Sometimes I think that the length of my posts might put people off reading them. Is that the only reason that I write?
Perhaps it’s not really about what we write. It’s about what we don’t.
There are other moments though, when it’s not about what we write, just that we do write. Or speak, for that matter.
This photo, without text, suggests the permanence and presence of this location, without revealing its geographical physicality or any mention of I wish you were here.
Sources; (discerned thus far) postcards bought from the “Fair of Thieves”, Al Fama (flea market), Lisbon, Portugal, May 2017. The top selection are all early to mid 20th photographs of city landmarks, including the Torre de Belem, and Mosteiro Jeronimos, as well as a view of Lisboa including Castelo de S. Jorge, perhaps taken from one of the city’s many miradouros (viewpoints).
The last two photographs show the different sides of the same postcard. It is dated 06/04/1961, and the building pictured is named in French as Palais royal de Tetouan. This palace is in Tetouan, though the postcard is signed off from Tangier, Morocco. The card appears to be written in Portuguese, though also includes a few Arabic words.
I happened to be staying in a Moroccan themed hostel in Lisbon, and hope to one day travel there, hence buying the postcard which had nothing to do with my own travels.
None of this analysis explains what the postcard says in either language, nor what it meant to either the sender or recipient. The other Lisbon postcards are all blank, and are currently on display above my noticeboard.
If you would like to read more about Belém , “Salazar bridge”, and a 16th century trading port called Ormuz, you can do so here.
If you would like to read more about Portuguese literature, magical realism, and the repetition of various locations, you can do so in this place.
Idioms, set phrases to describe a certain situation, an expression or turn of phrase which has a non-literal meaning. These phrases, literally understood, often seem nonsensical, but actually they reveal a huge amount about the attitudes and traditions of the culture from which they originate.
Understandably, having one of the oldest written traditions in the world, Mandarin Chinese makes use of hundreds of idioms. When I get stuck with my own language learning, I often turn to idioms as a way of getting things moving again, as they can usually be equated with English sayings, and they’re a great way to build up fluency! Chinese idioms are called chéngyǔ (成语) and are usually made up of four characters.
Idioms can be used in conversation, and picked up in literature. They’re good for reinforcing basic vocabulary and grammar structures, and for picking up new words through the process of deduction. I even learnt a couple of Hindi idioms when I was in India, and attached them (with translations!) to the bottom of my quote board on my old blog.
Here are some of my favourite Mandarin idioms, with accompanying explanations and English translations;
画蛇添足 – huàshé-tiānzú
Translation – “to draw a snake and add feet to it”.
Meaning – to overdo something, to ruin the effect of something by adding something superfluous to it.
Translation – “a mantis trying to obstruct a chariot”.
Meaning – to overrate oneself and try to hold back a superior force. English equivalent – An Aesopic fable, in which a fly sits on a chariot wheel and believes itself t be doing all of the work! These tales could be said to below to a wider genre of “impertinent insect” fables.
朝三暮四 – zhāosān-mùsì
Translation – “to blow hot and cold” (literally: “early morning three, evening four”)
Meaning – to be changeable, to “chop and change” – has a direct equivalent in English, with the translation having the same meaning, connotations that the person in question is unreliable, not to be trusted etc. There’s another Mandarin idiom which has an identical meaning – 反复无常 (-復無-) fǎnfù-wúcháng – which means “to behave capriciously”.
Translation – “hiding a sickness for fear of treatment”.
Meaning – I originally thought that it might be something like “to cut off your nose to spite your face”, but actually it means to refuse to listen to advice, and to conceal a fault to avoid criticism of it. Not listening to sound advice is a recurring theme in classical Chinese texts, whereby many military generals have often facilitated their own downfall. Alternatively, refusing to admit that there’s a problem might be to do with fear of losing face, something that’s still prevalent in modern Chinese society.
守株待兔 – shǒuzhū-dàitù
Translation – “to stand by a stump waiting for hares to bump into it”.
Meaning – to trust that something will happen, to “leave something to luck”. I also found an interesting link to the concept of a “blue moon” in English (and potentially other languages?) that we await a time which might never come, or only occasionally happens “once in a blue moon”.
