Friday, July 30, 2010

Canoeing on the River Bure

Upper reaches of the River Bure

Yesterday I had a pleasurable afternoon canoeing with my mate Nigel upon the upper reaches of the River Bure, approximately ten miles north of Norwich. A real stress-busting day, thanks Nigel.

I thought I had finished with posts on birds until we disturbed a heron lurking by the river-bank. It flew past us flapping its giant wings like some antediluvian terradactyl!


Anchor Quay and Saint Miles Bridge

The re-development of Norwich-over-the-water during the past 10 to 15 years has resulted in the transformation of a run-down and near derelict area of the City into a highly desirable residential location.

Standing on Saint Miles bridge looking north-west towards New Mills.

The Enemy of the Good

Everyone wants to change humanity but no-one wants to change himself. - Leo Tolstoy

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
- Pascal (frontispiece quotations)

I recently read a novel by Michael Arditti entitled 'The Enemy of the Good' (2009). In essence it's a novel which highlights the on-going conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism and to a lesser extent, the relationship between art and religion.

The central characters are the Granville family who consist of Edwin, a retired Bishop who no longer believes in God, but continues to believe in the idea of God and the institution of the Church; his wife Marta, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and a distinguished anthropologist, and their two children Susannah and Clement.

Novels which debate upon contentious issues such as religious faith are few and far between these days. Ever since the scandalous debacle which followed in the wake of Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' (1988) the battle-lines have been drawn up between adherents of liberalism and fundamentalism, resulting in artists being wary of, and fearing to offend the wrath of religious sensibilities; indeed it's with some trepidation that I myself attempt to discuss a subject which arouses stronger than ever feelings amongst some.

The beliefs of the Granville grown-up children Clement and Susannah are central to the novel . Clement, a gay artist with HIV, retains his progressive Christian faith whilst finding himself increasingly embroiled in controversy, hatred and suffering for his liberal views. His sister Susannah discovers her true spiritual identity by embracing the ultra-orthodox faith of Hasidic Judaism. These two siblings find it increasingly difficult to accept each others beliefs, as their relationship deteriorates, the view-points of liberalism and fundamentalism are clearly delineated in their spiritual and intellectual conflict. Articulating lines such as-

'Sex is one of God's greatest gifts to us. To reject it in favour of bloodless chastity is in a very real sense to reject God', and 'Fundamentalists don't think: they bray, they parrot' uttered by the gay artist Clement, clearly display which side of the fence his character represents, while his sister-in-law Carla, the widow of Clement's twin brother, unambiguously states-

'for people with no inner life, sexuality has become the all-important measure of authenticity'.

In this novel the author Michael Arditti has written a realistic portrait of religious faith in Britain today. It's a thought-provoking, lively, at times amusing, more often tragic, tale of a conflict which continues to grow in ferocity. I particularly liked Clement's astute statement upon how the all-pervasive internet has, and continues to erode aesthetic judgement -

'Memory lies at the heart of what it is to be human. In fact I'd go further: it's the reason we both need and respond to art. It's the part of our brain that creates and shapes narratives, that filters images, that draws analogies and chucks away inessentials.... Can it be an accident that, at a time when we're trusting less and less to our memories, we're growing less and less discriminating about art? We may have a world of information at our fingertips, but we've got fewer and fewer ways to assess it'.

Arditti's novel has received numerous glowing reviews far more articulate than anything I can write; the author Philip Pullman (b.1946, Norwich) for example stated of this novel -

' The Enemy of the Good' is a vivid picture of the religious life as it's lived among the conflicts and compromises of modern Britain. Michael Arditti has extended and deepened the vision that made (his) Easter so interesting, and he must be our best chronicler of the rewards and pitfalls of present day faith'.

I recommend 'The Enemy of the Good' to anyone who is interested in acquiring a greater understanding of the complex issues arising from the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism today, albeit in the form of an entertaining and extremely well-written work of fiction.

In an age which remains obsessed with nationalism, despite two world wars which devastated Europe, I also recommend Arditti's short statement upon a vision of a united Europe.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Glorious Goodwood

Time to enjoy summer on the Sussex Downs for the 5 days of the Glorious Goodwood meeting; awash with strawberries and cream, Pimms, Panama hats, classy fashion and of course, classy thoroughbred horses, at what must be the most scenic of all British race-courses. Sadly, I'm only there in spirit this year, following the meeting on TV.


