War in the Sunshine

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art to see the exhibition ‘War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-1918’. It was my first visit to the museum, a little-known collection of Italian, mostly Futurist, art in a quiet spot in Islington. The current exhibition has been widely advertised, and coincides with the re-opening of the museum following a substantial refurbishment.

‘War in the Sunshine’ comprises paintings and drawings by the British artist Sydney Carline (1888-1929), as well as photographs by Ernest Brooks (1878-1941) and William Joseph Brunell (1878-1960). I was initially spurred to visit by the Estorick’s own blurb, repeated by various reviewers, that the exhibition ‘highlights a forgotten aspect of Britain’s involvement in the conflict [WWI]’. And it’s true – our collective knowledge about the First World War is almost exclusively focused on France and Belgium.

But the exhibition does more than this. On viewing the aerial paintings of Sydney Carline (first sketched as he flew a Sopwith Camel with his knees, and later on commissioned by the RAF), one’s preconceptions of the First World War are profoundly challenged. Rather than hellish depictions of trench warfare, we see dogfights above beautiful Alpine vistas rendered in oils, and subtle depictions of British officers riding through town. Carline was a well-respected artist in post-war Britain, but the exhibition suggests that perhaps he regretted his wartime activity on later reflection. He sadly died of pneumonia at the age of just 41, cutting short a promising artistic career.

Moving on to the second room of the exhibition we see the photos of Brooks and Brunell, soldier and civilian respectively, taking surprisingly different approaches to documenting the campaign. Brooks focuses on portraits of the British soldiers doing soldierly things, whereas Brunell has an eye for interaction between soldier and native, with some particularly effective portraits of Italian women. All in all the photographs help to reveal the importance of this oft-forgotten front, whose tying up of Austro-Hungarian troops may have helped to swing the war’s balance in favour of the Entente powers in 1918.

A final touch added to the exhibition was a series of new works by the artist Keith Roberts, of which I was most impressed by Distant Voices, or Caporetto, pictured at the bottom of the page. The title refers to the battle of Caporetto, in which ten thousand Italian soldiers were killed over the course of a month in late 1917. The cracked and broken bells (they seem to be a favourite subject of the artist) are compared to the sound of ‘an individual voice that has now fallen silent’, and they create a poignant tribute to the wasted Italian youth of a battle whose name is to this day an Italian metaphor for a complete disastebeeellsr.

Although I don’t know whether the artist is aware of this link, the bells are also highly reminiscent of a similar war memorial in the cathedral of the city of Lübeck in north Germany. During a British air raid in March 1942 the cathedral and its contents were completely destroyed by fire, including an organ played by Dietrich Buxtehude and possibly J.S. Bach. During the church’s restoration it was decided to keep two of the broken bells which crashed to the floor of the south tower during the air raid as a memorial. I was particularly moved by this sight on a visit to the cathedral a few years ago, and it instantly came to mind when I saw Keith Roberts’ work. It seemed a suitable counterpoint to an exhibition which to some extent humanises war and reconnects it to the everyday – a reminder of war’s ultimate price. The exhibition is open until March 19th, and it’s well worth a visit if you have the chance.


On Wanderings – Night Buses, Ecstatic Flight & Psychogeography

I’ve just finished reading Iain Sinclair’s excellent London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, and thought I would use it to tie together some recent thoughts about wandering. Sinclair has lived in London as an author for fifty years, and is perhaps best known for his line in ‘psychogeographical’ journals of the city, which also include London Orbital (a similar walk around the M25) and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Psychogeography is a term coined by Guy Debord in 1955, and while it has had various interpretations, I think it might best be understood as an errant and playful approach to urban geography, in which the city becomes a multitude of ideas and memories to be explored. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneurbut perhaps with less of a sense of detachment.

In the book, Sinclair follows the route of the (then) newly-minted London Overground route on foot in just one day, with his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting in tow, noting the layers of memory and history, both personal and public, attached to various locales. Although a pedestrian for the purposes of the book, Sinclair’s real interest lies in the way that train lines warp the world around them. He looks at this in the prosaic sense of the rise and fall of London suburbs – Hackney on the up, Chelsea Harbour somewhat stagnant and forgotten – and in terms of the subjective experience of the individual traveller. This latter purpose is exemplified by his tribute to a London painter of railways, Leon Kossoff, whose paintings of Willesden Junction give a new perspective on a landscape not usually regarded as beautiful.