The link here is that hares and rabbits are associated with the moon in Chinese literature, mainly due to the legend of Chang’e ((嫦娥)) the woman in the moon. In classical Chinese literature another name for the moon is “the Jade Hare” [玉兔 yùtù]. A beautiful figure of speech to describe the sunset is “the golden bird of the sun sets in the west, the jade hare of the moon rises in the east” [金乌西坠，玉兔东升 – jīnwūxīzhuì, yùtùdōngshēng].
Before anyone credits me with too much, I looked up these idioms on the Chinese language app Pleco to get the translations! I came across these idioms whilst reading, and even discovered some of them on Pleco whilst searching for other things! You can read my review of Pleco here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to Portugal. Not only because I’d love another holiday, but because I’m trying to read more historical fiction (especially novels) at the moment, whilst I have the time. A few weeks ago I read The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh, 2000) which might well get a post of its own. However, as well as reading more literature based in other continents, I’m also trying to read more literature in translation, which, as I native English speaker, I must admit that I don’t do a lot of!
I came across this article on social media (well, it had blatantly been advertised for me based on my previous internet search history, but we’ll overlook that for now…) and was drawn to the work of Jose Saramago (1922-2010). I really want to get hold of Baltasar and Blimunda, which was recommended in that piece, but actually I’m quite glad that I ended up reading another of Saramago’s works! Sometimes it’s better to read an author’s earlier, lesser known (or praised) books, before moving onto some of their classics. It helps to understand the essence of their writing style whilst they were still formulating it themselves, and to predict which elements might reappear in their later works.
The fact that there wasn’t a wide selection of Saramago’s books in my local library, albeit a city library, the best stocked for miles around, is hardly surprising. There is an ongoing bias against literature translated into English, I feel, and this often leads to a lack of diversity in British libraries.
Actually, on a broader theme, reading this book took me back to my undergraduate history days. Everyone dreaded the lectures on peasants. No one wanted to spend a whole week’s worth of research and essay-writing time on them. All peasants ever seemed to do was revolt. We couldn’t wait to move back to the glittering worlds of the middle and upper classes next week! Art, music, culture, even politics, to a large degree, were seen as belonging to these classes, not the peasants who seemed to contribute nothing to society except the bread and livestock which everyone else depended on. The lives of “ordinary” people, that is to say – historically speaking – the vast majority of people, were seen as inherently dull. The middle classes were politically active and played a role in reforming religion, or education, and the upper classes were glamourous and extravagant, from Versailles to Renaissance Venice.
I continued to feel pretty much the same as most of my classmates until I read a book which changed everything towards the end of my third and final year. After months of pleading with us during his only lecture (in a two month lecture series) a professor whose name I’ve since forgotten implored us to really consider the lives of these early modern European peasants on a scale not really tried before, an individual level. Now here was something different!
The book was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), a depiction of the worldview and “cosmos” of a sixteenth century Friulian miller, Domenico Scandella, also known as Menocchio. Ginzburg was writing in the ’70s, reacting against the previous “quantitative turn” in history, in which every historical trends was brought down to a matter of statistics. The 1970s was the age of “micro” histories, and a time in which Febvre’s concept of a collective class identity first came under attack. The Cheese and the Worms uses the historical record of two Inquisitorial trials, during which Menocchio was interrogated about possible heretical religious beliefs. Yet these trial records raise more questions than answers. How did Menocchio have knowledge of “elite” texts? (the Decameron, for example), and where did an obscure miller get such radical ideas from? In what ways could an illiterate man express such fantasies, in the limited vocabulary of his time?
By coincidence, this work is also a translated one, though I didn’t register that at the time. Anyway, most family sagas and generational novels that I read are set firmly in the middle and upper classes, such as The Forsyte Saga or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I decided that now was the time to read about those that worked on and for the latifundio (“land property”/ “large estate”), whose lives were dominated, and explicitly shaped by, the land which they were destined to spend their entire lives cultivating.