The last in a short series on the symbolism of birds, in particular, in comparative religion and alchemy.

Because it devours corpses, the vulture has often been given a bad press; however, in ancient Egypt it was identified with the goddess Isis and represented the cycle of death and rebirth. In the Grecian-Roman tradition it was seen as a bird of augury, and like the swan and raven, it was considered sacred to the god Apollo because it provided omens.

In his contemplation of religious rites for the dead, Sir Thomas Browne noted in his Discourse, Urn-Burial  (1658) -

And the Persees now in India, which expose their bodies unto Vultures, and endure not so much as feretra or Biers of Wood.........

Browne was a keen scholar of comparative religion. His mention of the prophet Zoroaster and the Persee's, migratory adherents of the Zoroastrian religion, is in fact the earliest recorded in English literature.

The vulture is encountered once more in Browne's writings, this time in his surreal catalogue of books, pictures and objects entitled Museum Clausum,

A noble Quandros or Stone taken out of a Vulture's Head.

The 'noble stone' visualized by Browne may well originate from Biblical symbolism in the form of the wisdom of the book of Job. Written in the form of poetry, the book of Job is one of the oldest and profoundest spiritual texts to deal with the problem of Man's suffering. It was well-known to pious alchemists. The Bible, however much Christian Fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge it, in their denial of the discoveries of comparative religion, (see Ostrich), contains both astrological and alchemical symbolism, including imagery of refinement and dross; whilst the 'testing' of human souls is likened to the testing of metals. Chapter 28 of Job contains an inventory of various precious metals and stones, including silver, gold, topaz, their material value to contrasted to spiritual wisdom. The Book of Job also includes the line -

There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture's eye hath not seen. (v.7 KJV)

However, the puzzle of what is exactly a 'noble stone' or Quandros, is best solved by consulting the Martin Ruland's Dictionary of Alchemy, (both father and son were named Martin Ruland). The Rulands were theologically inclined Paracelsian physicians who served in the Court of Emperor Rudolph II of Prague. In their Dictionary of Alchemy (1612), a book which Browne owned, (Sales Catalogue page 22 no.119) a Quandros is defined as-

a Stone or Jewel which is found in the brain and head of the Vulture, and is said to be of a bright white colour. It fills the breasts with milk, and is said to be a safeguard against dangerous accidents.

 Ruland's dictionary definition of a 'noble Stone' is in all probability the source of Browne's Quandros. Such an object would be an extremely useful talisman!

Sunday, July 25, 2010


More avian facts and speculation in relation to Sir Thomas Browne and avian symbolism; here's the Ostrich, the largest of all birds and flightless.

I've occasionally wondered just how Browne actually managed to acquire an ostrich. Here's how I deductively speculate he might have.......Edward Browne, his eldest son, who lived in London, had access to the Royal Court of Charles II. Sometime during the 1670's the King of Morocco's ambassador gave as a gift of good-will, no less than six ostriches to Charles II; shortly after the novelty of viewing these rare birds abated for the Royal Court of Saint James Palace, Edward made so bold as to request sending one to his father. Remembering that King Charles had been acquainted with the Browne's senior and junior, since his visit to Norwich in September 1671, engaging in extended conversation with both father and son, it's not improbable that King Charles II could have indulged the dutiful son and zoologically inclined father. Unless of course there were other paths by which Browne could have acquired an ostrich . Do tell! With more than a dash of tolerant astonishment, Browne writes of the ostrich-

When it first came into my garden, it soon ate up all the gilliflowers, tulip-leaves, and fed greedily upon what was green, as lettuce, endive, sorrell; it would feed on oats, barley, peas, beans; swallow onions; eat sheep's lights and livers. When it took down a large onion, it stuck awhile in the gullet, and did not descend directly, but wound backward behind the neck; whereby I might perceive that the gullet turned much; but this is not peculiar to the ostrich; but the same hath been observed in the stork, when it swallows down frogs and pretty big bits. It made a strange noise; had a very odd note, especially in the morning, and perhaps, when hungry.... If wearing of feather-fans should come up again, it might much increase the trade of plumage from Barbary.

