Monday, 25 April 2011

New Blog Banner

Yes, these do vary with my mood, and I do try to make them striking and dramatic. My favourite is probably the gold-and-white Alexander McQueen one that pops up every few weeks, but when I began blogging I initially went for Remedios Varo in a big way. Since then I've varied between Quirky Goff (Dave McKeans and pictures of creepy old dead things, like hybrid taxidermy and Edith Sitwell) and Thoughtful Hippy (Antony Gormleys in the rain, the less grim sort of Paul Nash painting, images from my own Archetypal Tarot.) I am currently trying to decide whether it would be a) enormously annoying and/or b) colossally vulgar to do that thing whereby a piece of music starts to play when you open the blog. It would probably be Lisa Gerrard playing the Hungarian cymbalon v. quietly, but I am trying to avoid turning this blog into one enormous Gesamptkitschwerk.

Talking of Lisa Gerrard, massive hat-tip to Black Nyx for this clip:

I got as far as the sight of the performer's back walking up to the stage and I thought, 'No. No!!..YES!!! It IS! IT'S A LISA GERRARD DRAG ACT!'

For so, dear reader, it was. I'd have performed this service to mankind's greater joy myself, were it not for the fact that when it comes to impersonating a six foot, blonde, enigmatic Australian chanteuse, looking like a younger version of Brian Blessed probably isn't the best place to start.

Anyway, back to the banner. The figures are taken from the extraordinary terracotta figures by Niccolò dell'Arca (1462-63) in Santa Maria della Vita, in Bologna. On the left, Mary of Cleophas, on the right, Mary Magdalen. I saw this picture---the women's elemental anguish and horror at the deposition of Christ's body---in a copy of Church Times last night, which is right up there in my magazine rack next to the latest Journal of Nonlinear Phenomena in Complex Systems. I think we all agree they have an eerie and haunting power.

Plus, if you flipped Mary Magdalen's hands over at the wrists, she'd look just like a mediæval bacchant. Which I thought was cool.


κάλλιστον μὲν ἐγὼ λείπω φάος ἠελίοιο,
δεύτερον ἄστρα φαεινὰ σεληναίης τε πρόσωπον
ἠδὲ καὶ ὡραίους σικύους καὶ μῆλα καὶ ὄγχνας

The most beautiful thing I leave behind? Sunlight.
Then the bright stars, the moon's face;
cucumbers in their season, the fruit of appletrees, the pears.

This fragment by the 5th century BC Greek lyric poet Praxilla survives only because the sophist Zenobius quoted it in order to explain the expression 'dafter than Praxilla's Adonis'. In the fragment, the god Adonis is languishing in the underworld, and is asked what he misses most about the world of the living. Sun, moon, and stars, comes the reply---that, and a decent greengrocer.

I have come to the conclusion that this fragment has something sublime about it: an innocence, an immersive joy in quiddity and the quotidian. He doesn't say 'bright gold' or 'an army in array', something patriarchal and aristocratic, but rather fuses cosmic delight with the homely, earthy, and peasantlike. The poignancy of the still life. There's something Adamic here, a great uncorrupted and wondering love.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


St Anthony and the Centaur

(for Maggie Ross)

There is another world, and it is this one.

He knows this is no devil, which breed
only the nausea of loss. No. Here is horse sweat,
sage, wild scent of trampled spurge,

flanks like oiled wood, and human eyes.
The slow rhythm of four lungs, two hearts,
beating wary vigil by the forest edge.

―Where is the path? To holy Paul of Thebes.
You must know him. He dwells in this wilderness, at a spring
beside a single tree. A raven brings to him his bread.

The centaur gives no answer. The nostrils flare
with shifting breath, stirring flies in chestnut hollows.
How can the hooves among the ferns be shod?

―We another. My kind. As thine do not.
Our bloods are knit in mercy. We have not forgot
that we are earthborn, and know no exile hence.

