body (1923) an inoffensive little man, Mr Thripps,  wakes to discover a dead, naked body in his bath wearing only a pair of pince-nez.    Lord Peter is informed of this event by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver (delicious name!) and abandons his urgent desire to buy old books at an auction in order to see what’s going on.   His attitude seems patronising in the extreme ‘Well, thanks awfully for tellin’ me.  I think I’ll send Bunter to the sale and toddle round to Battersea now an’try and console the poor little beast.’  Having surveyed the scene he sympathises with something as crass as  – ‘I’m sure it must have been uncommonly distressin’, especially coming like that before breakfast.  Hate anything tiresome happenin’ before breakfast.  Takes a man at such a confounded disadvantage, what?’  

Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey

So you see, quite correctly that I have never really taken to Lord Peter.  However, as the tale progresses it becomes apparent that all this burbling on like a shallow idiot is actually a useful mask for the real man who hides pain and sadness beneath this masquerade and takes up criminology as a distracting pastime. There’s no doubt about his cleverness and courage and he is indeed an interesting and wounded figure, with a whole ancestral history attached to him by the author who said herself that she fell in love with her character. (As most authors do. I certainly fell in love with Ethan Willoughby in my book The Long Shadow!)  

Eventually we discover that Peter Wimsey was a Major in WW1 who still suffers from shell shock and nightmares at times.  His old Sergeant is the loyal and devoted  Bunter attached to him through the comradeship of war time sufferings.  Slowly we begin to feel more sympathy for this hero as we learn throughout the stories how he suffered in the war and how this now affects him, especially when he actually does solve a murder and realises that the criminal is likely to be hanged. It’s as if he plays at the puzzle of solving the case but then suddenly realises it isn’t a game at all, but involves real people, who evil or not, are human and faulty and culpable.

Wimsey does grow and mature through the book, eventually meeting Harriet Vane, with whom he falls in love after having helped her out of a charge of poisoning her former lover.  At first she turns him down but eventually marries him in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) the last Wimsey novel.  Sayers found it impossible to write crime stories through the Second World War because she felt there was enough horror abounding in life at this time without imagining it. 

There is no doubt that Sayers was a very well read and learned woman who was educated at Oxford, which was rare for a woman at that time.  Her father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, was a chaplain at Christ Church and began teaching her Latin at the age of six.  I found this hard enough to learn at the age of eleven so she has my deep admiration for such early signs of diligence.   She translated Dante and wrote many non fictional works which, as a scholar, she naturally considered her finest efforts.   Many criticise her character, Harriet Vane, because she is obviously the author herself, eventually marrying her own hero!  Why should this be criticised?  Most authors put themselves in their works because we write of our own substance and inner characters.  Peter Wimsey was Sayers animus figure and the ‘marriage’ seems to me to be a delightful sign that something within the author had become united.  Wimsey is not killed off like so many other detective heroes, Poirot and Holmes, for instance.  He is quietly retired into a pleasant and peaceful old age with Harriet and his many children.  This allows him to remain forever fresh and alive for the reader. And proves that, despite the problems of her own romantic life, Sayers, known to be of a religious disposition, found some sort of inner harmony in her soul.

The Nine Tailors

Out of all her books with Peter Wimsey, this is considered to be her finest.  And though it could become a little tedious to the un-initiated in bell ringing –which must surely be the majority of her readers – it is a truly clever plot.  In this story, Peter Wimsey finds himself and his car plunged into a ditch during a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve and spends the night (together with Bunter, of course, how could he manage otherwise?) at the welcoming home of the rector of the fine local church, Fenchurch St. Paul, which has nine splendid bells.  These are the Nine Tailors of the title (the original word was Tellers which became corrupted.)  I have learnt that six Tailors are rung if a woman dies and Nine Tailors if a man dies, followed by a steady peal for every year of their life thereafter.  In small villages of the past, this was a way of knowing who must have died; everyone knowing everyone for miles around. 