It would appear from the above quotation that ostrich-feathers have been a fluttering element of ladies fashion for many generations now; while among the many creatures discussed in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica a chapter is devoted to the ostrich which debates upon the common misapprehension, 'That the ostrich digesteth iron'. (Bk 3: Ch.22)

Browne's study of bird-life in Norfolk was extensive enough to assist with notes, descriptions and illustrations of various birds to John Ray (1627-1705) and Francis Willoughby (1635-72) for the first definitive work upon British birds entitled Ornithologia (first published in London 1678). A copy of it is listed as once in Browne's library. (1711 Catalogue p.18 no.33)

Evidence that Browne was familiar with the gentleman's sport of Falconry exists in the form of a short surviving tract on hawks and falconry (Tract V). In Religio Medici he uses imagery associated with falconry terms:

thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith ( R.M. 1:10)

It's also in Religio Medici that an extraordinary example of cosmic avian symbolism occurs - a likening of the act of incubation to the Creation:

This is that gentle heat that brooded on the waters, and in six days hatched the world; (R.M.I:32)

Thoughts on birds and perhaps upon alchemy also, preoccupied Browne's mind late in his life, when compiling Museum Clausum, an inventory of imaginary or lost, books, pictures and objects which includes the curio-

A large Ostrich's Egg, whereon is neatly and fully wrought that famous battle of Alcazar, in which three Kings lost their lives.

The battle in which three Kings lost their lives refers to the historical battle of Alcazar, Northern Morocco, in 1578 when Portugal and a large Ottoman Army fought against the Moroccans.

But it's also possible to interpret this image as an allusion to the operations of an alchemist working in his 'elaboratory', for the apparatus capable of acid-dissolving in it 'stomach' was nick-named, 'the ostrich' by alchemists. Although only the egg of an ostrich is named here, the egg itself was also a common symbol in alchemy, representing death and re-birth. Far less tenuous is the fact that the three substances believed to be the foundation of all life by alchemists, namely Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, were alluded to in alchemical tracts as none other than three Kings.

The alchemist in his 'elaboratory' witnessed the 'death' and 'rebirth' of substances. The substance of mercury or 'quicksilver' as it was sometimes known, 'quick' signifying its 'living' qualities as a liquid metal, in particular, fascinated alchemists.

Doubts that Browne was only peripherally involved in laboratory alchemy evaporate in his confession in Religio Medici-

I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into thousand shapes it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self. (R.M. Part 1:48)

But perhaps the real alchemy here is none other than Browne's selection and conjoining of an unusual artifact to an historical event; for both object and event share the provenance of North Africa. Browne displays a witty and refined aesthetic sensibility in his conjuring of a neat and fully wrought delineation of a battle upon an egg! He is after all, the aesthete who openly confessed-

I can look a whole day upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse. (R.M.Part 2:9)

An example of American Masonic Folk Art, a finely incised Ostrich Egg commemorating George Washington. (1852)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today, while browsing through Sir Thomas Browne's miscellaneous writings, trying to find his assessment upon Peruvian cinchona bark, new to 17th century medicine and hailed as a 'miracle' cure of malaria, I came upon a short amusing paragraph worth reproducing as regards Browne's ornithological inclinations.

Among his numerous interests Browne was a keen bird-fancier. It's recorded that at one time he kept as a pet an owl, a bittern, an eagle and even an ostrich. A short tract upon Falconry survives, and he's also credited with coining the word 'incubation' into the English language. One wonders just how he found time to attend to any of his patients with his many hobbies!

I'm planning to add a page upon the many neologisms Browne coined into the English language soon. Anyway, here's the paragraph from a tract on the Birds of Norfolk which made me chuckle, nearly as much as seeing a photo of an octopus embracing a bottle of Ouzo. And no, a pelican did not fly over my garden today either! In his short tract on the birds of Norfolk, Browne writes-

An onocrotalus, or pelican, shot upon Horsey Fen, May 22, 1663, which stuffed and cleansed, I yet retain. It was three yards and a half between the extremities of the wings; the chowle and beak answering the usual description; the rest of the body white; a fowl which none could remember upon this coast. About the same time I heard of the king's pelican's was lost at St. James; perhaps this might be the same.

Far less funny is the plight this summer of thousands of American pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, due to the oil disaster. Just innocent bystanders in the collision between human greed and nature. Over 612 Brown pelicans killed as a result of the spillage as of July 2010.

The Pelican was the name for a common piece of alchemical apparatus. Its function was 'the digestion of substances by long steeping in hot fluid to extract the essence'. The apparatus worked by reflux distillation - the substance under treatment was boiled and the vapour condensed in a glass head, it then flowed back again, causing a process of circulation.

