Saturday, May 29, 2010


I recently viewed the Hindi film 'Awara' (1951). Directed by Raj Kapoor who also stars as the central character, 'Awara' is the film which announced that Hindi film had arrived on the World-stage. Even today it is consistently listed in the top three of all-time great Hindi films.

The film concerns the consequences of a wealthy judge's decision (acted by Raj Kapoor's real-life father) to abandon his wife after she is kidnapped by a gang of criminals. His wife gives birth to his son; struggling in abject poverty, she brings up the young Raj who leaves school to become a petty thief. The only bright spot in the child Raj's impoverished life is his childhood sweet-heart, Rita. When Raj and Rita (now the Judge's ward) meet again as adults, the plot develops to a highly dramatic conclusion.

Not wanting to post spoilers to the plot's resolution I can tell you that in essence 'Awara' debates upon the inequalities of Indian society and how social status markedly affects the individual's success in Indian society. The sharp contrast between the privileged minority and the great impoverished majority of Indian society is depicted. The film's message in essence is that nuture, not nature shapes individual destiny.

Watching 'Awara' one becomes conscious of the deep imprint of British Rule upon India .Although India achieved independence from Britain in 1948, traffic scenes featuring double-Decker Routemaster buses, speech peppered with colloquial English phrases including the singing of 'For she's a jolly good fellow', to the whole-scale structure of police, the judicial court and legal system, provide evidence of the strong imprint of British Rule in transport, customs, language and Law in Indian culture.

Raj Kapoor quite deliberately models himself as a Chaplinesque tramp in the film. Like Chaplin Kapoor's agenda is one of criticism of society's values and prejudices. His song 'Awara Hoon' (I am a homeless tramp) was, like the film itself, a big hit in both the U.S.S.R. and China.

Among the many remarkable features of 'Awara' is the depiction of the beautiful actress Nargis Dutt in a swim-suit, a first in Hindi film and a lengthy dream sequence. Although Alfred Hitchcock had already attempted a cinematic dream sequence in Spellbound (1945), Kapoor's own attempt to portray the psyche's unconscious in film was made without the assistance of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

'Awara' sets the template for much of future Hindi or Bollywood film. Clocking in at twice the length of many Hollywood films (195 minutes) serving up a generous helping of high quality songs and dances, with a tendency towards melodrama and romantic fantasy, adhering to State censorship, yet able to debate social issues, 'Awara' is a film equal to, if not superior to ,anything produced in the same era by Hollywood.

Book consulted
100 Bollywood films by Rachel Dwyer pub. B.F.I. 2005

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


With the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower show on at present, I thought it time to reveal my own installation for the Royal show. Here's an extremely rare photo of a quartet of gnome operators in participatione mystique, caught in celebratory mood having succeeded in performing the alchemical feat of palingenesis. From left to right their identities are believed to be -Arthur an English gardener, Christofini, an Italian shepherd, Ivor a Siberian woodsman and Albrecht an Austrian mountain-guide.

Gnomes have in fact been banned for 19 years from the Chelsea Flower Show, deemed as vulgar or unbecoming to gardens. A press clipping from the Times newspaper May 19th 2009 highlights the present controversy.

'They spoke of little else on the opening day of the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. The issue? Is it time for the world's premier horticultural event to lift its 19-year ban on garden gnomes. The question has opened a schism in the high command of the gardening fraternity after one of the most respected exhibitors smuggled her “lucky” gnome into the central Grand Pavilion and put him on display. Officially Jekka McVicar, who is on the ruling council of the Royal Horticultural Society is in flagrant breach of the rules by placing her gnome called Borage amid her gorgeous array of organic medicinal and culinary herbs. They clearly state that any “brightly coloured creatures” are out of order and will result in disqualification.

The Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the Chelsea Flower Show, clearly states in its rules that gnomes or any "brightly coloured creatures" are out of bounds at the exhibition, as well as balloons, bunting and flags. The official explanation is that these items may "distract" from the garden designs, but critics suggest the real reason for the exclusion of gnomes is that they have been deemed too tacky for the illustrious flower show.