The book has a unity of purpose and tone, but its digressions retain a constant power to surprise. For instance, Sinclair uses the streets of Clapham to weave an extended (and quite moving) passage on the sadly shortened life of the author Angela Carter, and her gifts of friendship and professional advice to the younger writer. Again, in the hallucinatory night-time streets of Hampstead (getting on for thirty miles of walking behind them), the apparition of Sigmund Freud’s final residence leads to thoughts on other London exiles, such as Karl Marx, who lived in London from 1850 to 1860, and the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, who briefly lodged in Camden in joint love, enmity, and poverty. By the time I had finished reading I had a quite visceral sense that I had travelled with Sinclair, in mind if not in body, and on a journey different from anything I might have expected before opening the book.

Being a musician and member of the iPod generation, I suspect that my own psychogeography of London would be rather more musical than Iain Sinclair’s. Laying aside my early years of illicitly hiding my iPod in my bag so I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the way to and from school, mixes have been a particularly important musical inflection of my London travels in recent years. Electronic mixes and albums seem particularly suited for travelling through the urban environment on trains and buses, especially when the music comes from London. A good example of this is Burial’s music. His nostalgia for 90s rave culture is well documented, with tracks saturated in vinyl crackle and redeploying air-horn and vocal signifiers from earlier London musical scenes. But Burial’s music also seems to express something about London as a place, as he suggested in a rare interview from 2006, speaking about the sense of travel he tries to evoke in his music:

‘If I’m making a tune sitting in my room with a cup of tea, I’m not making a tune about sitting in my room with a cup of tea, it’s like I’m out there somewhere. That’s how I started listening to jungle, going through the lightless neighbourhoods, the districts.’

The track Night Bus from his self-titled first album is an encapsulation of this feeling for me, using the sound of rain and vocal samples, perhaps echoes of the club or rave, to express this idea of passing through London’s sprawling suburbs.

Another good album for travelling about the city, especially on a wintry night, is Cold Mission by Logos. Its a perfect combination of lush ambient soundscapes, grime references, and ‘anti-banger’ tracks like Seawolf and Menace, which have an incredible sense of power and movement using just a sparse palette of sounds. A favourite track from the album is the more ambient Night Flight, also known as E3 Night Flight. In the track the sound of metallic waves collides with a repetitive bell riff, almost like a lullaby, then a chanting vocal and ominous bass drone chime in, gradually building then dropping out until just a pair of string notes and a siren are left in the mix. As a citizen of South London, I’m pretty reliant on night buses to get home once the last train has gone, and for me the track is another perfect evocation of and soundtrack (after Burial) to that washed out night bus feeling.

Of course, it would be a little blinkered to insist that Burial and Logos’ music is about London in any meaningful sense – it could mean something completely different to a listener from elsewhere, or even just someone else from London. But since this is my psychogeography, I’m going to go one step further, making the leap from Logos’ Night Flight to another kind of night journey which it evokes for me – the ecstatic flights of the Shangqing Taoists, who were active during the Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE) in Ancient China.

Magical night-time excursions seem to be a global feature of religion and mythology – just think of the witch on her broomstick for the archetypal European version – and the Shangqing corpus of texts includes elaborate instructions for a practitioner on how to visit the stars without leaving their room. In the Taoist worldview, there is an understanding that various levels of reality are related, with a particular correspondence between the structure of the human body and that of the universe as a whole. The Shangqing texts tend to prescribe visualization as their main meditation technique, combined with breathing exercises, fasting, etc.

There are many texts, involving ecstatic visits to various parts of the earth and its boundaries, but those which appeal to me most, and which I feel are evoked by the dream-like nocturnal sounds of Night Flight, concern excursions to the sun, moon and stars, related in Chinese thought to  the ‘Three Breaths’ which created the cosmos. The practitioner first retires to their meditation chamber, completely isolated from human activity, then invocates the names of celestial divinities. Following this they fly to the heavens (sometimes using the constellation of the ‘Dipper’ as a vehicle), and pace the constellations, absorbing the energies of various stars.

But really, what relation does any of this have to a walk around the London Overground? I reckon that psychogeography and Taoist ecstatic flight have quite a few interesting affinities. The notion of freely wandering pervades both, maintaining an openness to whatever might occur – especially if it will bring joy. There is also an aspect of forgetting required for success in both, since the everyday world must be left behind, either to visit the stars or to look askance at the city as it exists. The Taoist practitioner uses visualization practices to render the world as it is new, much as the psychogeographer creates a new world by dredging up the ghost memories of the city and putting them to work.