Alchemical and Christian iconography often used the emblem of the Pelican as a symbol of Christ for it's self-sacrificing qualities. Browne was of course familiar with this emblem, opening the fifth book of his encyclopaedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica with a discussion upon it, as ever attributing the antiquity of its symbolic roots to his beloved ancient Egypt, writing,

And first in every place we meet with the picture of the Pelican, opening her breast with her bill, and feeding her young ones with the blood distilling from her. Thus is it set forth not only in common Signs, but in the Crest and Scutcheon of many Noble families; hath been asserted by many holy Writers, and was an Hieroglyphic of piety and pity among the Egyptians; on which consideration, they spared them at their tables.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Green Woodpecker

The green woodpecker is a relatively rare bird, at least in urban settings. One rested on a branch in the garden this morning, before zipping off.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Polygonia c-album or the Comma butterfly. One flitted through the garden this afternoon. So-named because of the distinctive C-shape on its ragged-edge wing. Although my photographic guide to Butterflies of Britain and Europe (1999) states that it is a fairly common species, all species of insect, in particular bee's and butterflies, have greatly reduced in number in the last five to ten years.

Postscript: 5 days after posting this, the Daily Mail has the headline 'Half of UK's butterfly species 'threatened with extinction,' and a national week of Butterfly counting July 24th -31 st is announced !

Saturday, July 17, 2010


A new resident to the Aquarium!

In the news today is Paul the 'psychic' Octopus. The English-born Octopus who now lives at Oberhausen Sea Life Zoo in Germany, successfully predicted all seven of Germany's wins in the Football World Cup and also Spain's win, by correctly choosing between two sealed boxes. Statistically this is equivalent to predicting heads or tails eight times, odds of 1 in 128. The World Cup winning nation is now bidding for Paul to re-locate to a zoo in Spain. Humankind tends to get excited by the idea of a creature which exhibits psychic powers, forgetting that they too possess psychic abilities, which usually remain dormant and unused.

Octopuses are zoologically known as Cephalopods, (from the Greek kephale, head and pod, foot). They are classified as predatory molluscs like squids and cuttlefish. One of the most intelligent of all invertebrates, they are capable of using tools and solving problems, have three hearts, and can camouflage themselves instantly, changing their colour and texture to match their surroundings. As they are boneless they are even able to escape from aquariums, squeezing themselves into small spaces. Octopuses have short life-spans of only three or four years.

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols states, 'the Octopus stands significantly for the monsters who regularly symbolize the spirits of the Underworld and even Hell itself. The Octopus also corresponds to the zodiacal sign of Cancer, (see Crab) and is opposed to the dolphin. This identification is not unrelated to the creatures 'infernal' aspect, the Summer solstice being the gate of the Underworld.

The Octopus is often viewed as a sinister and scary creature. However, like the snake and spider, also invertebrates which needlessly frighten, the Octopus is an exemplary symbol of the unconscious psyche, which, as the psychologist Carl Jung constantly reminded his reader, humanity ignores at its peril.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Norwich Castle

Perched high upon an ancient earthworks in the very centre of the City, Norwich Castle has dominated the city-scape for over 800 years. The Norman conquerors who constructed  both it and the Cathedral, affectionately nicknamed it Blanchefleur or White Flower. One can be sure that the local Saxon populace who paid tithes and taxes to their Norman conquerors would have called it something far less complimentary! The Castle has been a Museum for over 100 years now. Included in its Art Collection is Thorpe Water Frolic and The Paston Treasure.

The Castle Museum is presently hosting two temporary exhibitions, the first: Beatles to Bowie, the sixties exposed, is an exhibition of over 150 portrait photographs of pop stars including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. I couldn't help noticing the average age of the people attending this exhibition was near, or at, retirement age, which suddenly made me feel very old! Anyway, it was very enjoyable looking at these now historical photographs. Almost all of the photo's exhibited seemed to be portraits of artists who, immediately a camera-lens is pointed towards them suddenly become extremely photogenic. Even a very young Marianne Faithfull, barely out of Convent school appears supremely photogenic.