A blessing passes. Now the centaur points out the road,
and each to each bows low. Behold: shy annunciation
of the fathomless and hybrid Word.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Blogs I actually read---and envy

The blog list down the side has needed updating for an age. But here is a little rundown of the writers whose words I hang on every day: the criteria include the excellence of the writing and the 'liveness' of the blog (I know I've been bad about updating regularly this year, but I've paid for it by haemorrhaging readers all over the place); extra points for glossy visual style too.

Black Nyx

Wholly fabulous audiovisual spectacle: moody urban chic meets elusive occulture.

Lathophobic Aphasia

Magnificently dyspeptic wit and rhetoric from Vilges Suola: giving people a piece of one's mind elevated to the status of high art, with an effect oddly like Victoria Wood interviewing Gore Vidal.

Heresy Corner

Always outstanding current affairs blog, with stratospherically good writing. Worth it especially for this affectionate skewering (if such a thing is possible) of Guardianista Laurie Penny's fathomless self-involvement.

Voice in the Wilderness

Compelling, austerely beautiful writing on the contemplative life and the Work of Silence by my friend, the extraordinary Anglican solitary Maggie Ross.

A Don's Life

Prof. Mary Beard of Newnham College, Cambridge on UK academia, politics, and the ancient world. Profound learning put across utterly unpretentiously and with tremendous wit.

Nico Muhly

Frighteningly good, hyperkinetically hip writing from the dismayingly brilliant, handsome and successful composer. Who's, like, younger than me.


Knottily precise, learned book reviews with obiter dicta and assorted thoughtful gadelica, of simply astounding, humbling quality, and impossible quantity.


Language-creation, confessional Celtica, and spluttering rage from the ever-witty Deiniol.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Part II.

Click here for Part I.

Day 2

Sunlight warm at 8am, filtering through la vecchia befana's dark wooden shutters. Events of the night before rear up like a lurid phantasmogoria: I vaguely recall a long 3am walk home past the Colosseum and the surreally-rebuilt Theatre of Marcellus (above), the weedy, ruinously lush roadsides sprouting the dozing homeless, all eerily swaddled head-to-toe in blankets like Man Ray's The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse. Feel a little footsore and slightly raddled from the bar's beer and cigarette smoke, but discreetly lounge in bed reading Einhorn's Old French until the thud of the flat door indicates that Dan and the night's gentleman caller have completed whatever aubade was deemed appropriate and have bid each other farewell.

Ablutions done, the two of us cheerfully munch toast spread with the landlady's apple jam (which turns out to be made of oranges), and set off for that day's Cultural Highlight. Trolling up through the central streets of Rome---Dan apparently blithe, me nervous of the traffic and itchily paranoid about the street-vendors---I reflect on our history of travel together. Our first major experiment in this direction was several months in Melbourne a decade ago, a long trip which I have never blogged because at the time I was so brutally depressed and heavily medicated that I simply have next to no memory of it. I had utterly burnt myself out that year striving for a double first, but the Horatian tag caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt had somehow escaped me: in other words, 'wherever you go, there you are', and at the time I was traversing an affectless inner landscape of asteroidal bleakness.

Dan was of course a complete angel at dealing with the whole thing: anticipating the trip of a lifetime with his best friend, he found himself instead forced to play duenna to a somnabulistic, shuffling ghost who had finally gone birthday-suit-bonkers. As we wander the streets of Rome, I catch myself morphing back into this pattern of dependent timidity and have to steel the Inner Man in order to resist subsiding into a bath of elemental shame. Ah, the roles we cast ourselves in: despite clearly playing Sallah to Dan's Indiana Jones, as we push through the heat, bus-exhaust fumes, and squawking hordes towards the Musei Vaticani, I give my latent and preposterous Bovarisme full rein and indulge the self-delusion that I in fact live by the heroic code, fearless and able to cope with anything. I fantasize a world (so close to our own!) in which my true, inner nature is revealed by extraordinary circumstance: no longer a podgy academic erotomane, no siree, but rather a baggy-trousered, bare-toothed zouave, sabre in hand and athirst for adventure.

