Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Peterborough & Cathedral

Back in Fenland ! Once more travelling through the flat as a billiard-table landscape criss-crossed with drainage dykes, to visit Peterborough and its cathedral. East Anglia has several notable medieval cathedrals including the 'Ship of the Fens' of Ely, the lofty spire of Norwich cathedral and the unusual and dramatic architecture of Peterborough cathedral.

Peterborough cathedral is described as an example of Early  English Gothic in style and is one of the most important 12th century buildings remaining intact in England. The three enormous and visually imposing arches of its western facade are apparently without architectural precedent and also without future reference in the history of architecture. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Bad As Me

The album of  2011? It just has to be Tom Waits Bad as Me (released October 21st). As the Rolling Stone review says, the timing of the release of Waits' new album is impeccable. 

TomWaits (born Los Angeles, U.S.A. December 7th 1949) Happy Birthday Tom ! has for decades enacted persona from the underbelly of the American Dream, the dispossessed, down-and-outs, hard drinkers, lonesome drifters and out-of-luck gamblers in the era of the Great Depression, such characters surviving  in dire straits come sharply alive now in the New Depression.

Waits and his extraordinary voice has become a true American phenomenon and a world-wide star; utterly archetypal in his persona, his voice croons, bellows, growls, barks and snarls with characters walking straight out of the pages of a Damon Runyan short story with more than a nod to American literary giants such as William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. The present state of Waits' voice is show-cased in  Glitter and Doom (2009) recorded live at various venues on tour. A showman in the true sense of the word, Waits has also developed his acting career in several film roles, most recently as the sinister Mr. Nick in Terry Gilliam's metaphysical fantasy, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009).

Bad as Me is Tom Waits' 17th  album no less, since his debut recording in 1973. Although essentially rooted in R ‘n’B music, Waits shifts from genre to genre with ease  – from Cuban Salsa to Metal, from Beat poet Jazz monologues to Weimar Republic-style Cabaret, from Vaudeville to Gospel and Blues. His song-writing is a compendium of American music.  I can't think of any other singer/song-writer who has recorded in such a wide spectrum of genres or another singer capable of comparable vocal gymnastics (his vocal range encompasses 7 octaves) with perhaps the exception of the East German opera-trained, one time Punk rocker, Nina Hagen. And indeed Waits performs a Nina Hagen-style number in German on Alice (2002) entitled Kommienienzuspadt.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Self-analysis: Nietzsche and Browne

Man is very well defended against himself, against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by a secret path. - Friedrich Nietzsche
 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
The noblest Digladiation is in the Theatre of our selves: for therein our inward Antagonists, not only like common Gladiators, with ordinary Weapons and down right Blows make at us, but also like Retiary and Laqueary Combatants, with Nets, Frauds, and Entanglements fall upon us. Weapons for such combats are not to be forged at Lipara: Vulcan's Art doth nothing in this internal Militia: wherein not the Armour of Achilles, but the Armature of St. Paul, gives the Glorious day.        - Christian Morals Part 1:24

On first consideration, it would appear that the thoughts of the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have little in common with those of the seventeenth century English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne. Both however, were Classical philologists as well as profound, original thinkers. They also shared an awareness of the strong presence of self-deception within human nature. Both philosophers here likening the attainment of self-awareness to an internal battle of military-like combat.

Browne penned Christian Morals late in his life, primarily as an advisio for his children but applicable to humanity in general. The whole work is permeated by many short, perceptive aphorisms upon life. It's interesting to note that in his old age Browne advocates the supremacy of Christian faith over alchemy which was known as Vulcan's Art. His phrase, 'the Theatre of ourselves' in particular, is one of great insight and originality.

Curiously, Nietzsche shared with Browne an interest in the notion of eternal recurrence, that is the idea of Time and History being of a cyclical, repetitive nature. Probably the best novel in modern times which explores the concept of eternal recurrence is P.D. Ouspensky's The Strange tale of Ivan Osokin (1915)  a novel written during an age of heightened interest in mystical ideas in Russian history.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rudolf and the Rulands

The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was an avid collector of art and a devotee of alchemy. When he relocated the Hapsburg court from Vienna to Prague he attracted many talents both scientific and artistic, including the Elizabethan mathematician John Dee, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and skilled painters such as Bartholomeus Spranger, Adrian de Vries and Giuseppe Archimboldo.

Among the most original of artists at Rudolf II's court was the Milan-born Giuseppe Archimboldo (1527-1593). Rudolph II commissioned Archimboldo to paint what are probably his best-known works, a series of Four Seasons using his 'double meaning' technique. Archimboldo even applied his 'double meaning' technique to a portrait of his patron, painting the Holy Roman Emperor as Autumn, rich with the abundance of the fruits of the harvest (Above). Often afflicted with profound depression, the solitary-inclined Rudolf must have had a strange but confident perception of himself to allow such an experimental portrait. Archimboldo's 'double meaning' technique was imitated centuries later by Surrealist artists, notably by Salvador Dali.

Although nowadays Emperor Rudolf II is credited as being a major patron of the arts, in particular of Northern Mannerist art (one suspects that the four intriguing statuettes of the Layer Monument with their hidden esoteric symbolism would have appealed to Rudolf's taste) it's also been argued that his life-long collecting of art combined with his complete disinterest in politics and diplomacy contributed towards the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and European political instability during the thirty years war (1618 -1648). A more positive interpretation of Rudolf II views him a major sponsor of the scientific revolution and an aspirant towards a united, polemic-free Europe.