Marianne Faithfull, The Salisbury Pub, London (1964) by Gered Mankowitz

It's a curious fact that the great great Uncle of Marianne Faithfull (b.1946) was none other than Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-95) the Austrian nobleman and author of the erotic novel, Venus in Furs (1870). Through his surname and the subject-matter of his novel, the word masochism was introduced into the English language. Faithfull is also credited with introducing to Rolling Stone Mick Jagger the occult novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, 'The Master and Margarita' (1938), which inspired the Rolling Stones song, 'Sympathy for the Devil.'

The other temporary exhibition was perfectly complimentary to pop portraits; Flashback, a retrospective of the art of Bridget Riley (b.1931) .

Riley's optical canvases have always fascinated me ever since seeing one of her works reproduced on an early 1970's LP cover. Although Riley's art-work typifies the psychedelic era, she herself is quite uninvolved with such drug-induced illusions. Will Self has written a perceptive, if somewhat critical review of Riley's paintings. However it was good to be reminded that Britain was innovative in the 1960's in the world of visual art with pop artists including Riley as well as David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and Norwich-born Colin Self contributing to Britain's 'Golden Age'.

Movement in Squares 1961

Here's another optical image which demonstrates that seeing is not always believing, or rather, how easily the human senses can be deceived.

Do not adjust your screen!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tragedy of the Street of Flowers

Eça de Queirós circa 1882

I've just finished reading a novel by an author who is considered to be Portugal's greatest 19th century novelist, Eça de Queirós ( 1845 - 1900) author of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers'.

'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' is a novel written circa 1875 but which has only come to light recently. Found amongst the deceased author's paper's in 1900, it was not published in Portugal until 1980 when the copyright of Queirós' writings expired. It was translated into English in 2000, a full century since the author's death. Queirós himself stated in 1877 of his novel -

'It's not immoral or indecent. It's cruel..the best, most interesting novel I have yet written... a real literary and moral bombshell'.

Before reviewing this novel a word of praise must be said for the role of translator. Where would we lovers of the novel, in the Babel-like din of World literature be without them ? A good translator can introduce new literature, transforming the reader's understanding of historical, cultural and social conditions throughout the world. They can even cast fresh light upon the inner dialogue and moral dilemmas of well-loved and enduring characters of World literature.

Without having to dedicate the formative years of one's life to mastering several languages to become a polyglot, the classics of European literature would remain a closed book were it not for the translator. From the Icelandic Sagas of the Dark Ages, to the grandfather of all European novels, Cervantes 'Don Quixote', to the psychological analysis of memory by Marcel Proust in his novel of recollections, to Mikhail Bulgakov's surreal satire upon Stalinist totalitarianism, 'The Master and Margarita', homage must be paid to the translator for their devotion of many hours, re-shaping the written word from one language to another. One grows fonder of the translator's skills with the passing of time, placing trust in recognised names for their meticulous precision, inspired insight and often sheer drudgery, to open windows to new works of world literature to the questing reader.

The winner of several awards for her translations, Margaret Jull Costa has breathed new life into Quiroz's novels, translating his witty dialogue and observations on Lisbon society with panache. Together the innovative publishing-house of Dedalus, along with Costa's modern translation and Eça de Queirós' prose combine to make 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' a cracking good read, whether one is familiar with the aesthetics of the 19th century European novel or not. And although it has been called an unfinished or incomplete novel, 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' assuredly does have a full and satisfactory ending.

The story of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' begins at a theatre in Lisbon with the appearance of Genoveva, a sophisticated and stunningly beautiful woman just arrived in Lisbon from Paris. The young law graduate Vitor da Silva falls in love with her at first sight and becomes a bitter rival to her present lover, Vitor's one-time friend, a wealthy Portuguese dandy named Damasco .

However Genoveva is in reality none other than a Parisian courtesan or high-class prostitute. Throughout the novel her cunning, true to her femme fatale nature, outwits and exploits both Vitor and Damasco, pitting them against each other, exploiting their generosity and lust for her.

In essence the novel concerns itself not only with the struggles and delusions of Vitor and his love for Genoveva but also with Portuguese society at large in Queirós' critical observation of the conceits, shallowness and prejudices of Lisbon society. This is apparent early in the novel when Genoveva throws a evening soiree. The party allows Queirós to parade before the reader an extraordinary gallery of characters from Lisbon society. It's here in the novel that the influence of the founder of the novel of social realism, Honore de Balzac, (1799-1850) author of a vast cycle of over 100 novels which depict the whole spectrum of Parisian society can be detected. Balzac's influence hovers over Queirós' own portrait of the faults, delusions and weaknesses of Portuguese society.

