Marshall Rosenberg

18 Apr
Marshall Rosenberg | Banyen Books & Sound

One of the UK’s most thoughtful comedians, Tony Hawks, introduced Marshall Rosenberg to the British public on a BBC radio series called ‘Great Lives‘. Rosenberg spent his life developing and applying the idea of non-violent communication. He taught the rudiments of such communication by contrasting what he called ‘Giraffe language’ with the prevailing aggressive ethos which he called ‘Jackal language’. Initially, Rosenberg’s mode of presentation can seem faintly bizarre and off-the-wall. But the lightness and humour with which he imbued his workshops should not cloud the fact that the substance of what he says is not merely original, but of considerable importance.

Rosenberg shows how ‘Jackal language’, the prevailing mode of communication in today’s world, tends to lead directly to conflict and aggression. But by developing ‘Giraffe language’, a mode that focuses on the needs behind communications, the growth of anger and violence can be stemmed, if not actually removed altogether. The link (below) is to a workshop conducted by Marshall Rosenberg some years ago. Don’t be put off by the fact that the clip is 3 hours long, it is up to the reader how much or how little to watch. I would ask though, that you take in at least the first 15 minutes so as to get beyond the unusual means of presentation and discover the substance beneath. After watching for a while I found the piece compelling.

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Orlando Ottolenghi

1 Apr

It can have come as no surprise when, in 1968, Orlando Ottolenghi won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Diaries of Vincent Vermicelli. Ottolenghi was born in dramatic circumstances in 1942 on the island of Gnocchi as war raged around the family home and an air-raid was at its height. His father, Maurizio Manicotti Ottolenghi had married his childhood sweetheart Louisa Linguine, the disabled daughter of the local baker, the ceremony taking place just as Mussolini was taking power.

Tragically the newly-weds’ first child, Pici, died before his twelfth birthday, but the second boy, Orlando, quickly showed promise in languages and creative writing. His teacher, Frederico Fettuccini, put the young prodigy forward for a scholarship to the University of Trofi. There his professor and mentor, Fillippo Farfalle supported Ottolenghi’s search for a publisher. His first book, a volume of poems entitled Strozzapreti was taken up by the publishing house Perciatelli in Rome. It was his editor, Tomaso Tagliatelle, who ensured an American audience for Ottolenghi, securing a deal with the publishers Boccoli and Festoni of Boston.

By now Ottolenghi was in love. In 1964 he married Constanza Conchiglie (she was later to write Vesuvio, a book of Italian haiku that won the Treccioni medal). The couple toured the United States during the late 1960s and found a country in turmoil at the height of the Vietnam War. The Diaries of Vincent Vermicelli struck a chord, dealing as it does with the Passatelli Conflict of the early seventeen hundreds. With a deft touch, Ottolenghi handles the themes of invasion, political ideology and the intertwining of personal and national fortunes. The distinguished critic Georgio Garganelli rated Ottolenghi’s masterpiece alongside that of both Chifferi and Gomiti. And who are we to argue?

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Brenda Chamberlain

24 Mar
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‘Evening has come. It is cold on this sunless rock. Waves toss tumultuously past the shore. The pool grows more and more mysterious, and a stench rises from the sleeping-ledges. The old black bull seal snorts at me from somewhere below. A pale moon rises in the wind-burnished sky. I sit alone with the waves, the creatures and the stones.’

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In Tide-Race, Brenda Chamberlain (1912-1971) describes her life on Bardsey Island, just off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales. Bardsey, or Ynys Enlli, is often described as the island of twenty thousand saints, but Chamberlain’s account, if beautifully written, is unromantic and unsentimental. Here is a chronicle in which the soil gets between the toes, where the initial resistance of the local people towards incomers is raw and stark, and in which only granite walls are sufficient to keep the abrasive and unmitigated gales at bay. Tide-Race remains in print, published by Seren Classics (www.serenbooks.com) and I recommend it heartily.

After her education in Bangor and the Royal Academy Schools, Brenda Chamberlain painted (her self-portrait is pictured above) and wrote poetry from her home in Llanllechid in Snowdonia. There she founded, with John Petts and Alun Lewis, the Caseg Broadsheets. Then from 1946 to 1962 she lived on Bardsey, wintering in Germany. Later she moved to the Greek island of Hydra and worked with the dancer Robertos Saragos and the musician Halim el Dabh.

I was reminded of Brenda Chamberlain recently while watching a new series of three programmes about the history of Welsh Art. Huw Stephens provides the viewer with an engaging and enthusiatic journey from prehistoric times to the modern day, criss-crossing Wales in search of art, some now main-stream, but other pieces resting long undiscovered, tucked away in the nooks and crannies of little known histories. The entire series is available to watch at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000st2j/the-story-of-welsh-art

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The Art of the Obituary

9 Nov

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 100th Article ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is the 100th article written and uploaded in the last 100 days and so Altiora is now taking a much needed break. All the existing articles will, of course, remain accessible to you. Thank you for reading the blog, it is most encouraging to have your continued interest and support.