Dr Lane Fox supported the ban, calling the garden gnome a hideous creation that did not belong in the garden show. Ignoring an interjection by the Today presenter, saying: "That's snobbery", he added: "They [garden gnomes] are kitsch... There's no way we want mass produced gnomes or toadstools." But Mr Rumball objected to the ban, claiming it was sheer snobbery that kept gnomes out. He pointed out that garden gnomes were the pride of 19th-century aristocratic gardens before they fell from grace, and that high-quality antique gnomes were sold for substantial sums to collectors around the world. He said he feared the Chelsea Flower Show was limiting creativity through banning what it deemed to be in bad taste. "Chelsea is all about class. That's why it has banned them. The show is terrific and great fun but one of the reasons why people aspire to Chelsea's pinnacle of gardening is because everyone talks with plums in their mouths, ladies wear lovely clothes and the Queen goes along. All of these things make Chelsea something to aspire to. I'm a great believer in letting people do what they want with their gardens. I would not want gnomes in my garden, but everyone to their own. I don't think what they are putting on at the moment is significantly different from gnomes".

I wonders if all of this really is snobbery. After all snobbery is not a very British trait is it ?If Damien Hurst were to create a diamond-encrusted gnome I bet it would be allowed pride of place at the Chelsea Flower Show! Perhaps the organizers merely object to the commercial success of companies such as Zeho of Coburg, Austria, exporter of millions of mass-made plastic gnomes.

Whether one considers Gnomes to be vulgar, kitsch or merely harmless fun, they were in fact introduced into modern consciousness by the Renaissance physician-alchemist Paracelsus who proposed that a particular spirit resided over each element. Nymphs to rule the water, the Salamander fire, Sylphides the air and Gnomes the earth. Citing Germanic folk-lore Paracelsus claimed that deep in the earth there exists a race of dwarf- like Earth-spirits which he named Gnomes. Ever fond of word-play Paracelsus may have named them from the Greek of genomus or 'earth-dweller'. Alternatively the word Gnome may have originated from the Greek word gnome meaning knowledge and intelligence. According to Paracelsus these little people were the guardians of the earth who knew where precious metals and hidden treasure were buried. He describes them thus-
The gnomes have minds, but no souls, and so are incapable of spiritual development. They stand about two feet tall, but can expand themselves to huge size at will, and live in underground houses and palaces. Adapted to their element, they can breathe, see and move as easily underground as fish do in water. Gnomes have bodies of flesh and blood, they speak and reason, they eat and sleep and propagate their species, fall ill and die. They sometimes take a liking to a human being and enter his service, but are generally hostile to humans.

As ever there is a Sir Thomas Browne connection here. In his vast encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica which sets out to refute popular misconceptions and errors, Browne wrangles with the idea as to whether pygmies actually exist (Book 4 chapter 11). He concludes thus-

and wise men may think there is as much reality in the Pigmies of Paracelsus; that is, his non-Adamical men, or middle natures betwixt men and spirits.

The footnote to this chapter reveals Browne as one well-acquainted with the writings of the Swiss alchemist-physician-

By Pigmies intending Fairies and other spirits about the earth, as by Nymphs and Salamanders, spirits of fire and water. Lib. de Pigmæis, Nymphis, etc.

The first time the actual word 'gnome' occurs in English literature is in Alexander Pope's poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712). An aural depiction of a gnome can be heard in the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's Piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition a musical work better-known through Ravel's imaginative orchestration of 1922.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


A certain sign that the weather's fine. While in the garden the first hot-air balloon of the season floated overhead. I seem to be living on some kind of flight-path for balloons with prevailing wind. I've always been fascinated by hot-air balloons, great symbols of independence and the Aquarian spirit that they are. It's a real Vulcan at his forge sound hearing the roar of the burner flame ignited to increase altitude. Really pleased with this shot, but that's part of taking a good photo, being lucky at the right time and place with camera ready.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Notebooks of Don Rigoberto

Paperback jacket cover of 'The notebooks of Don Rigoberto' Rolla 1878 by Henri Gervex

I recently read the novel 'The notebooks of Don Rigoberto' (Eng. trans 1998) by the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936). It's an extremely funny and at times erotic work which is centred upon three principal characters -Don Rigobetro, an insurance executive by day and hedonist and erotomaniac by night, Dona Lucrecia, his estranged lover and the Don's precocious adolescent son Fonchito. The lesser character of the maid to Lucrecia, Justiniana, features as a kind of sane and neutral chorus in her observations upon the antics of the trio throughout the story.

The scant plot set in modern-day Lima, Peru, involves the efforts of the son Fonchito to reconcile his father the Don to Lucrecia by the subterfuge of anonymous letters, which Lucrecia believes to be from the Don. Of equal interest other than the various voyeuristic erotic scenario's which the Don schemes for Lucrecia, are extracts from the Don's notebooks. These feature a diatribe against modern mass-man's fanaticism for sport, various aesthetic observations including an anti-Rotarian rant and an exaltation and defense of phobias.