Naturally a dead body turns up some time later and Lord Peter is asked back to solve the mystery.  He toddles up a few blind alleys but works it all out eventually and it is a subtle and ingenious business he has to unravel.  The book is full of underlying emotion and though tedious at times in its detail, still makes one want, even need to read on.  

The characters of all books from this era are sometimes accused of stereotyping.  But this accusation from modern readers is because we have now seen these types of characters portrayed so often on television and film, especially old films – from Agatha Chrisite novels, Midsomer Murders and so forth.  But in the years before and between the Wars people were often more typical and true to a type.  We appear far less so now that we are encouraged to air our uniqueness, though you might say different stereotypes abound these days.  We have created our own typology which will amuse the future generations, no doubt.  Personally, I found many of the characters in this book to be interesting, even loveable, such as the absent minded rector, or else pleasingly evil as a villain should be.

There was so much to learn about the amazing mathematical precision of change ringing, a subject I knew absolutely nothing about.  To learn something new from a crime novel is a rare thing nowadays.  Modern crime stories are expected to rattle along urgently from one dead body to another without any descriptions.  (Description in any novel appears to be anathema to many modern editors.) But this is where, Sayers, turns the genre into literature and art.  Her evocation of the landscape and wintry scenes of the Fens where the novel is set, is truly as brilliant as anything by Thomas Hardy.  We become drawn into this vast bleak landscape with its drains and its sluices and dykes; a watery, strange wetlands where man struggles to keep nature at bay.  As I read this story, which at one point describes a great flood, there has been a winter of deluges and inundations on a major scale in the British Isles, not confined to the Fens by any means but equally due to mismanagement of the ancient land and waterways.  It brought it very much to life.

But above all there are the bells.  These amazing bells; the sounds that are emitted from them take over the novel and its pace and meaning.  They seem to cover the gamut of human feelings and emotions from the gentleness and grace of the tenor to the terrifying cacophony of the huge deep bells; bells that are ancient,  their rhythms timeless, their messages clear and somehow indicative of something greater than the small happenings of the men below them as, high in their tower, they crash, clang, echo, move in a mathematical dance and pattern that must surely imitate something of the awe of the Creator.  I felt a sense that Sayers herself, was lifted beyond the ordinary world as she wrote about them.

The bells gave tongue; Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, ringing and rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes…..every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again.  Out over the flat, white wastes of the fen, over the  spear straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind bent groaning poplar trees , bursting from the snow choked louvers of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells….’


Friday, September 04, 2015

Two Mystic Poets and a Bed Bug

Two Mystic Poets and a Bed Bug

One isn’t too surprised about the intimate knowledge of fleas for people who lived in those times when beds and houses were filled with varied creatures who lived alongside human beings very cosily.  In the past we were certainly in touch with Nature in all its moods and variety of living forms, be they pleasant to human beings or not, an animal species alongside all the other animals. They were considered as part of all the living things created by God and so must be studied, tolerated, accepted even if sometimes utterly disliked.  Nowadays, most of so called civilised humanity (those who live in civitas – Latin for towns) have a somewhat sentimental understanding of animals and a perfect horror of  insects, bugs, bacteria , mice, rats and anything that penetrates the sanctity of their homes. We are encouraged now to sanitise our houses into a safe, impenetrable sterility.  And I’m all for it as much as anyone else.

We seldom see flies these days.  But when meat hung on hooks over a fire, lay on a  platter in the larder or left uncovered at times, flies were naturally attracted to the home.  Now we have fridges and freezers; not places where a fly feels comfortable or willing to search for a meal. I remember still those frightful sticky fly catchers in the shape of colourful parrots dangling from my grandmother’s ceiling covered in nasty black victims and feel grateful for fridges and my little larder.  I have no objection to house spiders.  They do a useful job though those huge hairy creatures that seem to invade in the autumn and are especially fond of getting stuck in the bath, have to be fished out and sent off to the garden where they belong.