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Lord Michael Pratt

Lord Michael Pratt (Photograph by Desmond O’Neill)

As regular readers will know, I love to truffle out dyed-in-the-wool eccentrics. What follows are a few excerpts from a genuine obituary. Sadly the author remained uncredited. I found the notice in a yellowed and crumpled old clipping but could not discover the title of the newspaper. As companion to this snippet stands a book called Britain’s Greek Empire (1978, London, Rex Collings) by the very same Michael Pratt. We live in gloomy times but I hope that this will help you smile. It is the funniest obituary I have ever read.

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Lord Michael Pratt, who has died aged 61, will be remembered as one of the last Wodehouseian figures to inhabit London’s clubland and as a much travelled author who pined for the days of Empire; he will also be remembered as an unabashed snob and social interloper on a grand scale.

Pratt would arrive at country houses announcing that he was en route to another castle or (even larger) stately home, and was intending to stay for only one night. Quite often the ‘night’ would turn into weeks, and sometimes months.

Although he was generous with his conversation, gossip and anecdote, many hostesses tired of Pratt’s failure to make anything but the smallest contribution to the house or staff.

Michael John Henry Pratt was born on August 15 1946, the youngest son of the 5th Marquess of Camden. He was sent to Eton, having already acquired the rotund shape that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

At school the young Pratt distinguised himself by emptying a vessel of soapy water over the head of his housemaster. Pratt had been washing in a bucket and, rather than dispose of the contents into the drain, he tipped them out of the window. “Come here, Pratt,” said Mr. Addison, the drenched housemaster. “Certainly not,” responded Pratt. “I’m far too busy.”

On arriving at Balliol College, Oxford, Pratt took exception to the state of his rooms, decamping to the Randolph Hotel until his mother arrived with bucket and mop to render his apartments habitable. Oxford otherwise began well for him, and he settled in socially and academically. He graduated with a Second in Modern History, however causing some consternation in the family, who had hoped for a First. His mother, the Marchioness, suspected him of being idle; Pratt maintained that he was unable to study owing to a broken leg.

In fact both these things were true. Just before his finals Pratt was involved in an horrific car crash in which he broke his nose, jaw and spine. There are those who claim that his demeanour changed dramatically following the accident; certainly he became somewhat short tempered. There followed numerous rows with anyone who crossed him, and many rumbled on until the day he died.

At Oxford Pratt was secretary of the Gridiron, a lunch and dining club founded in 1884 that numbered Michael Ancram and Douglas Hogg among its members. He was also a leading light in another Oxford club called the Snuff Committee, the sole purpose of which was to take snuff and drink port. Membership was by invitation only; the only stipulation was that one had to be the son of a landowner.

After graduating Pratt found a position at Lazard Brothers, the merchant bank. Three months into his new job, however, he judged that it would be more agreeable to attend Royal Ascot than to turn up at the office, and his services were dispensed with. He never again sought full-time employment.

Pratt’s working day would usually start with a large gin and tonic before he meandered towards White’s Club in St. James. He was a great social genealogist, and took much pleasure in regaling listeners with stories of family matters. Towards the end of his life however he found himself barred from one of his clubs. Ironically this was Pratt’s, where he was asked to leave the premises following a spectacular altercation with a waitress.

Pratt was generally ill at ease with modern technology, and even after his motor accident at Oxford he remained a demon car driver, terrifying passengers with his speed and overtaking technique, which he often employed on blind bends at speeds of more than 70mph.

Pratt was equally dangerous with firearms. On one drive he shot a fellow gun in the eye, and invitations to shoot dried up.

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Magnus Engstrom

8 Nov

At present, nowhere is more exciting in the realm of contemporary art than the Nordic countries. American by birth, but of Swedish heritage, the architect and artist Magnus Engstrom (1936 – ) created this work, ‘Musicians playing music‘, which first prompted my interest in his art. Thanks to considerable help from a correspondent, Randy McCauley from the USA, I have discovered that Engstrom, father of three, record collector and avid concert-goer, was born in Alhambra, California and later moved to Park Ridge, Illinois where he graduated in Arts at the College of Fine Arts, University of Illinois. Subsequently Engstrom lived in Palo Alto.

This second painting, Sail Boats on Choppy Waters, was sold at auction, possibly in New York, in 2015.