Rudolf II also kept a menagerie of exotic animals, cultivated a botanical garden and collected a variety of curio's in what was to become Europe's most extensive 'cabinet of curiosities' or Kunstkammer. Rudolf's primary preoccupation however was the fabled philosophers stone of alchemy and he commissioned both scholars and alchemists in his quest. Foremost among scholars at the Prague court were the Paracelsian physician-alchemists Martin Rulands, the name of both father and son. Martin Ruland the elder (1532 -1602 ) compiled a dictionary of alchemical terminology, primarily orientated towards a Paracelsian and metallurgic nature. It must have been held in high esteem by Emperor Rudolf  for he conferred the status of nobility upon Martin Ruland junior (1569-1611) in 1608. Martin Ruland's definition of meditatio is a good example of how devout Hermetic philosophers such as John Dee and Sir Thomas Browne augmented their Christian spirituality.
MEDITATIO - The name of an Internal Talk of one person with another who is invisible, as in the invocation of the Deity, or communion with one's self, or with one's good angel.
In  Religio Medici (1643) Browne declared -
Therefore I am so far from denying their existence, that I could easily believe, that not only whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato; - R.M. Part 1:33
Incontrovertible evidence that Browne consulted  Ruland's dictionary can be found in his allusion to Ruland's entry -
QUANDROS -   a Stone or Jewel which is found in the brain and head of the Vulture, and is said to be a bright white colour. It fills the breasts with milk, and is said to be a safeguard against dangerous accidents. 

In Museum Clausum, Browne's bizarre inventory of lost, imagined and rumoured books, pictures and objects there can be found -
A noble Quandros  or Stone taken out of a Vulture's Head.
Although I've written on this before there's now the possibility of offering a link to the complete text of   Rulands Dictionary of Alchemy.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Kauto Star

With the National Hunt season firmly underway this November, today's result from Haydock Park was truly heart-warming. Kauto Star ridden by Ruby Walsh returned to form with a brilliant display of jumping prowess, bravery and determination  to win the Grade 1 Betfair Chase by 8 lengths over his nearest rival and last years Gold Cup winner, Long Run.

The many fans and supporters attending Haydock Park wearing the same silk colours of Kauto Star are a clear sign that he's loved by the racing public, perhaps in a once-in-a-lifetime way not seen since Desert Orchid in the late 80's or Arkle of the 60's. There were emotional scenes as the winner returned to the ring to a hero's reception of loud cheers. Uniquely, Kauto Star, now aged 11,  has been versatile as a chaser to be champion at different race-distances and the only horse to have ever regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup for owner Clive Smith. In a racing career now spanning over 5 years, he's also won the blue ribbon of the Xmas season, Kempton Park's King George VI chase four consecutive times. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I'm All Right Jack

John and Roy Boulting's  I'm All Right Jack (1959)  is a hilarious satire on society and industrial relations in post-war Britain. With a script full of witty dialogue and with consummate skill, the Boulting brothers portray all levels of a once rigid British society, greatly assisted by the cream of British actors of the time. The star-studded cast of I'm All Right Jack includes Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price, Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and Liz Fraser. 

The comedy begins when affable but naive upper-class Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael, above) is finally obliged to embark upon a career. His uncle finds him employment in a missile factory where he meets pseudo-Bolshevik trade Union leader Mr. Kite (Peter Sellers). Stanley quickly accepts Mr. Kite's offer of accommodation upon sighting his glamorous daughter (Liz Fraser, above) who works at the ammunition  factory as a so-called 'spindle-polisher'. 

The collective British work-force are depicted in  I'm All Right Jack as intent upon doing as little work as possible and ever eager upon the slightest pre-text to strike. The humour is subtle but effective. When on strike, after a morning of playing cards and darts, the lunch-bell sounds. "Blimey, it's all go today, mate" declares one worker. The power of the Trade unions, led by the fanatical and ideologically-blinkered trade union leader Mr.Kite is shown in a most unfavourable light. In a role which won Peter Sellers a British Academy Best Actors award, Mr. Kite's rigid adherence to supposed Bolshevik principles is fatally flawed. He's never travelled to Russia and is ignorant of the true human cost of the 'Glorious Revolution' and its consequences under Stalin. When Kite's wife herself decides to go on strike, withdrawing all home labour, leaving him to live alone, he soon sinks into utter domestic squalor. In the meantime, Kite's one-time lodger Stanley Windrush refuses to strike and continues attending work. The media applaud his strike-breaking and crowds throng  outside the home of his aunt Dolly, (Margaret Rutherford) calling out his name and hailing him a National hero. The  film's denouement occurs at a  live TV debate hosted by Malcolm Muggeridge. With his eyes finally open to international business corruption within his family, Stanley Windrush declares money to be the only source of interest and motivation to all concerned. Opening a suitcase full of bribery money he casts handfuls of bank-notes into the air. A mad scramble among members of the TV studio audience ensues. 

Although it's a film over 50 years old,  Roy and John Boulting's social satire retains its relevance. Indeed such was the film's success that its title lives on in common parlance as a cheeky quip of self- interest and complacent indifference to the circumstances of others. I'm All Right Jack  also questions dubious aspects of British culture and morality; the Boulting brothers primary target being the notorious ineptitude of British management which is portrayed as corrupt at all levels. At the heart of the film lies the under-stated question about the moral integrity of manufacturing and export of military weapons, an export which effectively contributes no small percentage towards Britain's GDP today. Filmed after the Suez crisis of 1956 which demoted Britain's place in the world, the character of Mr. Mohammed, a Fez-wearing diplomat engaged in acquiring a large shipment of missiles, takes on a more than stereotypical role in the comedy, hinting that Britain even sells weapons to its enemies, as indeed it does. The  rise of the media and its power, along with youth culture in the form of a skiffle-based theme music and the vacuous intellect of matinee glamour girl Cynthia (Liz Fraser) are also featured. But above all else, as with all good satire, the Boulting brother's film clearly highlights moral decline, in particular the relatively new trend of self-interest in British society. 