The main protagonist, Vitor reads Romantic authors such as Byron and Tennyson .His feelings throughout the novel, change as often as the wind. Vitor is the orphaned ward of a retired Judge, his Uncle Timoteo to whom his upbringing and care is entrusted.

The wooden-legged Uncle Timeteo is a strong and memorable character in the novel. He served in India where he lost a leg in a tiger-hunt. Extremely wise to the ways of the world, he reads The Times newspaper daily and is, like his creator, an Anglophile and mouth-piece for Queirós' own love of England. Queirós was that most rare bird by today's standards, a European Anglophile, who lived in Newcastle and Bristol as a diplomat for nearly twenty years.

In an era in which much of the world, often quite rightly, perceives English culture, society, and economics as not entirely salubrious, it's refreshing to be reminded of a time long ago when the English were admired, even if those actions are now defined as self-serving Imperial colonialism. Uncle Timon enthusiastically exclaims to Vitor-

'Do you know, Sir, what they've achieved in India? They created everything! Cities, railways, bridges, docks, navigable rivers, plantations. Before, when there was famine in India, they would die in their millions! And now they never lack for rice because the Englishman is there to give it to them'.

Without wanting to post spoilers, early in the novel Uncle Timoteo and Genoveva cross swords when Genoveva, mounted upon a horse, kicks a small child to one side in front of the elderly and honourable Uncle Timoteo. He immediately challenges her to a duel before shuffling to the novel's background when, at the story's denouement, he pieces together the shock Oedipal revelation which tragically affects Vitor's and Genoveva's love-affair.

Other notable characters in a novel full of original characters include the artist Camilo Cerrao, commissioned to paint a portrait of Genoveva, but forever theorizing and changing his mind upon the style, function and nature of art so much that little real painting is ever accomplished. Like much great art a strong vein of both comedy and tragedy runs throughout 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers.'

The French novelist Emile Zola claimed that Queirós was a greater writer than Flaubert, (well he would, wouldn't he)! And although Queirós has been compared to realist novelists such as Balzac, Zola and even Proust he is, as a reading of 'The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers' confirms, no mere pastiche of these 19th century Realist novelists, but an original voice of European literature in his own right. Queirós' greatest masterpiece is however considered to be 'The Maias' of 1888. It too engages in satirical observations upon the social pretensions of 19th century Portuguese society, specifically Lisbon society. I'm looking forward to reading 'The Maias' soon!

Friday, July 09, 2010


The south and east of England is presently experiencing a heatwave with the mercury hitting 30 celsius. One more warm night and day to go before it eases. Tomorrow is Norwich City's big civic day with the Lord Mayor's procession. This year the procession has been shifted forward to 5 p.m. instead of 6:30 p.m. I wonder if the organizers are now regretting that change of schedule in view of the predicted heat.

I like to watch this annual event as one can with a little discernment gauge the mood and wealth of the City by the quality and zest of the 70-odd floats that slowly trundle through the City. With an estimated crowd of 30,000 usually the largest assembly of people in the city centre in the year, the event's history can be traced back to the days of the medieval Guilds, associations of various trades and professions celebrating their relative autonomy. For over 400 years the procession was led by the 'Snap' dragon accompanied by the 'whiffler' a crowd-controlling civic who 'whiffled' or waved a sword in the air. Lewis Carroll in his nonsense poem 'Jabberwocky' uses the word thus-

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Modern version of the Norwich Snap Dragon.

Ancient Whiffler

Another literary reference to Whifflers can be found in Shakespeare's Henry V Act 5 where the line, "which like a mighty Whiffler 'fore the king, seems to prepare his way" occurs.

By far the best information on the tradition and costumes of Norwich Whifflers including a priceless photo of the 1951 Lord Mayor's procession led by mace-bearer and accompanied by two Whifflers can be found at Norwich Whifflers.

On-line dictionary definitions of the word 'Whiffler' deliver a bewildering number of interpretations from - 'One who whiffles, or frequently changes his opinion or course; one who uses shifts and evasions in argument; hence, a trifler' to -

'Whifflers, or fifers, generally went first in a procession, at length a name given to those who went forward merely to clear the way for the procession. In the city of London, young freemen, who march at the head of their proper companies on the Lord Mayor's day, sometimes with flags, were called whifflers, or bachelor whifflers, not because they cleared the way, but because they went first, as whifflers did."