While riding the N3 bus doesn’t compare very favourably to travelling in a vehicle made of stars, it is nevertheless an opportunity – to look at the city afresh, and in doing so hopefully learn something about both the city and oneself.

 This world is unreal in that it is imaginary, but it is real in that the individual lives in it and through it creates a new self: it is unreal-real, like the world of the Buddhists, which has a metaphoric character one must never forget – a net used to catch one’s prey, a creative, playful globe.

Isabelle Robinet, in Livia Kohn: Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (1989).


Further reading:


Robinet, Isabelle, ‘Visualization and Ecstatic Flight in Shanqing Taoism’, in Kohn, Livia (ed.), Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989), pp. 159-191.


‘Here is the Little Door’

Working on this beautiful anthem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ahead of our Christmas Carol Service, I was inspired to do a little research. It’s a 1918 setting of the following poem by Frances Chesterton (1869-1938):

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head;
All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.

Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword
(Defend with it Thy little Lord!),
For incense, smoke of battle red.
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,
Touched by such tiny hands and
Oh such tiny feet.

Frances Chesterton (née Blogg) has been somewhat overshadowed in posterity by the fame of her husband G. K. Chesterton. Although the published author of four books, she is best known today for another Christmas poem,’How far is it to Bethlehem?’, set to a hymn tune and frequently subject to such twee renderings as these two. Howells’s setting of ‘Here is the Little Door’ is perhaps the perfect antidote to an over-sweetened Christmas, taking a subtle approach to a deeply ambivalent text.

Howells has been a large part of my musical life, mostly through accompanying his ever-popular settings of Evening Service from the 1940s and 50s, particularly the Gloucester Service and  Collegium Regale. These settings are renowned for their sensitivity to the canticles as poetic texts as opposed to simply liturgical ones.  The musical language is characterised by a combination of a Tudor-esque modal style and modern added harmonies. Howells’s Tudor obsession was greatly influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis had a revelatory impact on the younger composer at its premiere in 1910 at Gloucester cathedral.

Even in the relatively early ‘Here is the Little Door’ there is an indication of the mystical choral style that Howells would later make his own. The poem depicts the visit of the Magi, first through evocative description of the traditionally attributed gifts – gold, myrrh and incense. Howells uses a modal harmony throughout, with a hushed opening in A minor leading soon after to a blazing cadence in C major for ‘Our gift of finest gold’. At ‘Incense in clouds about his head’ Howells uses his characteristic ‘Phrygian’ flattened second in the bass (see Pike (1984) for more on this). Indeed there is a brief settling on the Phrygian 2nd as a chord of Eb major at ‘sleep’ before a minor plagal cadence (with added 7th!) leads us to the D major conclusion of the first verse.

The second verse is where Howells’s word-painting comes to the fore in illustrating the ambivalence of Chesterton’s text. Christ repays the Magi with his own gifts – a sword and the smoke of battle, and returns the myrrh for embalming the ‘honoured happy dead’. A far cry from the childish innocence of ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’. Howells first flags up the new atmosphere in his use of a modal B minor cadence (as opposed to G major in the first verse) on ‘lift up your hands, O lift’, and depicts the ‘keen-edged sword’ with a unison phrase on ‘Defend with it Thy little lord’. The piece then safely returns to rest with a repetition of the sublime extended plagal cadence of the first verse.

Despite this resolution, there is an uncomfortable tension wrought by the poem and setting which cannot be ignored. How can a message of peace and love be reconciled with a call to arms? Perhaps ‘Here is the Little Door’ can serve as a salutory reminder; that there is an  ever-present possibility for bold faith to be used in the service of deadly hate.

Herbert Howells

Bolly, Buller and Brexit

Warning: this blog contains plot spoilers for the novels discussed therein, not to mention some tenuous trains of thought.

On a recent impromptu trip to my ancestral hometown of Bristol I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Bloom and Curll, a beautiful little bookshop not far from the top of the Christmas Steps. I could have stayed for hours browsing the finely curated stock, but as my time was limited I had to make a quick decision. I chose two novels which might seem, at least if judged by author and title alone, to be from two completely separate cultural milieux: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan. But it was in fact their curious similarities that recommended them to me.