Fifty years after I'm All Right Jack was first screened, the less privileged members of British society, that is, the vast majority, are now suffering the consequences of corruption and greed in high places as humorously depicted in I'm All Right Jack. Nevertheless although its hard to imagine there's much of a joke or comedy to be made from the present-day economic crisis facing Europe, its worth remembering that humour and laughter are good medicine for difficult times.    

Wiki-Link -  Boulting brothers

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Boston Stump

Although Noel Coward once wittily declared, 'Very Flat Norfolk', in fact large tracts of Norfolk are slightly undulating in landscape and even downright hilly in places. Surely the much-loved Norwich poet and performer Timothy Sillence (1944-2002) conveyed a much deeper understanding of the intimate and mystical nature of the Norfolk landscape when humorously writing-  

is a flat land
within easy reach 
of the Himalayas.

Recently on a rare excursion out of the county of  'bootiful Norfolk', I had the pleasure to travel through the Fens, the geographical region of England which is definitely 'Very Flat'. The Fens are a vast expanse of fertile agricultural land situated predominately in the counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Travelling through the many square miles of low-laying land effectively drained and reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineering in the seventeenth century, one senses how much the Fen landscape with its huge domed skies must have affected the psychology of its inhabitants. This thought is reinforced once arriving at Boston in Lincolnshire and viewing the enormous tower of Saint Botolph's. Long known as Boston Stump or just The Stump, the medieval architects of the extraordinary Perpendicular style tower utilized the flat landscape of Lincolnshire to make their House of God into a bold, enduring statement. Like the so-called 'Ship of the Fens', Ely Cathedral, Boston Stump dominated the landscape during the Middle Ages and was visible from great distance.

The 202 steps and 83 metres which lead up the Boston Stump collectively and discreetly enquire  upon one's assumed fitness, but the views are well worth  the effort !

The windmill (centre) was working with its sails rotating. Its said that from Boston Stump with good visibility and powerful binoculars one can  see the back of one's head ! ( Actually it's claimed one can see over thirty miles from the tower).

The river Haven stretches into the distance. Boston was a thriving sea-port during the Middle Ages until access to the port silted-up over the centuries. As with much of Fenland, Boston is home to a network of rivers, canals and  inter-connecting drainage conduits.

Wiki -link   St. Botolph's Church Boston 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Norfolk Chalk Reef

Photo:Rob Spray
The ancient coast-line of East Anglia, once the furthest extent of retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age, continues to reveal astounding evidence of early man's activities and prehistoric nature. The North Norfolk coast-line in particular is a rich source of geological and archaeological wonders. These include the Cromer Ridge, a terminal glacial moraine formed during the last Ice Age; the discovery of a fossilised skeleton of a steppe mammoth approximately 600,000 years old in the cliffs of West Runton in 1990, and  a circular arrangement of over fifty split oak tree trunks, an early man-made ritual monument named  Seahenge, dated circa 2100 BCE, which was first exposed at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998.

It's recently  been announced that the world's longest chalk reef, over 20 miles in length, stretching from Cley to Trimingham along the Norfolk coast, complete with massive two metre high arches and deep gullies has been discovered.  So far three species never recorded before have been found in the Chalk reef including the Leopard Spotted Goby, two rare anemones and an obscure purple-coloured sponge.  The Chalk Reef was the subject of a BBC regional TV  programme which was spectacular in viewing. Here's the link for a 3 minute filmed dive through the Norfolk chalk Reef . The discovery of the Chalk reef was made by Rob Spray who runs the Marine Conservation Society survey project with a team of volunteers.

Even during my hedonistic and ecstatic summers of youth, swimming, sunbathing and reading on the  beach, I never dreamed of a submarine world some 300 million years old just half a mile out from the shore and  just eight metres below  the surface of the North sea.

However, the seventeenth century doctor and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne did dream of submarine worlds. His miscellaneous tract   Museum Clausum  or Bibliotheca Abscondita  identified by W.G. Sebald  in his Rings of Saturn  (1998) as a  curious minor masterpiece of the imagination,  includes among its inventory of lost, rumoured or imagined books, pictures and objects-

9. A Sub Marine Herbal describing the several Vegetables found on the Rocks, hills, Valleys, Meadows at the bottom of the Sea, with many sorts of Alga, Fucus, Quercus, Polygonum, Gramens and others not yet described.

The world of the submarine must have been of great interest to Browne as included in his miscellaneous tract under the entries of  pictures, one reads the worthy doctor dreaming of -

3. Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Prairie 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 ; 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Cryptogram deciphered

The opening sentence of Thomas Browne's Urn-Burial challenges the reader to look beyond mere surface appearances towards the unseen and hidden.

In the deep discovery of the subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers.

An ardent enquirer questing for fresh insight into Browne's esoteric creativity would do well to cast their eye upon the curious word which heads Browne's discourse - HYDRIOTAPHIA and ponder awhile.The six syllable word has a touch of theatricality about it, its sonority arrests the ear as if a magician's abracadabra or medical mantra. Although its a word which is commonly assumed to be an alternative title to Urn-Burial in fact it defies any dictionary definition, being an invented word; nor is there any suggestion by the author that it is an alternative title, it is not followed by the word 'or' as with Browne's various alternative titles to his  1658 diptych Discourses and its often printed with a differing letter size and/or font  in most modern publications as in the original frontispiece.