Arriving at one of the greatest repositories of human cultural achievement manages, astonishingly, to distract me momentarily from the vertiginous mise en abyme of my own narcissism. The Vatican Museums are fearsomely well-organized for Italy: with our tickets bought over the web weeks before we are inside and free to wander within five minutes. If you are not some kind of human supercomputer, they will exhaust your ability to process quite rapidly. 500-foot galleries of suspiciously perfect classical sculpture everywhere: here a mighty eye, finger, or foot juts at you; there looms a massive statue of Mercury with his characteristic flattened World War I helmet, no doubt replaced during the Renaissance. Serried rows of haughty Neronian matrons with ziggurats of ringlets glare down at the viewer, as though auditioning for parts in Fellini films, under painted ceilings like 3D illuminated manuscripts. Past a half-mile long corridor of maps of Italy picked out in hallucinatory blues, greens, and golds, twelve-foot-tall sistrum-shaking Isides and Junoesque Junos bewilder and exhaust the eye. This is long, long before you even reach Raphael's 'The School of Athens' (there's Hypatia, looking nothing like Rachel Weisz), let alone the bafflingly familiar sight of the Sistine Chapel. So much splendour imparts a kind of tristesse: after three hours, both Dan and I look dazed, as though we've been smacked round the face with shovels. Everything somehow so...immoderate, exorbitant, invulnerable. Dumbfounded after such gigantism---of both achievement and sheer accumulation---I feel like I am struggling to free myself from the space-warping gravity well of a cultural black hole, and find myself thinking of Cocteau's aperçu that 'everything in art is monstrous'.

Exhausted, we pause for lunch near the Pantheon, in a square which illustrates the principle that foreign grime somehow contrives to be picturesque: I feel expansive and worldly about eating at an outdoor table under a tumble of plastic vineleaves, yards away from a heap of sweaty binbags filled with elderly fish-heads. The waiter charmless, and the meal itself not brilliant---Dan's tagliatelle alla carbonana fearsomely salty, so we swap. Cold beers and pistachio gelati delight---notwithstanding the vague arrière-goût of merluzzo---but as we eat the shutters are loudly flung back on a first-storey window a few yards to my right. From the window emerges as hideous an old crone as I've ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. Dan has heard at length my piteous laments about the uncannily iterative, impersonal way in which I seem to attract Mad Old Women, and not for the first time I feel like a character in a medieval romance---perhaps a beleaguered youth labouring under a particularly arbitrary curse. Now, I can cope with the hardbitten, wisecracking old dames in kaftans and Edith Sitwell turbans, but this is, as my friend Luke would say, hissing with pique, summink else. We watch open-mouthed as the sinister hag leans from her balcony ('Romeo's long gone, dear', quips Dan), places one withered hand over her right eye, and fixes us with a beady stare of gibbering malevolence. A cold, self-destructive impulse creeps over me. (Is she about to produce a pointing bone? Must I go out at once into the Bush and expire of despair? Am I in a remake of Suspiria?!!) At this point, still giggling to herself, the grisly old trout lets down a wicker basket on a string. Everyone seems to ignore this surreal, Commedia dell'Arte scene: she cackles and rubs her lips at us, one eye still covered. With the solipsism of latent Catholic guilt, I cannot escape the feeling that this demented, gummy mugging is all somehow aimed at me personally, belonging to the fairy tale-symbolic. (Help! Magical thinking! What am I supposed to do?! Offer to cut out my heart and place it in the basket, releasing her from some kind of spell?!). After a few minutes, the apparently gleeful hag winches up her empty pannier and withdraws behind her peeling shutters. Dan and I turn to each other, blinking and bemused.