In Raised from the Ground, the title takes on new significance as the landscape, the ground itself, remains the only constant in the lives of the Monte Lavre peasantry, in particular, the Mau-Tempo family. In a time frame which spans from the end of the 18th century to the arrival of two World Wars, and the Carnation revolution (1974), the repetition of locations (e.g, the village fountain) as the backdrop for important events can feel jarring and physically stifling, which is possibly the intended effect when depicting village life. Characteristics recur between generations of characters , from a detrimental preference for wanderlust, to those “foreigner” blue eyes.
Characters meet, fall in love, give birth, and die, with startling similarities. There is only so much that can happen in the life of the average peasant, suggests Saramago. Yet there is so much more than meets the eye. Individuals, raised in the same household, might be fated for such different paths. Seemingly inconspicuous farming stock find themselves caught up “in the inland sea of the latifundio”[pg. 384, Harvill Secker, 2012 edition], the currents of discontent with church and state which will lead to strikes and a workers’ revolution.
Saramago describes the excitement of Lisbon through the eyes of a villager, the delight of the characters who see the sea, for only the second time, at Caixas (where the railway line from Cais de Sodre still runs along the shore!). Portugal’s colonies in India and Africa are referenced, and the first line of The Lusiads (a Portuguese epic published in 1572, glorifying Portuguese navigators), itself a reference to the opening of The Aeneid is mocked. For these reasons I was taken aback by the similarity of content between Raised from the Ground and my last post reflecting on Portuguese colonialism when visiting Lisbon.
As an omniscient narrator, Saramago’s prose is oddly god-like and prophetic. There is little direct speech or dialogue, rather the thoughts and conversations of different characters blend into each other to form a stream of consciousness narrative, a collective din. There are moments in the text which come close to fantasy, and others which are so raw they seem almost crudely realistic.
An example which resembles magical realism;
But Antonio Mau-Tempo, who knew he was dreaming, pretended he hadn’t heard this order and continued sleeping, a bad move because he never knew that a weeping princess had been sitting beside him, and that she held his hand…
On the transcendant nature of human society compared to nature;
Thus flowed the rivers and the four seasons of the year, on those one can rely, even when they vary. The vast patience of time and the equally vast patience of money, which, with the exception of man, is the most constant of all measurements, although, like the seasons, it varies.
On the unwritten stories of peasants;
But who are these other people, small and disparate, who came with the land, although their names do not appear in the deeds, dead souls perhaps, or are they still alive?[…] there is the latifundio and those who will work it, go forth and multiply. Go forth and multiply me, says the latifundio. But there is another way to speak of all this.
On a pastoral style paradise, in which the landscape holds a communion of the living and the dead;
“the living notice nothing, they think they’re alone, that they’re carrying on their task as living people, the dead are dead, and buried, that’s what they think, but the dead often visit…”
“[…] and others whose names we may not know, although we know about their lives. Here they all are, the living and the dead”.
In the Belém (“Bethlehem”) district of Lisbon there is a monument which is popular with tourists from all over the world. Last week, I was one of those tourists. I put a photo of this particular monument, set against a stormy sky, up on my Facebook account. It has proved particularly popular with some of my Indian friends and former colleagues. The irony of this has been haunting me. You see the monument is dedicated to the memory of Prince Henry The Navigator, and others, who contributed to the Portuguese Age of Discovery and Exploration, hence its name in Portuguese is Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
At the base of this monument is a mosaic-esque depiction of the world, or rather, most of the world – with notable exceptions; Canada, Australia and Greenland to name a few of the missing countries. The countries and states are not labelled, but there are areas of land with archaic names and dates attached to them.
It appears that this tiled display performs the same function as the monument. It labels the trading posts held by the Portuguese, and lists the dates that they gained a foothold in each new territory.
I have mixed feelings about these type of monuments. Although it is a part of history, and explains the cultural heritage and ties between Portugal, Goa, Macau and Brazil, for example, it also celebrates the “success” of colonialism from the perspective of the metropolis, listing its colonies like a form of account book. The wealth made from these ventures may have fuelled the Portuguese elite, and prompted the silver trade in the New World, but it brought slavery and misery to millions of people. The figure of Afonso de Albuquerque, former Viceroy of Portuguese India appears on the monument, which was constructed in the decades immediately following Indian Independence.