Many old erotic poems were written about fleas, strange as such a subject might seem.  The poet addressing his loved one would be envious of the creature’s ability to be close to his love in places he could not touch or reach, exploring her milk white bosom, crawling beneath her petticoats to inhabit those areas he would love to be able to explore himself!  This small creature had no boundaries, no conventions as the lover must needs have.  Its death at her hands at the height of its bliss as it sucks her blood was a metaphor for sexuality as the words ‘die’ and ‘kill’ were then considered  to be.  ‘The little death’ they called it because orgasm for a man was said to shorten his life span and take away something from him every time.  Nowadays we believe the exact opposite and say men who have regular sex live longer!   
Bianca Pnzoni Anguissola
 (the artists mother) by Sofonisba Anguissola
Italy 1557

Ladies apparently took to carrying around elaborately bejewelled little fur tippets or zibellino (italian for sable) which they apparently hoped might attract the fleas away from their bodies into the warm fur they held. A rather impossible notions as fleas like warmth it's true but they also want live creatures blood to feed on!  

Bernardino Luini: Lady with a flea fur 1515
Walter's Art Museum 

The first ‘flea’ poem is said to have been written by Ovid but there were others written or told before his.  John Donne’s famous poem ‘The Flea’ is following an older tradition but he uses it in a most effective, witty and cheeky manner to put forward his case to his lady love (whom we assume might have been the lady who later became his wife)

John Donne

John Donne is considered the foremost of the so called ‘metaphysical’ poets.  He was born on January22nd 1572 in London to a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism had been banned in England and scarcely tolerated.  Catholics were banned from many a career prospect in law, politics or the church.  Several members of Donne’s family were persecuted, tortured and considered as martyrs.  His own brother was imprisoned and forced under torture to give away a priest he had been sheltering.  The priest, William Harrington, was hung drawn and quartered, a nasty death  – for what sin?  But, of course, he was considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly.  As for poor Henry Donne, he died in prison of the bubonic plague.  This affected John Donne deeply and made him question his catholic faith.  He was ambitious and wished to prosper and no doubt realised that people were afraid of the Papists, convinced they would create some sort of revolution and call in support those countries still staunchly Roman Catholic and subservient to the Pope in Rome.

Donne must have had a charming and charismatic nature because he escaped all this family harassment.  Or perhaps he had the kind of nature like the tree that bent with the wind and thus survived the storm.  He was educated at a school in Oxford, admitted to Cambridge University at 14 years of age, accepted at 15 to study law at Lincoln’s Inn.  People had short lives in these days and packed action in from an early age.  After his studies he began to travel extensively abroad.  He appeared bent on some sort of diplomatic career, became a member of parliament and was eventually asked by King James (well – ordered really) to become  a cleric of the Anglican church.  He accepted this post and eventually became Dean of St. Paul’s in which great London church lie his remains.

He seems to have been quite a womaniser in his youth, hence many an erotic poem which he shared round his patrons for their amusement much as we might do on Facebook today. The portrait below was possibly painted for a lady he wished to attain.  The undone collar suggests this to some but it was in fact a fashion of the time. However, he eventually fell in love with Anne More and in 1601 married her secretly against the wishes of her father thus getting himself into trouble and even landing in Fleet prison.  He was eventually released but it affected his career. Anne bore him twelve children, of whom two were stillbirths.  The poor woman spent her life pregnant and nursing and caring for the family while Donne scraped a meagre living so that poverty was never far away.   Anne died after the last stillbirth in 1617.   Donne had loved her deeply and mourned her loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.  As far as we know, he was faithful to her, turning more and more towards spiritual matters, laced with doubts, questions and philosophies.

Donne’ poetry is unusual for the times, often beginning abruptly, full of sudden twists and turns, with unusual metaphors and contrasting, unexpected ideas (called conceits).  It was considered ‘physical’ poetry because poetic metres and styles changed after the laws of Aristotle . . . in other words after physics.   They are witty, ingenious poems, full of complex themes both sacred and profane.  His poetry was written for a few patrons and never published in his lifetime.  The love poems are sexual, sensual, quite different to the ideal of courtly love that had flourished with the troubadors where one’s lady was unobtainable, mysterious, a spiritual object rather than a carnal one.  Donne’s ladies are to be bedded and urgently, lustfully!  He seldom used classical mythology in his poetry as many other poets were wont to do a that time. Instead he chose plain words, plain speaking yet expressed in such a way as to make them fresh, original and even startling.