It's just possible that the word HYDRIOTAPHIA is an anagram. Browne's era was one in which all manner of word-play flourished, including the devising of anagrams. Such word-play occurred not only among literate academic circles, but also in the spheres of  military and political communication.  During the English civil war coded writing, as in the form of a cryptogram, was of extreme importance in maintaining military security when defeat or victory could be decided by the deciphering of the enemy's communications. However the construction of secret codes was not exclusive to the military, Anne Geneva noted of the wide-spread engagement in word-play throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

'the seventeenth century was able to draw upon a long tradition of cryptography, dozens of ciphers surviving from the sixteenth century alone, although Sir T.B. was the first to use the word in English'.[1]

Browne was one of many learned and leisured gentlemen throughout seventeenth century Europe  who took an interest in secret codes, ciphers and anagrams. Of greater import Anne Geneva also recognised crucially that-  'Alchemy in particular seems to have thrived upon anagrams.'

With his penchant for the secretive, along with his deep-rooted interest in the esoteric, Sir Thomas Browne is a prime candidate for having anagrammatic inclinations; he not only possessed almost every major esoteric author associated with coded writing, including those by the Abbot Trithemius, the Italian polymath Della Porta and the Frenchman Blaise de Vignere [1] but also knew that both  the Polish alchemist Michel Sendivogius [2] and the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole had published alchemical literature under anagrammatic pseudonyms.[3]

In many ways Browne is the archetypal alchemist, he possessed an 'elaboratory' where he conducted numerous experiments, many of which are recorded in his encyclopaedia, including an experiment in which he suspended a magnetic pendulum above a circular table with an alphabet marked out around its circumference. He also experimented with various acids including Vitriol and was doubtlessly familiar with the near commonplace advisory derived from the initial letters of the word V.I.T.R.I.O.L. -  Visita Interiorem Terrae Rectificandoque Invenies Occultum Lapidem  which  can loosely be translated as advice to -

Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying, you will find the hidden stone.

an aphorism which bears close comparison to the opening sentence of Urn-Burial.

By rising to the challenge of the cryptic and acknowledging that the hidden world beyond appearances was a vital preoccupation of Hermetic philosophers such as Browne, essential clues can   be acquired assisting deciphering the cryptogram HYDRIOTAPHIA; when deciphered it not only highlights fundamental themes of the diptych discourses, namely death and birth, but also reveals a rare utterance from Browne's alter-ego persona.

If one heeds the literary critic Peter Green's observation that,  'Sir Thomas is his own most fascinating subject of study, and knows it’ one may with confidence extract the letter I , the most frequently used word in the English language, to begin constructing a full sentence. Having identified our subject we next need an active word such as a verb or adverb.

The opening dedicatory address in Urn-Burial to his patron, the Norfolk landowner Thomas le Gros, provides further clues to deciphering the second word of the anagram. Remembering that it was the discovery and unearthing of several burial urns at Walsingham, North Norfolk, which was the inspiration for the composition of the Discourse, the critic Joan Bennett described the physician's excitement at this 'hit of fate' and archaeological discovery which fired his imagination, scholarship and creativity thus -

'he must have rejoiced when, ten years after he had completed his magnum opus, the discovery of the Urns at Old Walsingham offered him a subject so appropriate to his interest and gifts'.[4]

Browne describes the archaeological find as a 'hit of fate' and considered the unearthing of  the Saxon-era  urns to be opportune, prompting him to contemplate time and antiquity. The initial spark of an archaeological discovery kindled Browne's imagination and  fired-up the full force of his literary creativity  to write upon the themes of  time, mortality and eternity.

Consulting Browne's contemporary, the seventeenth century lexicographer and dictionary-compiler Henry Blount's Glossographia  assists ones enquiry further. Blount includes the words 'seasonable', 'opportune',  'appropriate'  'timely' and 'tidy'  to describe a singular, lucky or unlucky event . Indeed, a miniature Dictionary published circa 1900 in the author's possession has under the entry Tidy, the definitions seasonable, clever, neat, spruce. Although the English language has altered considerably in three and a half centuries, the word 'tidy' retains its original  'hit of fate' meaning as in the phrase, 'a tidy sum of money'. Placing our ‘hit of fate', adverb as descriptive of Browne's own  'hit of  fate' we now have an opening sentence of  ' I tidy.........'

The remaining letters in the word Hydriotaphia  form a word utterly pertinent and central to the 'twin' Discourse's themes of death and rebirth -  PHARAOH .

In Urn-Burial Browne condemns all monuments to the dead as vain-glory including those built by the Egyptian Pharaoh's. The Pyramid is however one of the primary 'conjoining' symbols of the Discourses, for in The Garden of Cyrus the Pyramid is alluded to on several occasions as an example of the eternal, Platonic shapes and evidence of intelligent design in art and nature. The Garden of Cyrus also attempts to define several archetypes,  'the wise ruler' notably in its titular hero but also Augustus, Alexander the Great, Moses and many others are cited as examples of this archetype, including the earliest 'wise ruler'  of all, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who despite their folly of building  pyramid mausoleums for themselves were also 'thrice-great' rulers of Egyptian society, holding the combined office of  High Priest, Military leader and Law-giver.  

The significance of the hidden sentence within the word Hydriotaphia in context of the welter of esoteric literature published during the Protectorate of Cromwell cannot be ignored. Browne was a devoted Bibliophile who kept well-abreast of the latest in book publications. He was both a modest and self -effacing  physician who knew himself to also be a colossus of knowledge of European stature with the fame of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Observing the plethora of esoteric literature published in  the decade of the Protectorate, Browne may well in his intellectual pride believed himself  to be the opportune or  'tidy' Pharaoh of all  those who purported to be privy to Hermetic wisdom.

The hidden anagram sentence - 'I, tidy Pharaoh' - may have been inspired by Browne's knowledge that the antiquarian Elias Ashmole  had published his Norwich acquaintance Arthur Dee's alchemical collection Fasiculus Chemicus in 1650 under the anagram pseudonym of James Hassole (by subsitution of the letter J which is non-existent in Latin for I). The frontispiece of Fasiculus Chemicus  announced that Ashmole elected himself as 'the English Mercurius' and perhaps either as a gentle, playful rejoinder to Ashmole, or in a rare outburst of alter-ego, Browne proclaimed his own status in the Hermetic art under cover of an anagrammatic retort.