Although the British played a much greater part in colonising India, I can’t imagine installing this kind of monument at that time. True, in London there is still a lot of triumphal colonialist architecture (admired endlessly by the Korean and Japanese tourists I encountered), not the mention the many statues of Queen Victoria/Empress of India, yet most of these tend to be at least a century old, when the majority of British people may well have still believed in the moral legitimacy of Empire.
Back to the bridge. Ponte 25 de Abril. Renamed from “Salazar bridge” in 1974, when a military coup-turned-popular-revolution (the “Carnation Revolution“) transformed the Portuguese state into its modern form, by ending war and the presence of the Portuguese military in their African colonies. Yet now the bridge is known to most visitors to Lisbon as a backdrop for their Padrão dos Descobrimentos photos. In that small cross-section of Lisbon, colonialism and colonisation is simultaneously praised and condemned, and few can perceive this irony. There is no doubt that the technological discoveries (armillary spheres etc., which appears on the modern Portuguese flag) and the Age of Exploration led to the mass exploitation of native peoples in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, but can these events ever be separated, and therefore, celebrated?
Not according to the Brazilian and Uruguayan people I was walking with. “They shouldn’t be proud of this”, one man hissed, and another replied “doesn’t Portugal have any other achievements?”
As I wandered around Belém in the rain I thought about all of this. The Indian convenience stores were a familiar sight, and they reminded me of the shared colonial connections between the UK and Portugal as former maritime powers. I even recognised some traditional Chinese characters on a building which I later identified as a library dedicated to Macau ( Àomén, 澳門). I had expected to find Portugal, with its good beaches and colourful public squares, to be like an alternate version of Spain, a place that is familiar to me through childhood holidays. Now I realised that Portugal, with its colonial past and controversial street art to rival Banksy, reminded me more of the place I’d left, the UK, in the darker sense.
I also visited MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) in Belém, and by sheer coincidence they have a fantastic exhibition on at the moment concerning Utopia/Dystopia, in honour of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s original Utopia. The literary links didn’t stop there, as I discovered that Lord Byron had a particular obsession with Lisbon and Sintra (formerly Cintra), after accidentally sojourning there in 1809 (he missed the boat to Malta…). Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was Byron’s third book, and it made him as celebrity. Based on his continental tour which he undertook for two years after leaving Cambridge, the work draws on observations made as he toured European countries from Albania to Spain.
What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
Her image floating on that noble tide,
Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
But now whereon a thousand keels did ride
Of mighty strength, since Albion was allied,
And to the Lusians did her aid afford
A nation swoll'n with ignorance and pride,
Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword.
To save them from the wrath of Gaul's unsparing lord.
But whoso entereth within this town,
That, sheening far, celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down,
Mid many things unsightly to strange e'e;
For hut and palace show like filthily;
The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;
No personage of high or mean degree
Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,
Though shent with Egypt's plague, unkempt, unwashed, unhurt.
Poor, paltry slaves! yet born midst noblest scenes—
Why, Nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
Lo! Cintra's glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium's gates?
Aside from Byron, the Boca do Inferno (“Mouth of Hell/ Hell’s Mouth”), a rock formation at Cascais, evoked Dante. The cold water and pretty miserable weather also harked back to the “frozen” hell of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
It’s through Milton that we return to the title of this post. “In search of Ormuz”. But where is Ormuz/Ormus, and what was it? As shown above (on the featured image of the carved world/ Portuguese maritime map) Ormuz was a territory located in the modern-day Middle East, a rich trading port controlled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Why did this name mean something to me, as someone who has never been to the Middle East, or who knows little about Portuguese history? It’s because f the opening of Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I studied for my A-Level English Literature, and again at undergraduate level.
"High on a throne of royal state which far outshone/ the wealth
of Ormus and of Ind*/ or where the gorgeous East with richest hand/
showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold".