By far the most interesting character in the novel is the bright, at turns naive and wise to the world of human sexuality, teenage son, Fonchita. Fonchita is near obsessed with the life and paintings of the Viennese decadent artist Egon Schiele. His knowledge of almost every aspect and detail of the painter's short biography and art-works borders upon the pathological. He talks of little else to the extreme concern of Dona Lucrecia, but in fact exhibits the self-same traits of his father who is also a dedicated aesthete and follower of the arts. The following lines, although a little rude, made me burst out laughing at his ambiguous naivete.

After a while she heard him saying, in a different tone of voice, "You too, Stepmama?" "What?" "You're touching my backside too, just like my papa's friends and the priests at school.Golly! Why is everybody so interested in my bottom?"

'The notebooks of Don Rigoberto' has an interesting affinity to the grandfather of all world literature, namely Cervantes 'Don Quixote' (1605) . Just as Don Quixote indulges in idealized love, adoration and worship of Dulcinea, so too Rigoberto adores Lucrecia with absolute devotion, placing her in all kinds of erotic scenario's, real and imagined, often of a voyeuristic nature, only in order to come to her rescue.

Extremely well written by a grand master of South American literature, the aestheticism of Don Rigoberto reminds me of another novel in which the protagonist is at war with the banality of society, absorbed and indulging in his sensuality, namely the character Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysman's 1884 novel A Rebours. 

Postscript: On October 7th Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Paston Treasure

As promised, here's an oil painting which I believe Sir Thomas Browne may have viewed.

Among the many "honoured and worthy" Norfolk gentry whom Browne was acquainted with were the wealthy landowning family of the Pastons, Sir William Paston (1610-62) and Sir Robert Paston (1631-83) of Oxnead Hall, Buxton in Norfolk. It's entirely possible that Browne when visiting the Pastons, either socially or professionally as a medical doctor could have viewed the canvas known as The Paston Treasure. Commissioned by Sir Robert circa 1665, the large painting is no longer believed to be the work of the travelling Dutch master, Franciscus Gysbrech. It records the Paston's family treasures as owners of a- "world of curiosities and some very rich ones, as cabinets and juells".

The Paston Treasure depicts a black servant and a blonde girl holding a bloom of roses, a strombus shell, a silver-gilt flagon, a shell-flask and two nautilus cups. The painting also shows many musical instruments including a lute, bass viol and a cornet. The Paston Treasure is a good example of symbolism in Dutch and Flemish still-life painting. The theme of Vanitas and the passing of time are represented in the painting by an hour glass, a watch, a clock, and a guttering candle.The painting features artefacts which represent a microcosm of the known world in the mid-17th century, as hinted by the prominent position of a globe. These include - a packet of tobacco from America, a boy and parrot from Africa and a porcelain dish from Asia. Sculptures and gems, gold, silver and enamel, as well as natural history specimens, along with music instruments including a bass viol, sackbut, violin and a lute can also be seen.

The peaches, grapes and oranges, along with lobster, suggest a luxurious lifestyle. The young African servant boy is also an exotic addition to the picture. He is the earliest known portrait of an African in Norfolk by almost 200 years. The girl, is most likely Robert Paston's daughter Mary, who died of smallpox in 1676. The inclusion of parrot and monkey is suggestive of domesticated creatures possessing faculties imitative to humans, but in contrast, lacking in reason. Both are depicted as disruptive, the monkey as if jumping onto servant's shoulder, and parrot interrupting girl from her reading of song-book music.

The collection was sold shortly after the painting was finished because of the Paston's failing finances. The objects were to spread around the world again.

''The Paston Treasure'' functions as a work of art on several levels. Firstly, as a ''schatzkammer'' (cabinet of treasures) or ''Wunderkammer'' displaying the Paston family's wealth and learning. Secondly, as an example of the tradition of Dutch Golden Age Pronkstilleven painting, in which objects refer to the transience and emptiness of wealth and possessions, and the ultimate extinction and emptiness of earthly life. This thematic concern is developed further in a near comprehensive inventory of Vanitas symbols with its allusions to the fragility of life, the passing of time and the inevitability of death, represented here by ephemeral roses and fruit, a clock, hourglass and an extinguished candle.The nautilus shell behind the globe is in the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft and the flask held by the boy is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The silver gilt flagon, with a visible date-mark for 1597-8 is one of a pair in the Untermeyer Collection, New York and the silver nautilus cup with the seated stem figure is now at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

With its crowded inventory and moralistic symbolism, the Paston Treasure would have appealed to Browne's artistic sensibility. Indeed in his spiritual and artistic testament Religio Medici, Browne humorously confessed of his fondness for the visual arts thus-

I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse. (Religio Medici Part 2 paragraph 9)

A much brighter reproduction of the recently cleaned and restored canvas. A vast improvement and testimony to  restoring skills and expertise.