Or even- 'an officer who went before procession to clear the way by blowing a horn, or otherwise; hence, any person who marched at the head of a procession; a harbinger.'

But the Whiffler's ancient historical roots may in fact go back to the early Saxon era as an armed attendant who cleared the way for a procession (from wifle battle-axe, from Old English wifel, of Germanic origin; the attendants originally carried weapons to clear the way) as I first stated, a kind of civic crowd-controller, sometimes genteel and humorous, other times not.

Confusion about the meaning of this word arises from the fact that it's both a verb and a noun; the verb to whiffle, as Carroll uses it as an onomatopoeic, like the sound of a sword or stick being swished in the air; and it's a noun, as a figure of civic authority as in, 'Look out! Here comes the Whiffler!' But now I'm beginning to waffle, it must be the heat. Waffle hmmm, now there's another interesting word.

Civic crier, three Whifflers and Snap Dragon 2009

Monday, July 05, 2010

Notre-Dame de Paris

Esmeralda and Quasimodo

Last night I watched 'Notre-Dame de Paris' on DVD ( TDK 1996). Based upon the famous nineteenth century novel by Victor Hugo, 'The Hunch-back of Notre-Dame' (1831), Hugo's story has undergone numerous adaptions in various genres throughout the centuries.

Roland Petit (1924-2011) has made a brilliant choreographic adaptation of Hugo's novel. Attracted to stories in which 'beings apart' be they wretched or hideous who fall prey to femmes fatales, the seductive face of death, as in his earliest masterpieces ' The young Man and Death', (1946) and 'Carmen (1949), it's not too surprising that Hugo's tale of love and death should attract the attention of Petit's choreographic skills.

The essentially menage-a-trois story of Esmeralda the gypsy girl, the Arch-Deacon Frollo and the hunch-back Quasimodo is given a fresh and original interpretation by the celebrated French ballet-master. First performed in 1965, Petit's ballet is a hybrid of traditional ballet and modern dance movement. In particular the hand and the many gestures its able to express is liberated by his choreography.

The part of Quasimodo is amazingly danced by Nicolas Le Riche. It requires some considerable balletic skill to dance the part of a deformed and alienated individual. It also adds to one's appreciation of how athletic and graceful the corps de ballet are. The vivid costume colours enhance the crowd scenes which are powerful and dramatic. Equally brilliant is the dancing of Isabelle Guerin as Esmeralda. The music composed by Maurice Jarre adequately supports the action without ever being original enough to be a focus in its own right. The staging at the Opera national de Paris incorporates stark but impressive sets. With a story which is set in medieval Paris, not so geographically remote from the Paris Opera House itself, Roland Petit's choreographic interpretation of Hugo's masterpiece is likely to remain in the repertoire of the National Ballet of Paris for a long time.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Oedipus Egypticus

frontispiece to Oedipus Aegyptiacus

The three door-step sized tomes of Oedipus Aegyptiacus are a triumph of printing, being over five years in completion (Rome 1652 -56). In Oedipus Aegyptiacus the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher sets out to explore the esoteric traditions of theosophical systems of Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Chaldean and Hebrew Cabala. A good example of such comparative study can be seen in an illustrated page from Oedipus Egypticus elsewhere on this blog, of the differing cultural interpretations of the Zodiac.

In 1999 I was fortunate to attend an exhibition by the University Library of Geneva on Jorge Louis Borges. Included either as representative of Borges reading (or even his own copy I can remember no longer) was a full folio edition of Oedipus Egypticus no less. A delight to see in the flesh so to speak.The figure of Isis from Oedipus Aegyptiacus. She is holding a sistrum, an ancient form of rattle, associated with fertility rites. Her other names from comparative mythology are listed to her left.