- Paradise Lost, Bk.2, lines 1-4
With this description Milton might well have been trying to undermine Satan’s legitimacy, by alluding to the East as “despotic” and “barbaric”, the opposite of Western “civilisation and manners”. This ground had already been covered in Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), in which the figure of the “Sultan” is seen as a representation of tyranny and despotic governance. It has been discussed as such by critics, who claim that “Satan has merely Oriental pomp”[Penguin Popular Classics, Paradise Lost (1996) pg. 32] in other words, Satan possesses style, not substance.
Yet, Satan can also be viewed as a type of hero, a Byronic hero in fact, a deeply flawed individual with heroic traits, who often appears in Gothic-style literature (think Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff). Here lies the heart of this dichotomy, for at the same time as western writers imagined that the East possessed an irrational method of rule, and an obscene gravitation towards vain riches, it was the West, which coveted these places, and hence, would first seek out, and then seek to control, the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.
As a history graduate I think that the general opinion of people who love history (particularly from those that don’t) is that those who love history are obsessed with “dead people”, that historians “live in the past” and “wish that they could have a time machine”.
This post asserts the opposite. That some who love history actually love history because they;
a) have a good imagination and like to think about how various people felt whilst very much alive and want to think about why those people did they things they did (or didn’t do) before they died.
b) like to think about the present, and how our modern-day circumstances came to be as they are today, as opposed to yesterday, or seven hundred years ago.
c) are aware of the fact that they live in the present, and like to consider their own personal reaction to things that have happened, or people who have lived, in the past. This includes an element, or assumption of, a shifting (but perceivable) human experience or nature.
So it’s not all random objects and dead people then.
Yet there is a place where artefacts as far apart as Tudor poetry, medieval manuscripts, Beatles’ lyrics, Da Vinci’s sketches, and Victorian stamps commune with the living. Outside of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, The British Library is probably one of the best places to see these objects. Another benefit is that, concerning the so-called Treasures of the British Library (on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery) admission is free.
The location of the British Library also recommends it; on Euston Road, in between Euston and St. Pancras train stations, with St. Pancras International itself being located next to another national transport hub – King’s Cross. Yet it never feels as busy inside as say, The Natural History or National Science Museum. Much like The Wallace Collection, the British Library contains some incredible treasures, yet in springtime it still manages to feel relatively under-the-radar (no guarantees for summer holidays though…)Probably because it’s still a centre of academic learning, there are fewer children around too, though you’ll be hard pushed to find a free seat during exam time, as students from UCL (University College London) and other branches of the University of London often come here to study!
I have chosen 6 objects that I saw on my last visit, and I’ll briefly explain why each left its mark on me. I should add that there is a lot more to see, but as with everything, people gravitate towards their own interests. In other words, I have chosen to write about these objects, because each of them demonstrates the small but significant marks left by individuals on history. Or rather, how the process of history is in fact made up of small marks and actions, made by individuals.
Sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci, c.1504. Amongst what appears to be a tangle of cogs and levers, there is a smudge. A smudge, which upon closer scientific examination, proved to be an erased sketch of David, the Biblical figure. Around that time, a committee in Florence was meeting to decide who should build the proposed statue of David (who had long been seen as a symbol of the city of Florence, standing up to the giant, Goliath, who was for the Florentines, a representation of the Papacy, specifically, Medici power). There was fierce rivalry between the two proposed candidates, who were Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Michelangelo had a temper to the extent that he actually dared to challenge the Pope (whilst working on the Sistine Chapel) yet Da Vinci had a bad habit of leaving projects unfinished. In the end, Michelangelo’s bid for David was accepted, and as Giorgio Vasari records, the rest is history. Da Vinci would ultimately leave Florence. In this single blur then, is encapsulated an entire patronage network, a moment in Florentine history, and the tantalising outline of an unfinished possibility.
Draft edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, 1891. The novel which went on to achieve lasting fame originally appeared in serialised version (with a part of it published in succeeding issues) in the illustrated newspaper The Graphic. This is much like some of Dickens’ most famous work, including Oliver Twist. The draft held by the British Library shows us Hardy’s own workings, and, more tellingly, the censorship imposed by the editors. Not only is material crossed out, but suggestions for alternative phrasing and words are recorded. In an age where private morality was public business, this butchered manuscript sheds light on Victorian attitudes to sexuality, women and sin, and how Hardy might well have been at odds with the status quo.