Postscript 2015

In his 2015 book on Sir Thomas Browne Hugh Aldersey-Williams discusses this painting, but does not state how or when he arrived at the idea that Browne possibly viewed it.

'Men are still content to plume themselves with other's feathers', as Browne phrases it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


This morning I woke to find that once again my 25 year old cactus has burst into flower. Not that it was totally unexpected because during the past week, two large stalks have rocketed forth from it, ready to bloom into quite enormous flowers, which sadly only last a few days at most. The stems of the flowers are about 20 centimetres and the diameter of the flowers some 10 centimetres, really enormous. Quite how this miracle of nature always flowers at either the new or full moon I don't know. I took these photo's a year or two ago, sometimes there are just two flowers, sometimes as many as five. But in any event a true miracle of nature, reminding us that things are not always what they seem, and that from the apparently mundane something extraordinary can occur beyond human power.


Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975

Last night I attended a concert at Saint Andrew's Hall, Norwich. The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra performed the following - Borodin Polovtsian Dances, Philip Glass violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony no. 10 in E minor.

The Borodin Polovtsian Dance's were electric and boded well for the rest of the programme. One catches an aural glimpse in its vibrant savagery of another musical work also set in early Rus, namely Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As for the Concerto well to be honest, although I've been a keen follower of the music of Philip Glass for over 20 years, i don't consider his violin concerto (1988) to be the best or most representative composition of his unique style. The young violinist Chloe Hanslip did her best, but still felt obliged to add a couple of solo encores to prove her undoubted virtuosity. Nor did one feel that the Russian orchestra felt completely at home or responsive to Glass's composition, but this may be just an erroneous perception of mine.

Onto more solid interpretative ground. The second half on the concert consisted of Shostakovitch's symphony no. 10. A vast and mostly gloomy work composed in 1953 soon after Stalin's death. It's only in the last movement that the composer lets his hair down for some jollity. How many times in varied ways does the motif D-S-C-H occur throughout the score? The composer used this musical motif throughout his artistic career to represent himself, the notes being the first letter of his name and first three of his surname in Russian musical notation. The playing throughout the symphony was committed and impassioned, a real tour-de-force. I'm always amazed at the virtuosity of Russian brass and woodwind playing and how united the string section are.

The 10th symphony remains one of the more accessible of Shostakovich's symphonies with a quite distinctive tonality, perhaps because it is in the remote key of E minor. Gloomy as it is a cathartic redemption is arrived at, otherwise such works would never be performed in the Concert-Hall, the audience leaving more depressed than when they arrived!

In some ways Shostakovich's music has finally arrived on the world-stage now that he can be listened to without any political coloration. I've been acquainted with the 10th symphony since I was 14, partly due to a reactionary passion to listen to 'the enemies' music during the 1970's cold war. A music teacher used to discreetly place records such as Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 on the turn-table while the school chess team played. A captive listening audience if ever there was, Chess enjoying something of a Renaissance among school-boys, it was after all during the great tournament between U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in 1972 between the maverick Bobby Fischer and Spassky! The 5th symphony soon became a firm favourite of mine, but I also remember hearing the World premiere of the 15th symphony albeit on a tinny transistor radio.

Although Shostakovich grew up under the Soviet regime and is easily the most representative composer of the Soviet era, for a hardened atheist there are a remarkable number of mystical or numinous passages to be found in his music. One of the most extraordinary of all his symphonic output is the mysterious percussive scherzo to the 15th Symphony.

Here's a link to read more about Shostakovich

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portrait of Browne

Why o why is this superb oil painting of Sir Thomas Browne hidden away from the gaze of the general public in the vestry of Saint Peter Mancroft? The Gunton portrait of a very red-haired,slightly older Browne is on display in a wing of the church of Saint Peter Mancroft along with other Browne memorabilia, and to be fair, if one requests nicely, it's possible to obtain a viewing of this portrait. But only if one requests so. Why?

But perhaps with the rise of the internet this portrait has the potential to be better known than any volume of visitor's traipsing into the vestry at Saint Peters'.