Thus we come to his amusing poem The Flea.   It has been conjectured that the letter ‘s’ in the fifteenth-sixteenth century looked very like an ‘f’ to gather the subtle ribaldness of ‘it sucked me first and now sucks thee’.  It’s a possibility that Donne might have hinted at this idea and his poems generally contain barely disguised references to states of arousal and bodily fluids being exchanged. Those Elizabethans were a saucy lot.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Here’s an argument worthy of a lawyer’s mind.  The lustful lover argues that as the flea has bitten them both, it contains them united in love, a marriage bed, a marriage temple.  There is no sin, no shame in this - so why not make love and unite thus?  The lady isn’t convinced and makes to kill the flea and her lover tries to stay her hand but no.  ‘hast thou since purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?’ and not only that but she is triumphant in saying the flea’s death hasn’t affected them one little bit; it certainly hasn’t weakened them.   In which case, retorts the cunning lover, the tiny amount of life blood taken by the flea is like the tiny amount of honour she will lose by yielding to him.   It’s a merry poem and treats his lady as a person of equal wit and intelligence.

In contrast to this humorous look at the flea we turn to one far more horrifying.  The next poetical flea is actually a painting rather than a poem.  It was painted by the mystical poet and artist William Blake whose story I portrayed in my last blog. This tiny but exquisitely painted picture is called The Ghost of a Flea and hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.  Apparently the drawing of the Flea came about when Blake spent an evening with his friend John Varley.  Varley was a student of esoteric subjects and believed in the existence of spirits and those things which required ‘an eye to see and an ear to hear’– in other words those visions beyond the limits of the physical eye and ear and its limited capacities.  He knew that Blake had daily seen visions since an early age, one of which was a tree filled with bright angels and celestial beings and claimed to often be surrounded by ghostly beings as he painted.  Varley and Blake would often meet and hold a kind of séance together in which Varley would call up some historical or mythological being and Blake would sketch the vision that appeared to him.

On this particular occasion it seems as if the image of the Flea came spontaneously to Blake. Varley asked him to sketch it.  Blake did so, saying he saw it very clearly before him.  The result became the little painting now in the Tate.  It is beautifully finished with applied gold leaf on the stars.  A monstrous bull like creature is striding purposefully between rich brocade curtains as if on a stage, the background a starry night perhaps depicting the universe, a symbol of the creation or something greater than the creature, monstrous as it is.   The Flea’s snake like tongue seeks the bowl of food before it.  A strange vision.  But not the first such vision to be thus depicted by the artist.  Blake seemed to have had an inner or subconscious vision of such muscular, often horrifying beings who, for him, were epitomes of all that was loathsome and evil.  The only time he saw a ghost, according to Alexander Gilchrist, his Victorian biographer, was when he lived in Lambeth.  The ghost described was very similar to the vision of the flea and terrified Blake so much he turned and ran.
The Great Red Dragon
 and the Woman clothed with the Sun

What, we wonder, are these visions?  Modern psychology would say they were sub personalities drawn from his own unconscious mind, haunting him as such lost and long-forgotten inner beings do.  They certainly seem to be the Shadow side of Blake’s angelic visions.  Ghostly images do occur and many perfectly sensible, intelligent people claim to have seen them, especially when young.  When we are young, we are open to other realms and states of existence but this open state of mind narrows down till all we see in the end is that tiny portion of existence before our physical eyes – and even that but imperfectly – ‘as in a glass darkly’ – St. Paul would have said.   

Or as Wordsworth had it in Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore: -
Turn wheresoe’er I may
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

But Blake carried on seeing his visions up to the moment of his death.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.