Wyatt’s Sonnet book (1537-1539). At the time an ambassador in Spain (think Holbein’s The Ambassadors) Wyatt took to composing poetry, partly because there was a lot of downtime involved. Seeing Wyatt’s actual handwriting, in all its spidery, Tudor form, gave new meaning to the polished texts that I had studied from official-looking Penguin editions during 2nd year. His sonnet “In Spayne” shows a lot of re-working (hardly the image of a spontaneous art form in the composing of verse, which all courtiers aimed to extrude!) On one of the pages is written a name: Petrarch. The inspiration for all Italianate style sonnets, with their 14 lines, strict rhyme scheme and crucial turning point (“volta”) moment between the 8th and 9th lines. Once again, Wyatt’s poetry is proven to be a calculated effort, with Petrarch’s name acting as a reminder to anchor Wyatt’s thoughts, much like a student naming critics and scholars in an exam essay.
Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours, 15th century. At a time when most women were usually presumed to be either praying or quietly waiting on someone, this illuminated prayer manuscript is a symbol of subversion. Books of “hours” are actually guidance for prayer, corresponding to the time of day, especially in line with the Catholic monasticism which dominated the medieval religious scene in England. Certain prayers were said at various points in the day to fit with the strict monastic schedule. However, this manuscript has notes of a different kind recorded in it. It becomes a political chronicle of the rise of the Tudors, and Margaret records next to one date (besides the saint associated with that day) that “king harry vii landed” – and would soon begin the march to the Battle of Bosworth (1485), in which the Tudors would emerge victorious, and take the throne. All this scribbling then, is fitting from the woman, who was, after all, the mother of the man who would become King VII.
Joint letter from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, August 1528. The subject matter is that of virtually everyone’s school history lessons. What did Henry VIII want? A divorce. When did he want it? NOW! (well, then, around 1528). Who did Henry want to marry? ANNE BOLEYN OF COURSE. Yet there’s more to be seen here, and it really only can be seen in the physicality of the letter itself. Yes, it’s addressed to Cardinal Wolsey, and there’s a certain dramatic irony in thinking about the fruitlessness of badgering Wolsey (whose own fate hang in balance on this matter) or the Pope at this stage (and all that would come of this…) but it’s really still the letter itself that matters. It’s not from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. It’s written by both of them. By the looks of it, Henry started writing it, got bored, left it lying around somewhere (or just got stuck with what to say) and Anne finishes it. It was a joint effort, and provides a rare insight into their personal relationship, they both spent time writing this letter, and perhaps discussed what each other had put, much like signing off a family card. Perhaps they were in the same room when writing, or maybe it was constantly handed between the two as they struggled to put into words the urgency of their “great matter”. Either way, things almost ended as disastrously for the letter as they would eventually for Anne Boleyn. One side of the letter is badly damaged by fire. Who tried to destroy it, and when, and why? Was it seen as evidence that the King had ever relied too much on Wolsey? Did it make the later Defender of Faith seem weak, and at the mercy of the Pope? Or was it simply taken for what it is, physical evidence of the relationship between Anne and Henry, in that they composed letters together like a married couple, crucially before they were actually married.
Philatelic Collections, 19th and 20th century. Ok, so I did sort of cheat on this one. It’s not a single object, it’s a collection, and a Victorian one. It contains some of the rarest and oldest stamps from the time of the British Empire. These hail from every part of the globe and remind us of the sheer scale of Imperial logistics. Highlights for me include recognising places that I’ve visited, on quite different business. There’s Majorca (here called “Balereas”) and stamps marked “Gwalior”, the fort city of Madhya Pradesh. There’s a postcard from the Lama Temple, where I stood as recently as 2014, and Beijing, where I was last year. In the context of the early 20th century, “Peking” (as Beijing was previously known in English) was strategically important not just as the Chinese capital, but as being en route to “Tietsin” (now Tianjin), a British-held treaty port, one of five entrepots held by the British in Qing dynasty China. These scraps of paper then, represent the everyday workings of the largest empire on Earth, their photos and pictures are trivial, aesthetically pleasing, and a long way removed from the suffering of millions. Maybe that is what makes them as artefacts so passively deceptive.