Browne attended service at Saint Peter's whenever his profession allowed, but it's his miscellaneous tract Repertorium,  an inventory of artefacts in Norwich Cathedral, which displays his knowledge of the history of the Church of England best.

As ever the city of Norwich is v. slow to proclaim its cultural heritage, probably because, in Browne's case, there's no-one able to mak an articulate statement upon him; perhaps, because somehow, in the imagination of the historically naive, he's wrongly assessed as a non-PC fellow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


This troop of tulips spotted in a garden by one of the busiest inner-road junctions in the City. Nevertheless standing proud against the noise and fumes.

A certain seventeenth century medical undergraduate was in Holland during the height of 'Tulipmania' (1630-34) when vast fortunes were speculated and exchanged upon the sale of rare Tulip-bulbs. I just love the story of one speculator who having spent a small fortune on a rare bulb, when arriving at the docks to collect his expensive bulb, saw to his horror a workman tucking into a sandwich, adding to it what he believed to be an onion. The poor unfortunate was prosecuted heavily for his mistaken error.

There's an allusion to tulip-mania in the dedicatory epistle to Sir Thomas Browne's 'The Garden of Cyrus';  a mirthful and tongue-in-cheek observation upon the extremes some gardeners have gone to in their horticultural passion.

Some commendably affected Plantations of venemous Vegetables, some confined their delights unto single plants, and Cato seemed to dote upon Cabbage; While the Ingenuous delight of Tulipists, stands saluted with hard language, even by their own Professors.'

There's also the botanical query in 'The Garden of Cyrus'-

How the triangular capp in the stemme or stylus of Tuleps doth constantly point at three outward leaves.

I remember cycling in '83 through the vast industrial-sized fields of tulips cultivated in Holland. A truly eye-watering optical experience.

Hebrew Zodiac

Mosaic on the floor of the 6th Century (CE) synagogue at Bet Alfa, Israel.

More incontrovertible evidence of the syncretic nature of religious beliefs. The long time spent in exile by the Jews in Babylon resulted in the adoption of aspects of Babylonian astrological symbolism. This is most clearly evident in Ezekiel's vision of the Tetramorph which was later adopted by Christianity to symbolize the various attributes of the four Gospel authors. The quaternary of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John corresponding to the 'Fixed Cross' of astrology, Aquarius, Taurus, Leo and Scorpio. Clearly no taint or impurity of religious belief was felt by such syncretic association, even after almost a thousand years post Babylonian exile.

New Government

Well we shall see how comfortable these two bed-fellows Nick and Dave really are together and for how long they can sing from the same hymn-sheet. It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland politics to me, indicative of the deep financial deficit crisis. Real Wonderland stuff! The Brits as ever pioneered the way in political satire and children's book illustrations; genres which the artist Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) (above illustration) realized are not so remote from each other.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Bluebell woods

Only a minute's walk from my door there's a chalk ridge woodland of beech and chestnut trees standing high upon the brow of the river Wensum valley. It's probably survived because it's hilly and undulating, therefore difficult to deforest and 'develop'. Better still some good conservation work has been done to it, clearing the woodland floor of brambles, allowing a large area of bluebells to colonize . A small secluded sanctuary in an increasingly volatile world.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Last night I watched 'Respiro' (2002) by Emanuele Crialese (b.1965). Set in southern Sicily on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, Crialese's warm and moving story of a young woman, Grazia, who behaves unconventionally, to the annoyance of the tight-knitted community, is a wonderful film. Crilese states of Grazia, the central character of the film-

"We have this weird tendency as human beings to look for the black sheep...they're the ones who get the blame, but it's through their sacrifice that we understand more about ourselves."

'Respiro's main attractions are equally, the great performance of Valerio Golino as the rebellious mother, the poor but supportive fishing community, and the spectacular coast-line, all of which are beautifully photographed throughout. The film concludes wordlessly, with a highly atmospheric piece of music which accompanys a collective swim and the reconciliation of runaway mother to husband and children .

Saturday, May 01, 2010


Vivienne Yvonne Poppy

Happy birthday Mum! Looking every part the British 1950's matinee idol!
You're the one from whom from the womb I've inherited dark hair and eyes, a highly-strung disposition and a love of music!

The first day of May is also the anniversary of Sir Thomas Browne's 1658 Discourses. Its date is noted at the end of the dedicatory epistle to both 'Urn-Burial' and 'The Garden of Cyrus'.