Sōseki was born in 1867 in Edo, a year before the city was rechristened Tokyo and Japan embarked on the breakneck modernisation of the Meiji era. In a sign of the times, he studied English along with the Chinese classics at Tokyo Imperial University, before teaching at the rural school which would provide the inspiration for Botchan, published in 1905. He was sent to England on a government scholarship in 1900 to study English literature. Although by all accounts his two years spent in London weren’t the happiest of his life, this experience enabled him to gain a Professorship in English literature at his alma mater, and embark on a celebrated career in Japanese literature which lasted until his death in 1916.

Botchan is the quintessential modern Japanese novel, taking a sidelong and humorous look at a society in flux. Its eponymous protagonist is a typical product of the new Japan, much like the author, who takes a teaching job in the backwater of Matsuyama where all is not quite as it seems. Botchan clashes with both staff and students before becoming embroiled in the politics of the school, and is ultimately forced to return home after uncovering a sexual scandal (beating up the headteacher in the process).

Although Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was of a different generation and nationality to Sōseki, Decline and Fall, his first novel, displays several striking similarities to Botchan. Waugh’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is another well-educated and morally upright young man who finds himself thrown into a bizarre rural school, although in this case he hasn’t chosen to be there. Paul is sent down from Oxford after an unfortunate debagging incident in a quad at Scone College, caused by the ‘Bollinger’ Club (a parody of the Bullingdon Club), who are celebrating their annual dinner. The novel sees Pennyfeather settling in to the unorthodox methods of Llanabba Castle School in North Wales, becoming engaged to the mother of a pupil there, ending up in prison after inadvertently aiding her business in human trafficking, and finally escaping prison after an elaborately faked death. Both books are masterclasses in sarcasm and poke fun at the authors’ respective societies, although Waugh’s takes a particularly acerbic tone towards the privileges and quirks of the upper classes.

Waugh’s protagonist is the victim of various representatives of the upper classes in the novel, from his unceremonious expulsion from Oxford due to the antics of the Bollinger Club, to his manipulation by his fiancé Margot Beste-Chetwynde, ending with his death and rebirth. In a circular fashion, Sir Alistair-Digby-Vane-Trumpington, host of the original Bollinger party, is the key to Paul’s escape from jail. Although Sir Alistair has married Paul’s fiancé in the interim, he does at least manage to get Paul readmitted to his Theological degree at Scone College, under a new identity, leaving the novel in exactly the same situation that it started. Still, there is a sense that this is a journey that Paul might have a preferred not to take, spelled out in the architect Professor Silenus’ soliloquy about the ‘wheel of life’, the whole point of which ‘is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to’. It doesn’t really seem as though Paul had much of a choice in joining the wheel. There is a basic hypocrisy exposed by the novel, one in which the privileged always escape the consequences of their actions, and anyone who gets in their way is an unfortunate but unavoidable sacrifice. This strong commentary on class in Decline and Fall was particularly striking, not to mention the fact that the principal objects of satire remain topical to this very day. It’s hardly a secret that the Bullingdon club of the 1980s and 90s featured several of our leading politicians, including the former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, as well as the current Foreign Secretary and ex-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

This commentary is made even more obvious in the character of Captain Grimes, the ‘public-school man’ who believes that there is a ‘blessed equity in the English social system’. In exchange for the ‘four or five years of perfect hell’ of his school years, ‘the social system never lets one down’. Despite being expelled from Harrow, he gets a letter of recommendation to any future employer, and is exempted from a court-martial in Northern France by ‘a cove I’d known at school’, who considers it ‘out of the question to shoot an old Harrovian’ He even fakes his own death to avoid being exposed for bigamy. Grimes revels in describing how he has at various times ended up ‘in the soup’. Whenever this happens, he’s bailed out by contacts or by his own irrepressible charm.

The world that Waugh conjures up in the novel is a comic satire, wrly observed and brilliantly executed. But what does it say about our country that the terms of reference in a work written in 1928 are still disturbingly familiar today? The antics of the Bullingdon Club in the 1980s have now been a persistent feature of the news for years.  David Cameron’s first cabinet was 62% privately educated, and every Prime Minister since 1937 bar Gordon Brown was educated at Oxford University. A lot may have changed in 88 years, but it would seem that a great deal of the apparatus of privilege has remained in place. And as for the charming public school chap who’s always getting ‘in the soup’, look no further than Boris Johnson, the old Etonian who has risen to high office on the back of a decidedly chequered career in journalism and politics. Indeed, he’s recently seen fit to drag all of us into the soup with him, although exactly how we’ll get out of it again remains to be seen…