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) has been described as 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe'. He was certainly one the 17th century's most active scholars of comparative religion. Kircher was also a favourite author of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) his near exact contemporary. The 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library includes almost all of Kircher's entire oeuvre; in chronological order he once owned -

Ars Magnesia
Ars Magna Lucis & Umbrae, cum fig.
Rome 1646
Obeliscus Pamphilus, cum fig.
Rome 1650
Oedipus Aegyptiacus 3 tomi cum fig Rome 1650-56
Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica, cum fig Rome 1654
Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium, ed. G. Schott 1660
Mundus Subterraneous, cum fig 2 vol. Amsterdam 1665
China Illustrata cum fig.
Amsterdam 1667

The English-born musicologist Joscelyn Godwin, one-time Professor of Music at Colgate University, New York State, describes Kircher thus -

'Kircher was a Jesuit and an archaeologist, a phenomenal linguist, and at the same time an avid collector of scientific experiments and geographical exploration. He probed the secrets of the subterranean world, deciphered archaic languages, experimented with alchemy and music-therapy, optics and magnetism. Egyptian mystery wisdom, Greek, Kabbalistic and Christian philosophy met on common grounds in Kircher' s work, as he reinterpreted the history of man's scientific and artistic collaboration with God and Nature'.

There's an interesting connection between Athanasius Kircher and Browne which has been little discerned by scholars. Sir Thomas Browne's eldest son Edward (1644- 1708) was a great traveller, often to the consternation of his parents. Wherever he traveled he acted as the eyes and ears of his stay-at-home father. When Edward Browne arrived in Rome he visited Kircher who showed him his 'closett of rarieties' which included a perpetual motion machine and a talking head.

It would have been near impossible for Kircher not to have known of Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica which had been translated into several European languages. One can only wish to have been a fly-on-the-wall in the meeting between Browne's dutiful son and the Jesuit theosophist. Kircher must have given Edward Browne a warm reception had he read commending statements upon his Egyptology in Pseudodoxia such as-

And then the learned
Kircherus, no man were likely to be a better Oedipus (P.E. Bk .3 ch. 11 On Griffons)

Browne's high opinion of Kircher's knowledge of hieroglyphs was such that he could declare-

But no man is likely to profound the Ocean of that Doctrine, beyond that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus (P.E. Bk 1 ch. 9)

Upon Kircher's authority Browne altered many of his own speculations upon Egyptian hieroglyphics; he even conceded to Kircher's authority as regards the reason why the tarantella dance is performed, believing in the healing remedy of music if bitten by a tarantella spider, writing-

Some doubt many have of the Tarantula, or poisonous Spider of Calabria, and that magical cure of the bite thereof by Musick. But since we observe that many attest it from experience: Since the learned Kircherus hath positively averred it, and set down the songs and tunes solemnly used for it; Since some also affirm the Tarantula it self will dance upon certain stroaks, whereby they set their instruments against its poison; we shall not at all question it. (P.E. Bk 3 ch. 28)

Kircher's vast work of comparative religion must have made a considerable impression upon Browne when composing 'The Garden of Cyrus' for the copper-plate etching in Oedipus Aegyptiacus known as the Bembine Tablet of Isis, a rich source of speculative comparative religion, is alluded to twice in the Discourse.

Frontispiece Iter Exstaticum Kircherianum 1660:
Kircher is about to embark upon a cosmic trip led by the angel Cosmiel.

Another book by Kircher which Browne owned was Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium (1660) edited by Kircher's devoted pupil Gaspar Schott. One of the strangest of all Kircher's books, it describes how, after listening to three lute-players, the German Jesuit was transported in an ecstatic journey through the planetary spheres. Iter Ecstaticum records Kircher's 'soul-journey' as he is led by the spirit Cosmiel through a cosmic ascent. It also refers to soul-journeys of antiquity such as Plato's Myth of Er and Cicero's 'Dream of Scipio', in which the cosmic voyager hears the heavenly music of the spheres, a cosmic harmony which Sir T.B. was also partial to hearing.

Kircher remained a firm fixture of Browne's reading throughout his life. When compiling an inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, pictures and objects, his Museum Clausum sometime in the 1670's, it's the Jesuit theosophist who fires his imagination adding the pictorial item of-

Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Praerie or large Sea-meadow upon the Coast of Provence, the Coral Fishing, the gathering of Sponges, the Mountains, Valleys and Deserts, the Subterraneous Vents and Passages at the bottom of that Sea ; the passage of Kircherus in his Iter Submarinus when he went down about Egypt, and rose again in the Red Sea. Together with a lively Draught of Cola Pesce, or the famous Sicilian Swimmer, diving into the Voragos and broken Rocks by Charybdis, to fetch up the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea.

Books on Kircher

* Athanasius Kircher - The last man who knew everything ed. Paula Findlen 2004 Routledge

* Athanasius Kircher - A Renaissance Man and the quest for lost knowledge Joscelyn Godwin 1979 Thames and Hudson