*Another good read – a great article from TimeOut LONDON which lists 12 intriguing, but relatively unknown, facts about The British Library.
Out of everything that I’ve read in the past six months or so, To the Lighthouse has probably had the most lasting effect on me. It was one of those books which can be slow to get into, and I have to admit, skipping through the long, scholarly introduction by Hermione Lee (in the 1992 edition) really didn’t help. In some ways, I disagree with placing elaborate and technical appraisals of the critical value of a text before the reader has had a chance to look at the text itself. It can make it seem heavy, and oddly daunting. In retrospect though, the more I read about this novel, and the more reviews I find, the more I like it. This is deeply ironic given the nature of the novel itself; a retrospective narrative, which, much like The Great Gatsby, is about trying to reach back into the past, and recreate the time in which a person believed they were the most happy.
To the Lighthouse is a reflection of sorts of the author’s own experiences, it is a pilgrimage to the past, and the rugged Scottish coastline. It is Virginia Woolf before A Room of One’s Own (1929). It is, at its most basic, the story of the Ramsay family on holiday in Skye, and of a promised journey to a lighthouse which only takes place years later.
The title of the novel reminded me of the dedication of a sonnet, an ode, or perhaps some of the Tudor/Stuart poetry, written about a particular location (e.g, “Tagus farewell“, written in 1539 by Sir Thomas Wyatt, or the model Country-House poem “To Penshurst” by Ben Jonson, published 1616). “To the Lighthouse” gives a sense of action and urgency, though not as dramatic as Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade(1854) , it does suggest a course of action for the novel’s characters, who appear unbound by chronological constraints – the novel is told almost entirely through the recollections of various characters – and in sections which are set years apart in time, if not place.
“The time of Victorian, neo-classical pastoral has passed; this is a twentieth-century, ‘modern’ novel” – Hermione Lee, Introduction, pg. xxxvii
The strange thing is, a century later, and it is the Victorian elements of To the Lighthouse which attracted me to it. The invention of childhood. The obsession with death. The distortion of trying to achieve a perfect standard of harmony in family life (as a microcosm of society), that in reality had actually never come to pass. The myriad classical allusions.
Let’s look at some of those elements in more detail. Firstly, the spectre of death. The burden of mortality.
According to Lee, the entire subject of Lighthouse is death, “not just people dying and being mourned, but for the wish for death” (pg. xxxix). Furthermore, even for those still living, there is a “sense of cruelty and sadness of being alive”.
Fundamentally then, the idea is one of feeling stuck at a certain stage of life, but realising that this is an illusion; life cannot be stationary. Or perhaps we are, at present, unable to rid ourselves of the illusion. In painting (and there are frequent references to Lily’s paintings) and literature (again, constantly referenced, and encapsulated by the novel itself) humans defy nature in attempting to preserve a part of themselves to shore against the passage of time (literally, as Woolf triumphantly names the final section of the novel “Time Passes”).
This leads on to the next major element; classical references and pastoral allusions. As Lee sees it, all references to the lighthouse itself, and the proposed journey are in fact a “feast for the dead, journey to the underworld” (pg. xxxvi) and the links to Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone are obvious. In the manuscript, Mr. Ramsay quotes Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis” (1865), a pastoral elegy for Arthur Clough, a friend of Arnold’s, also a scholar and poet. “Thyrsis” is a Greek lament, based on Virgil’s 7th Eclogue, but transposed onto the fields of Oxfordshire. It is from this poem that some of the most famous descriptions of the city of Oxford in the English language appear (the view of the spires from Boar’s Hill). Arnold looks back on his own Arcadia (a type of pastoral paradise) from “the great town’s harsh, heart-wearying roar”. Like Arnold, Woolf has lifted aspects of the classical tradition for her own use, but she does not conform completely to this structure. She supersedes Arnold in that To the Lighthouse as a whole, rather than just her narrative persona, looks back on a landscape and time that she loved, and family she lost. With the arrival of the ‘modern’ novel the twilight of Victorian England could be (dis)missed like a childhood, and would be mourned as the decline of a golden age.