* * *

Remainder of the day---and the trip---less demanding on frayed nerves: no other ill-omens or lowering beldams slinking into the sharp Roman shadows. That night we venture out into Garbatella, a faintly run-down neighbourhood south of the flat, looking for this delightful place, Ristoro degli Angeli. After a wrong turning out of the metro station (we walk several times past the same group of half-arsed, teenage Roman goths, death metal blasting out of their open car), we eventually find the restaurant and settle down to an exquisitely delicious meal with friendly service. Antipasti utterly perfect: artichoke hearts, wonderful salty Parma ham, anchovy fillets on delicate crostini. As we glug Frascati, Dan opts for vegetarian meatballs, and I enjoy ravioli stuffed with smoked cod in a velvety potato sauce (nothing like as carb-heavy as it sounds) and an orgasmic pear-tart with an extremely good glass of Muscat. Heavy of belly, we walk home at 1am, trading high-speed banter in the Mapp & Lucia mock-Italian which had been the holiday's humorous demotic ('Giorgino mio! After all these piccoli disturbi, we must have a little divine Mozartino to put us back in touch with beauty once again!')

Home on Alitalia the next morning. That afternoon, contemplating the greyness of the Piccadilly Line on the way back from Heathrow, I wonder why we had ever even considered going anywhere other than Italy. Next stop: Sicily, perhaps, as I want to see Agrigento and stand on the lip of a decent smoking crater, contemplating the death of Empedocles. Possibly Venice would be better, in the wintertime; after all, as Dan said wryly, 'We'll both be ending up there eventually anyway...'

Monday, 11 April 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Part I.

The Eternal City. How was it, you ask? Hectic, raked with yellow sunlight, car-exhaust-choked, cat-crowded, crumbling; silty green Tiber flowing stickily by under budding Judas trees, me caught by tidal pulls of intense emotion in contradictory directions. Having been hard at work I was desperate for a break: I'd finished two papers in addition to teaching duties and working on my second book, and had just broached the inkwell on a third paper. Loath to be parted from my grinding monomania and feeling (as always) guilty at my appalling academic fraudulence, I was therefore even more surly and evil than usual when I tucked some clothes and the Time Out guide into a bag, doused myself in Caldey Island Lavender, and nipped off to meet Dan.

Dan is adventurous, efficient, and serenely unruffled, which I appreciate as a chronically nervous traveller, given to tedious repetition compulsion (Why don't we go here again? It was nice last night), regressing when abroad to a childish state of mute handholding. We had rented a two-bedroom flat for three nights, quite far out of the centro storico in Ostiense, perhaps an hour's brisk walk from the Colosseum. After a perfectly straightforward flight, we arrived and were let in by a woman whom we realised rapidly was not the manager, Magda, but (o ye unforgiving gods!) an instantly recognisable, common-or-garden Mad Old Woman. My heart sank.

This venerable, seventy-something matron (bring before your minds, gentle readers, a chestnut bob with grey roots, vast dark-rimmed glasses, and a blocky, gold-buttoned housedress) turned out to live in the flat herself, which was enormous and decorated in a typically gloomy Roman bourgeois way. Dark wood cabinets contained silverware and cut crystal glass; a melancholy, tubercular woman in a taffeta gown peered out from a dim, chiaroscuro portrait above the sofa. Slatted wooden shutters could be wound down over the windows to reduce the apartment to sepulchral gloom.

Dan---who is an extraordinary linguist---communicated with her in a macaronic pidgin of English and Italian (how to say 'Ho there, good mother!'?), and initial friendly overtures rapidly went downhill when we grasped that la vecchia befana, as we instantly christened her, intended to stick around, sleeping in the main bedroom, while we forlornly occupied the two single beds in the other room. At this point Dan was required to perpetrate a sequence of acts of quite heroic cruelty, forcefully evicting the gabbling crone and packing her off to her country house outside the city. It took an entire hour to manoeuvre her, yakking on all the time, out of the apartment, as she showed us the kettle, the contents of the fridge, the shutter mechanisms, the taps, the keys, the condiments, her eldest son's parking fines, her wedding photos---a whole battery of self-evident gewgaws. We had to stop her laying the table for us, explaining that what we really needed was to be left alone. ('Stand not upon the order of thy going...' murmured Dan.) Eventually, she tottered off, still wittering about a tree that had 'fallen upon all her little chickens' (?), leaving us bemused with a stepladder and three lightbulbs to replace for her.