But perhaps in the final analysis it's the relationship between those who invent anagrams  to their subject which is the most revealing to study. The ingenuity of devising phrases to describe someone from an exterior arrangement of alphabet letters.There certainly are some remarkable examples of anagrams made from famous names and Wikipedia offers  an  interesting history of the anagram and many amusing examples.

Browne himself was made the subject of an anagram, 'made and sent to me by my ever honoured friend Sir Philip Wodehouse'. Sir Philip Wodehouse ingeniously extracted from the latin of the name Doctor Thomas Brouenis the phrase, Ter Cordatus bonus homo which roughly translates as -  'the three-fold great man'.

Wodehouse's anagram is a brilliant allusion to alchemy's  'thrice-greatest' founding sage, Hermes Trismegistus, connecting the Norwich physician to Hermetic philosophy as well as illustrating the high esteem  in which his contemporaries held him.

Of course, we'll never know absolutely for sure whether or not Browne coined the word Hydriotaphia as an anagram. Unless of course new evidence should surface. Nevertheless  it's possible to extract a three word sentence from this curious word which  makes allusion to a favourite study of Browne's, namely ancient Egypt and to fundamental themes of the discourses namely death and birth. It is also a bold statement made with characteristic humour of an alter-ego alias .


Although this proposed deciphering of an anagram can never be fully proven, one is none the less reminded of Browne's observation-

'The Hand of Providence writes often by Abbreviatures, Hieroglyphics or short Characters, which...are not to be made out but by a Hint or Key from that Spirit which indited them'. [6]

[1] Anne Geneva - Astrology and the seventeenth century mind  Manchester University Press 1995
[2]  Examples of coded writing author's in Browne's library include Trithemius Polygraphia S.C. p.30  no. 17 and Blaise de Vigenere Tract du Feu & du Sal  S.Cpage 32 no.22
[3] 'Another kind of verticity, is that which Angelus doce mihi jua. alias Michael Sundevogius, in a Tract De Sulphure, discovereth in Vegetables...' Browne in Bk 2 chapter 3 of P.E.
[4]  When Elias Ashmole published the alchemical writings of Browne's Norwich acquaintance, Arthur Dee, son of the elizabethan magus John Dee, he wrote under the anagrammatic pseudonym of James Hasholle (by substition of the inter-changability of the  letters I/J )
[5] Joan Bennett   Sir Thomas Browne    Cambridge University Press    1962
[6] Christian Morals Part  I  Section 25

Sunday, October 09, 2011


Giovan Pietro Birago (c.1450-1513 ) was born in Milan. In 1490 he entered the service of the leading Venetian family, the Sforza. While illustrating a Book of Hours for the Sforza, his work was stolen. October is only one of three leaves which survived the theft. In 2004 the British Library acquired October for £191,000 adding  it to their collection of  illuminated miniatures by Birago.  

October, a calendar leaf from the Sfzora Book of Hours dating from circa 1490, is a work of tempera and gold on parchment measuring 11 x 9 centimetres. In the medieval tradition of portraying the labours associated with each month it depicts peasants making wine in the background. Its foreground is dominated by horse-riding nobility engaged in hunting, accompanied by their servants, hounds and falcons. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Thomas Morley

Music can draw the hearer in chains of gold to the consideration of holy things.   - Thomas Morley

The 1711 Sales Catalogue of the library of Sir Thomas Browne records a copy of Thomas Morley's A Plaine and easie way to make Musicke (1597) as once shelved at the Norwich physician and philosopher's home. Morley's book remained in print for over 200 years and is a valuable document upon the music-making of his era.

From his humble background as the son of a Norwich brewer, Thomas Morley (1557-1602) rose to the heights of organist at Saint Paul's cathedral and was privileged to study music under William Byrd. Morley's era, the second half of the sixteenth century, saw a surge in music-making in England, in particular a near craze for the accomplishment of skilled lute-playing among gentlemen, especially courtiers. Morley's era also witnessed the popularity of secular verse sung to complex harmonies known as madrigals, of which he was a prominent composer. Morley's musical skills also catered for instrumental music-making when in 1599 he published The first book of Consort Lessons, arrangements of his and various other composer's music for broken consort; the six instruments of the broken consort consisting of lute, flute, bandora, cittern and two viols, bass and treble. The viol  family of string instruments are precursors to the violin family. To modern ears a viol consort of three to five players, can sound slightly and deliciously 'creaky' with their wide compass of enharmonic overtones. Elizabethan music-making also included performances of the  masque, an elaborate form of early theatre from which ballet and opera evolved. Masques were often performed at  the Royal Court and involved singers and instruments. Lavishly produced, they featured spectacular costumes and stage-effects.

Thomas Morley
Morley's era was one in which the so-called 'Golden Age' of English music flourished. From roughly the 1560's until Purcell's death in 1695, English music developed and established a distinctive voice,  a  'Golden Age' of musical talent which would not occur in England again until the second half of the 20th century. Besides Thomas Morley, other Elizabethan composers of note include 'the father of English music' William Byrd (1540-1623), the melancholic lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626) and the keyboard player Thomas Tomkins (1572 -1656) who incidentally, owned a signed copy of Morley's Plaine and easie way to make Musicke. Of the later Jacobean era, William Lawes (1602-43) and the industrious and pious John Jenkins (1592-1678) who may have been acquainted with Sir Thomas Browne when resident in Norfolk, are all rewarding to listen to. Today, with the revival of interest in music which pre-dates J.S. Bach, the early music composers of England are frequently recorded and performed. There's much in the catalogue of early English music well worth hearing, including Morley's madrigals along with his First book of Consort Lessons.