The description of the Ramsay children, with their own epithets, “like Kings and Queens of England”.
The latter part of the novel (“Time Passes”) and James and Cam’s interactions with their ageing father.
Lily Briscoe’s idealised memories of Mrs Ramsay.
“Blank misgivings of a creature/ Moving about in worlds not realised” – a reference from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” (from Recollections of Early childhood, 1807). [referenced pg. 257, note 28, 1992 edition]
In addition, I stumbled across a particularly poignant article about discovering To the Lighthouse, as a 22-year-old, and then re-reading it decades later. The fact that the theme of the post was failure, another topic discussed on this blog, makes it seem worthwhile linking to this post.
If you think that you’ve “done it all” in central London, then you’re about to be surprised.
Ever since I read a travel blog post by Love Travelling, about The Wallace Collection, housed in Hertford House, I was desperate to visit. It’s crazy how I’ve been going to London my whole life, but had no idea that this place even existed. It’s smaller than most galleries, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the statue of its pieces, and the relative quiet with regards to visitor numbers, not that I myself am anything but just another tourist in London!
Hertford House is the ancestral home of the Seymour family, the Marquesses of Hertford. In 1900 the 4th Marquess of Hertford bequeathed his family’s collection to the nation, on the condition that no item in Hertford House can ever be loaned or taken elsewhere, away from the collection. If you’re thinking that the paintings of the Dutch Masters (Rembrandt) and Canaletto (Venetian canal scenes, painted in a distinct style by Giovanni Antonio Canal) aren’t really your thing, then you can also see the portrait The Laughing Cavalier (1624), which has inspired several memes. Personally, I prefer watercolours.
The Laughing Cavalier (1624)
However the highlight of the house really has to be its French artefacts, mostly Ancien Regime in style with several pieces actually from Versailles and Fontaine Bleu, some are even survivors from the court of Louis XIV, The Sun King himself. The quality of these objects is beyond comparison, and genuinely invokes the splendour of the pre-Revolution French monarchy. From gilded everything, to Chinese lacquer, these clocks and ornaments are so enchanting they might well be the inspiration for Disney’s recent Beauty and the Beast live-action remake.
Something I liked about the museum was that whilst I was there I saw a small group of school children being taken on a tour, and then practicing acting out scenes from a Greek myth in one of the galleries. They were obviously preparing to showcase a play for a school assembly or something, and I just really liked the fact that they were being directed by the teacher, but they weren’t being loud, and the gallery staff didn’t interfere. It was like, they were being shown all of this art and pottery and turning it into something that was entertaining for other children, and gave meaning to some of the objects they’d been shown. There’s nothing worse than a lifeless museum, full of people who aren’t actually engaging with anything on display, and feeling as though none of this history has “anything to do with me”.
Another good thing about this collection is that it’s small enough not to be overwhelming. You don’t really need to “plan” your visit, you can see everything on display in around two hours, which is long enough. You can’t really get lost in the building itself, and the only really division is between the furnishings and paintings of the ground and first floor, and then the subterranean basement chambers of armour, weapons and medieval religious relics.
This collection is so spectacular that its admirers go far beyond the usual historians and art enthusiasts, and it seems that the Wallace Collection has actually made its mark on the world of high fashion. The renowned fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, has actually used some of the pieces as inspiration for some of her own designs! Watch her talk about the Collection here.
Planning a visit;
Admission is free – though it’s suggested that you leave a donation to help keep the Collection up and running.
The Collection is open daily from 10am – 5pm.
Address; Hertford House, Manchester Square, Marylebone, London W1U 3BN (just a few minutes away from the bustle and chaos of Oxford Street!)
There’s a cloakroom for large bags, and a stylish but expensive cafe for refreshments.