That night we explored Trastevere, the lively area where sensible people stay, which really did look much like this:

Winding streets, peeling ochre stucco, lemon and bay trees in pots, a vague, thrilling smell of cooking, dead fish, and urban drains. Boys zipped past on vespas, as the glamorous and underemployed youth of Rome (who presumably all still live at home with their mothers) hung out outside bars and cafes in the pleasantly warm twilight. Pale and English, I tried to feel more Helena Bonham-Carter than Kathy Burke. At a little pizzeria that night (sourced from the generally reliable Guide) we sat ecstatically picking at hard-boiled eggs and salty artichoke hearts while drinking Frascati. Just behind where I was sitting we could hear a well-educated American voice ordering pasta, and after a while we turned to see a woman of about thirty eating farfalle and drinking a whole bottle of red wine to herself. Now, this would be wholly unremarkable in the drink-swilled alleys of the UK, but I was vaguely under the impression that conspicuous, unstinting solo drinking should, in an American, be read as a sign of a liberated, unpuritanical spirit.

We fell to chatting: she was a New York banker on a break between one job ending and another starting, the rent on her Greenwich Village apartment was more than my salary, she had majored in English at Yale. After a few minutes I had her down as a brittle drunkorexic: alarm bells began to ring and I began to have a vague ressentiment to the idea of spending further time with her; unfortunately in an uncharacteristic fit of kindness I'd just that minute asked her to join us for a drink after. Lauren (let's call her) soon revealed, under the influence of a further two glasses of red, an abrasive stripe to her personality, a windswept hinterland of harsh neurosis. Gems included 'If you have a BMI above 24 you should be denied healthcare!', and the immortal question, shrieked over a twilit square in a voice like an electric drill, 'Are Gypsies, like, Roman Mexicans?!' We sent her home the 500 yards to her hotel slumped and slurring in a taxi.

* * *

Next day's goal: the Villa Borghese, with its astonishing Bernini sculptures. Walking a long way---perhaps ten miles---from the flat to the Borghese park, we wound up past the Roman Forum, Trajan's Column and various other monuments, dodging all the while the heaving, frenetic urban traffic, seemingly controlled by no law of God or man.

For half an hour or so, we lay in the park, waiting for our entrance time-slot: bright green grass, the splash of water distant under umbrella pines and holm oak, white daisies scattered starrily through the fresh, uncut grass. Pigeons moved bobbing their heads through the flowers, their neck feathers shining purple, blue, green in the sunlight. Utterly ensorcelled in this paradisial, wholly artificial place---a Cardinal's pleasure palace at the heart of an enormous city---I thought of the laus Italiae in Virgil's Georgics, and idly conceived a plan for a garden that would replicate as far as possible the idealised locus amoenus at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose. (How do you put two crystals at the bottom of a fountain which each reflect half the garden anyway? Something like a mirrorball sliced in half?!)

The highlight of the Galleria was Apollo and Daphne, a statue I had loved since I first saw a picture of it as a child. In situ, it is simply breathtaking: as though caught in freezeframe, Daphne becomes the figurehead of a ship's prow which is also herself, breasting a wave of metamorphosis. A visual paradox: she is never going to move again, but she looks at this final moment as though she is about to take off like a bird, caught in an upward helical swirl of leaves like wingbuds. Delicate, almost translucent foliage bursts from her fingers, roots emerge from her toes. Bernini manages to depict her enclosing within a slippery, organic sheath of bark, and a sculptor who could believably depict the texture of bark covering over human skin could have done anything. She shrieks in fear and ecstasy as she becomes something else, something non-human, from the inside out and from the ground up. My sense that this intersection of stuprum and metamorphosis is also in some sense an orgasm was confirmed by something one never sees in photos of the statue. Wandering round to admire Apollo's peachy rear, I saw (could not help but see!) that for all her flight, Daphne's newly-opened leaves creep backwards to caress the sun-god's divine balls.