One wonders whether Morley played any part in the music-making festivities when Queen Elizabeth I visited Norwich in 1578. A contemporary reported of her visit -
Herewith she passed under the gate.....and the musicians within the gate, upon their soft instruments, used broken musick...The next night...there was an excellent princely mask brought before her after supper, by Master Goldingham, in the Privie Chamber; it was of gods and goddesses, both strangely and richly apparelled...Then entered a consort of musicke; viz. six musicians, all in long vestures of white scarcenet girded about them, and garlands on their heads, playing very cunningly.

Queen Elizabeth's 'Royal Progress' to Norwich in 1578 is included in the English composer Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana  which was written in the year of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953.  Act Two of Britten's opera is set against the back-drop of the Guildhall at Norwich. Elizabeth I  is welcomed by the City Recorder and then a masque is performed which she and the Royal court watch. Six dances, including a Morris dance are performed. Personifications of Time and Concord are among the principle characters in the masque who, accompanied by a chorus of rustic country maids and fishermen conclude the entertainment with a homage to the Queen.

It was a neat device of Benjamin Britten's to include a visit to Norwich by 'good Queen Bess' in his opera Gloriana. It  must be nearly 40 years ago now, when a teen-age school-boy, if I remember rightly, that our rehearsal of Noye's Fludde, a medieval  mystery play set to music by Benjamin Britten was interrupted. It was the composer himself, who dropped in to thank the boys and girls for all their hard work rehearsing his work. Britten's cantata for mixed ensemble of amateurs was first performed in Orford church in June 1958, the composer insisting that no future performances were to be made in a theatre, but only ever in churches or Halls.

Its worth noting that Browne's edition of Morley's primer on music (Sales Catalogue Page 45 number 47) is a first edition when in fact a modern edition could have been easily acquired, evidence of Browne being the consummate bibliophile and collector of rare books.  One cannot resist noting that the frontispiece illustration  to Morley's book (pictured above) depicts not only the various muses associated with  music and learning, but also the sun and moon as deities. Finally, also at the very bottom of the frontispiece illustration  holding a staff-like caduceus, there can be seen the elusive god of travel and communication, ruler of traders and thieves alike and patron of alchemy, Mercurius.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Enjoying the late return of Summer for several cloudless days now, with the temperature touching 27 degrees Celsius, I spotted a Robin in my garden. They really are exceptionally tame birds. For a full 20 minutes he hopped back and forth from fence to ground in search of food, occasionally singing, curious at my watching him. The secret to observing nature's wonders is quite simply stillness and silence, two commodities increasingly in short supply in the world today. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

William Lawes

Today (September 24th) is the anniversary of the death of the English composer William Lawes (1602-43). William Lawes was composer in residence to King Charles I and during the English civil war he enlisted in the Royal army; however in 1643 he was shot and killed during the siege of Chester, aged just 41. Lawes death prompted King Charles I to declare a period of mourning and to honour him with the title of 'Father of Musick'. William Lawes is chiefly remembered today for his Viol Consort Setts for 5 & 6 viols, his music being characterized by lyricism, a wide variety of keys, experimental harmonies and varied moods. 

One of Lawes last works was a fantasy on a penitential psalm entitled, 'I am weary of my groaning'. With William Lawes death English music lost potentially one its greatest composers. However his Consort Setts are today frequently recorded and performed, notably by Fretwork, the foremost musicians associated with the revival of  music for viols. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Michael Jarvis

Today the sad news that Michael Jarvis, one of Newmarket's top race-horse trainers for 40 years has died aged 73 of cancer. The master of Kremlin House Stables began training race-horses way back in 1968; his major wins include Eswarah winning the Oaks in 2005, Ameerat winning the 1000 Guineas in 2001, Holding Court winning the French Derby in 2000, Rakti winning the Prince of Wales Stakes and  Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Carroll House winning Europe's most prestigious race, the Prix de l' Arc de Triumphe in 1989. He also won big Group 1 races in Italy, Germany, France and the Topkapi Cup in Istanbul, Turkey.

Michael Jarvis was first and foremost a real gentleman, modest and soft-spoken. I had the pleasure of congratulating him at Yarmouth race-track in August 2007, with the first time out win of Ancien Regime, a 2 year old owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Jarvis belongs to a generation of true sportsmen, highly successful as a race-horse trainer for decades and much respected in the Flat horse-racing world.

Here's a photo of Jarvis with his long-serving 'in-house' jockey Philip Robinson in the parade ring at Yarmouth race-track on a cold April day in 2008.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vitruvian Man

Recently, when speculating upon whether the German mystic Hildegard von Bingen's manuscript illustration of Universal Man  is in any way related to the Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci's well-known image of Vitruvian man, I found that Sir Thomas Browne once owned a book entitled L'Architettura di Vitruvio (Venice 1641) complete with a commentary by the Italian humanist Daniele Barbaro (1514-1570) [1]. But in fact its highly improbable that the writings of Vitruvius could have been re-discovered in Germany in the 12th century, the rediscovery of Vitruvius usually being credited to the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1414. It was Vitruvius who noted of the proportions of the human body that-

Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square. [2]

It's quite possible that Browne also once owned books by Italian Renaissance painters, including those of Da Vinci. The 1711 Sales Catalogue advertises Books of Sculpture and Painting with choice manuscripts for sale, but as the American scholar and editor J.S. Finch noted, no such books arrived at the auction-house having mysteriously disappeared. 

It's in Plato's philosophical discourse the Symposium that the idea of an original, androgynous, double-natured man can be found -

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word "Androgynous" is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents.

while in Sir Thomas Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) one reads-

Nor is the same observable only in some parts, but in the whole body of man, which upon the extension of arms and legges, doth make out a square, whose intersection is at the genitals. To omit the phantastical Quincunx, in Plato of the first Hermaphrodite or double man, united at the Loynes, which Jupiter after divided.

Plato's Original Man bears some resemblance to the Biblical account in Genesis in which God, taking a rib from Adam when asleep, forms a companion for him, naming her Eve. (Gen.2: 21-22)

Nevertheless an interesting  correpondence between the geometrical design of Hildegard's Universal Man and Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is evident; while Sir Thomas Browne's own highly original interpretation of the Platonic archetypes can be detected throughout  The Garden of Cyrus

[1] 1711 Sales Catalogue page 39 no.18
[2]  Vitruvius - On Architecture Book 3, i, 3

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hildegard von Bingen

Today (September 17th) is the feast day of the German Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098 -1197 ) who not only wrote music but  was also a poetess, theologian, a Benedictine Abbess and all round polymath. The Sibyl of the Rhine as she was known, was consulted by princes, popes and emperors for her prophetic insight. Like Julian of Norwich, Hildegard experienced serious illness before receiving her visions. 

It was the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who remarked -

The creative mystic was ever a cross for the church, but it is to him that we owe what is best in humanity.

Jung might have added  and her as far as Christian mystics are concerned for many notable women mystics are recorded throughout the history of Christianity. Recently, feminist interest in Hildegard has  also grown, as has her place in  'New Age' philosophies for her holistic approach to life.

The above picture entitled  Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water dates from 1165. It's an extremely intriguing quaternity of images conveying a certain numinous quality of Hildgard's mystical experiences and   shares in my view, an affinity with the Layer Monument quaternity.

The other image worth pondering upon in Hildegard's art is her Universal Man, an illumination from her Liber Divinorum Operum (1165). To my mind its an image which strongly suggests that perhaps Hildegard had the opportunity to read of the so-called Vitruvian man of antiquity, the human proportional representation which Leonardo Da Vinci based his own famous image upon. Essentially a vision of the Anthropos, or Greater Man within, of which Christ remains the most potent living symbol of; Hildegard can be seen in the bottom left corner,  receiving and writing her vision.

But with mystics one can never be too confident there was ever a previous vision to the original one presented. However, universal and cosmic, Hildegard von Bingen and her Christian faith has endured, nine centuries on, to speak deeply of the spiritual life. The mystic, as ever, has the last word on the soul.

There's been a renaissance in recordings of Hildegard's music in the past two decades, I particularly like Richard Souther's pop music interpretation Vision (1995) with Emily van Evera singing. Hildegard's music has been considerably modernized on this recording, complete with multi-tracking and synthesizers but nevertheless its a very inexpensive buy on Amazon and a great introduction and reinterpretation. I used some of its tracks as interludes when first acting as Sir Thomas Browne in the church of Saint John the Baptist, Maddermarket in December 1996. 

A more traditional approach to Hildegard's music is A Feather on the Breath of God with Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices (Hyperion 2000). But there's a bewildering range of recording available in the catalogue at present, a veritable mine-field of good and uninspired  interpretations of Hildegard's music.

Here's the link to the Wikipedia entry on  Hildegard von Bingen

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Joseph Stannard

Today is the birth-date of Joseph Stannard, the Norwich artist who died tragically young of tuberculosis aged just 33. Joseph Stannard ( Sept. 13th 1797- Dec. 5th 1830) was one of the most gifted artists who exhibited collectively under the banner of  Norwich School from 1803 to 1833, the city being the home of the first regional art movement in British art. Such was the precocious development of the young Joseph  that he began exhibiting his paintings aged 14 in 1811. He looks confident and aware of his talents in his teacher Robert Ladbrooke's portrait of him.

Joseph Stannard's life is exemplary of  the romantic notion of a struggling  artist. Living in the turbulent era of  the early nineteenth century, he was often in financial difficulties and in poor health. In addition to his artistic skills he was, like his younger brother Alfred, a strong rower. He was also an  accomplished ice-skater who entertained the locals with his skill during cold winters. Stannard's era was also that of the Napoleonic wars which were prohibitive to travel  in mainland Europe. When stability returned to Europe, Stannard took the opportunity to visit Holland. In Amsterdam in 1821 he viewed paintings by seventeenth century Dutch landscape masters Ruisdael, Berchem and Hobbema which deepened his interest in marine and seascape subjects. He married in 1822 and in 1824 his fortune changed when the Norwich manufacturer John Harvey commissioned him to paint what is his master-work, Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon. Harvey's agenda was to establish Norwich as a sea-port for the export of his merchandise. After visiting Venice and witnessing festivities held on the water there he organised a similar event for Norwich society which promoted his idea of Norwich returning to its sea-port status.

In many ways Stannard's  Thorpe Water Frolic is an important social document of a rare day off work for Norwich's textile workers who are depicted upon the right bank of the river Yare. The growing middle-class, civic dignitaries and aristocracy of Georgian England are located on the opposite river-bank.

Joseph Stannard has used a fair amount of poetic licence in his capturing the mood of the event, complete with musicians playing Schubert, courting couples, naval officers, rugged seamen and city loom workers  all enjoying a work-free day on the river. Particular attention to weather conditions and a vigorous cloudscape frames the lively water-event.

Stannard's own boat the Cytherea is on the extreme right of the canvas. Joseph can be seen shielding his brow with his hand looking toward his patron Harvey standing in a gondola. He certainly entered into the spirit of the event which attracted 20,000 people in 1824, his boat is described thus-
'its colour is purple; the inside is adorned with an elegant gilt scroll, which completely encircles it; on the back-board where the coxswain sits, is a beautiful and spirited sea-piece, representing a stiff breeze at sea, with vessels sailing in various directions, painted in oils, and the spoons of the oars are neatly covered with gilt dolphins'.
There's an interesting inter-play between Stannard the sailor who depicted the rigging and canvas sails of boats with every rope in its correct place and the medium of canvas on which he painted. Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon is dominated by a canvas sail catching the breeze. The large-scale oil on canvas painting itself measures 108 x 172 cms and  is a jewel in the crown of the Crome and Cotman  galleries in Norwich Castle Museum.