* * *

Bowled over by the Borghese Gallery, we wandered back to the flat via the Spanish Steps (street-hawkers shipped in from the Punjab), the Pantheon (a great shaft of sun from the oculus piercing its vaulted gloom) and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic basilica in Rome. I was so stunned in the dim light by the hallucinatory gold-bestarred lapis lazuli of its ceiling vaults (19th century) that I burst into tears and quite failed to notice the tomb of Catherine of Siena.

That night, it was time to Go Out. Dan and I have trailed through gay bars in half a dozen cities; as I loathe clubbing I have to get into the zone with this kind of thing, accomplishing the necessary mental gear-shift between open-hearted aesthetic rapture and the grim-faced brazenness necessary in a corybantic meat-market. We started off gently with a trendy, glass-fronted bar called 'Natali', on Via Bissolati. It turned out to be women's night, and Dan and I were startled by Roma lesbica: a trendy, white room full of edgily gorgeous, perfectly coiffed girls, all of them (like lesbians everywhere) as swaggering as pirates, as idle as sultans. Suddenly, 'In the Mood' started up and we realised that, faaaaabulously, we'd come on the monthly night for Lesbian Burlesque. Feathers, nipple-tassels, women looking like Dita Von Teese with enormous fans, you name it. It was quite a sight.

Tottering out stunned after one beer---bedraggled weeds drifting on the Lesbian shore---we headed towards our other option, 'Hangar', described in Time Out as 'Rome's oldest gay bar.' This place was the brainchild of an American expat who had decided in 1990 to transpose a '70s San Francisco-style joint to Rome. It was hilariously ghastly: the barman appeared to be Benedict XVI on his night off, and while the clientele were certainly cruising, it seemed in many cases to be only in the direction of their pensions. Dan and my jaunts to this variety of seedy dive always follow the same format. My role is that of place-holder: like the square root of -1 in algebra, I allow a certain calculation to take place but get neatly cancelled out before the equals sign is reached. I'm perfectly happy with this: as Dan is on a writing retreat in the country with his mother and father, opportunities for performing the Act of Frightfulness are limited, whereas for my part, let us just say, living alone means that the threshold of Bo Towers is not exactly uncrossed. As we sat by the bar we played the game of cheerfully wondering, in order, how many men there were over 60; how many were in Holy Orders, et relicta. I grimly contemplated the fact that I shall no doubt die the lonely death of the sexual pervert.

After a while, bang on cue, some greasy, diminutive chap wandered up. I felt like holding the palm of my hand right up in his face, before saying brightly, 'I'll just stop you there, shall I?! You are now going to utter a sentence which we may analyse as follows---

[INDIRECT OBJECT (First Person sg. Pronoun in Dative)] + [IMPERSONAL VERB (3sg. present indicative, 'please')] + [SUBJECT]

---said subject in fact being, viz., Dan here. Aren't you!? Don't even try denying it.' But I refrained, and so out came, as per: ...mi piace tuo compagno...

Given that I pick up in bars with roughly the same frequency as an asteroid strike, I'm perfectly content to play the aide-de-camp (as it were) in these situations: I obtrude when attention is unwelcome, and recede behind fan and powdered wig when it is welcome. Dan took no liking to this bopping elf (as they used, preposterously, to call Marc Bolan), but when he got chatting to an attractive Austrian boy of about 30, it was time for me to withdraw backwards, like a smug French courtier witnessing the teenage Marie-Antoinette being put to bed with Louis-Auguste. I emerged from the din peacefully into the warm 2am streets of Rome with a map and the keys to the flat. On the sly, long late night walks around foreign cities are something I quite enjoy---the hint of danger and disorientation, the need to make a leap of faith while navigating from point to point in the dark.

To Come: Day 2...
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