Although the artists of the Norwich School  had the inspiration and natural beauty of the Norfolk landscape and its waterways upon their door-step, the tragedy many artists suffered from was a distinct lack of local patronage, obliging many talented members to engage in much drudging, teaching work in order to make a living, such was J.J.Cotman's frequent fate; worse still,  it also suffered from an  intense rivalry between leading families.

Ever since the young Joseph Stannard had enquired about lessons from the founding father of the Norwich School 'Old Crome'  John Crome (1768-1821) a bitter hostility existed between the two families. Crome quoted an extortionate sum which was in effect a snub to the Stannard family. The hostility between the Crome and Stannard families seems to have persisted throughout the nineteenth century, even to the grandchildren of the two masters of  'Old Crome' and Stannard, both families producing several generations of artists.

In some respects Joseph Stannard's biography comes across as the consumptive poet of romanticism not unlike Keats. In his finest paintings, Stannard's paintings burst beyond the confines of restrained Classicism into a lyrical, early Romanticism.There's also an equal balance between landscape and realistic portraiture of people who are active and integral to the landscape in Stannard's painting, unlike Crome's landscapes in which people are often incidental, or present only for emphasis of scale and perspective.

Throughout the 1820's Stannard  had intermittent bouts of poor health and resided at various Norfolk coastal resorts in order to recuperate. His later works include several highly original beach scenes which include activities of working fishermen. However in December of 1830 he died of tuberculosis aged 33. A memorial stone commemorating Joseph Stannard can be seen in the church of Saint John Maddermarket, Norwich.

Wikipedia has a page on Joseph  Stannard which links to a number of his paintings.  

Monday, September 12, 2011


Living in a city which has more medieval churches anywhere north of the Alps and rich in other cultural treasures, it's easy to overlook some art-work in Norwich's churches. It's not all entirely medieval here in Norwich, at the church of Saint Margaret for example, there's an east window commissioned in the 1960's and utterly 60's in style, depicting the Ascension of Christ. A refreshing change from the garish colours of Victorian stained-glass in many churches.

The Norwich organisation HEART (Heritage Economic Regeneration Trust) a charitable body, promoted four 'Open Days' from September 8 -11 to celebrate the City's extraordinary rich cultural heritage. Held every September the 'Open Days' make accessible some historic buildings not always open to the general public.  HEART's annual event grows in popularity each year, as I and a small army of volunteers will testify, after a hectic four days of meeting and greeting literally hundreds of visitors.

It's time to take stock of Norwich's cultural heritage. The public support and interest in the city's cultural heritage is strong and enthusiastic. However this support can never be matched economically in full by public donation alone. The future of many historical buildings in Norwich cannot be guaranteed until government or local council designates a greater value and percentage of tax or rates towards regional heritage. Although the whole world cannot thrive upon the growing tourist industry, Norfolk and Norwich in particular could gain enormously if highlighted as a tourist destination, including the creation of new jobs. The shortage of hotel space for visitors which Norwich once suffered from has now been remedied by several new large hotels, while HEART's recent 'twinning' with the city of Ghent could well provide further insights into how to effectively develop a tourist economy. 

The problem in reality is one which not only haunts Norwich but England as a whole, as the recent riots demonstrated. It's one of identity and self-confidence, who we are, how we address the world and how we wish the world to  view us. Norwich is a city rich in tourist attractions and mellow in atmosphere, but which cannot at present either decide or is lacking funding between the following - a faster and more efficient travel connection to London, which is feared will somehow erode the city's character - the construction of a new Northern bypass causing some serious local ecological  damage - or the  development  and expansion of routes from its airport, enhancing  its  continental connections. Its not seen as possible to have both a Northern by-pass and extended runways for a larger airport. Each of these projects, delayed or otherwise, impact considerably upon the city's future. Norwich's geographical location, as much of its cultural past indicates, lays very much towards the North-sea board of Europe, its historic past is intimately connected with the Baltic ports, the Benelux coast-line and even remoter parts of Europe. These geographic locations may ultimately be the source of Norwich's future economic well-being. Governments however, especially the present-day Euro-sceptic's, may influence the future otherwise. Norwich's true, radical identity is revealed by it's motto, which is Do Different. Whether the city will live up to its motto in the future is another matter.

For myself the Heritage week-end gave me the chance to create a few of my own modest events including the opportunity to talk on the Layer Monument and a demonstration of the marvellous acoustical properties of the church of Saint John Maddermarket. Connecting my ipod to an amplifier which in turn was connected to two 75 watt PA horn speakers placed high up in the organ gallery, when playing recordings of organ music by Pachelbel, Jehan Alain and Arvo Part, some visitors believed they were hearing a newly restored church organ!

I met many interesting people throughout the four open days and was amazed at the knowledge displayed by many on Norwich's cultural history. I also slowly began to realise as the four days progressed, that in many ways the greater part of Norwich's cultural heritage is to be found not so much in  its stone and art-work but in its people, both living and deceased.

P.S. Extensively restored at great cost in 2007, the 17th century Berney Monument remains as elusive as ever to view. I've lived in Norwich my entire life and have yet to see it. Although advertised as viewable from 10-4 p.m. on Saturday the church of Saint Peter Parmentergate was locked up by 1 p.m. !

The Berney monument is of particular interest having like the Layer Monument, a quaternity of statuettes in this case allegorical figures of Faith,  Hope, Charity and a winged Father Time. 

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