I am also grateful to a reader (Tara) who has kindly sent me an image of another work by Engstrom depicting the outline of a recumbent figure in a landscape. What is exciting about this painting is the way that the lines of the figure both reflect and meld into the landscape in a profoundly natural way. The sweep of the hills and the contours of the legs and torso are as one. The luminosity of the distant peaks is echoed in the highlights of the sleeper’s skin. For me, this harmony of landscape and figure is quite breathtaking.

I am also grateful for the contribution of another reader, Patricia Brophy from New York, who sent me this image of an Engstrom work dated 1967. She tells me that when she obtained the painting it had been spattered by small dots of white paint: “I guess whoever threw it out wasn’t worried about it. I didn’t want to try to do anything to it and they don’t bother me.” I can only congratulate Patricia on recognizing its worth and rescuing the work, a depiction of a structure affirming the relationship between architecture and music.

Jeanna Samuels was kind enough to send me another picture that combines recognisable shapes with abstract concepts. This image is of an undated Engstrom work of aircraft, their outlines rendered all the more powerful for their angular geometry and thrust.

I am equally grateful to John Brittain for sending me a copy of his Engstrom painting dated 1970. What is interesting about this picture (below) is its similarity to the next illustration. Both contain the juxtaposition of people, possibly cyclists, against an urban or commercial landscape. The first image is far more geometrical and much less colourful than the second.

Randy McCauley, from his own collection of Engstrom paintings, has kindly sent me several images. The paintings all use a high quality canvas and are mainly in acrylics. Some of the works were framed by the California Picture Framing Co. of Pasadena.

Powerful and unusual colours and (in early pieces) strong guiding or fragmenting or shattering lines are the hallmarks of Engstrom’s work.

But Mr. McCauley makes an astute observation when he says of his collection “I noticed that as the years passed, Engstrom stopped painting straight lines. I always enjoy asking people what they see in the paintings, it’s great fun when they point out something that I didn’t see.” (So do please feel free to comment on these new additions to the article, I’m sure that readers will see different things in each of the works.) Here are some further examples of later works which demonstrate the gradually increasing fluidity – and then abolition – of line to which Randy refers:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is engstrom-horse-and-rider.jpg

(Note that the penultimate painting in this sequence is actually a nude study which at first glance is easily mistaken for a landscape.)

I do love Engstrom’s work. Why does it appeal to me so strongly? I don’t know. It just speaks to me. I suppose, in the end, this is a reasonable working definition of what art is. Something that just speaks to you. If anyone can tell us anything more about Magnus Engstrom and his art please do leave a comment.

Sara Kestelman

7 Nov
King Lear (unabridged) – Naxos AudioBooks

I’m told that Queenie Leavis ‘hated it’, and I can understand why, but I still think of The Last Romantics by Nigel Williams as one of the most remarkable plays of the twentieth century. Leo McKern was Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, Ian Holm played F.R. Leavis and Sara Kestelman was Queenie Leavis. (Surely that should be Dame Sara Kestelman shouldn’t it?) All three leading actors were simply stunning.

I suspect that what Queenie Leavis found objectionable was that the play seemed to imply that Frank’s inwardness with great literature amounted almost to idolatry, that he had few good students during his time at Cambridge, and that covertly he was sentimental in the most saccharine way. None of these things was true of him.

But I digress.

Sara Kestelman, it transpires, is not only a marvellous actor, she is also an extremely good poet. In 1996, with the equally talented Susan Penhaligon, she wrote a book called A Two Hander. (The volume was published by the wonderfully named Do-Not-Press). Some of the poems are witty and entertaining. Others reveal the genuine pain that comes from lives that constantly involve being anyone but oneself. Actors can (must?) fool audiences into constructing new narratives about individuals they recognise but have never met – after all, isn’t this the basis of ‘fandom’?

Sometimes the welter of differing personas and expectations forced on an actor must leave little room for her or his own identity. Self-knowledge cannot be easy to fathom in such circumstances. Sara Kestelman’s poems deal in some depth with complex psychogical matters like these. And her writing achieves a breathtaking clarity and freshness. If you ever spot a copy of this now rare book do grab it. I feel sure you won’t be disappointed.

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The Cure

Time passed.

I didn’t call.

Nor did he.

And suddenly

I found it didn’t matter after all.

Eureka!

I’m cured!

~ Sara Kestelman

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Altiora recommends:

Kestelman, Sara and Penhaligon, Susan (1996) A Two Hander, London, The Do-Not-Press.

Heinrich Böll

6 Nov
Böll in 1981

Being compelled to read an author at school can put one off for life. But not when one reads Heinrich Böll. The first book of his that I read, Irish Journal, was a treat from beginning to end and Böll’s clear writing and witty style helped foster my love of the German language and its literature.

There is a lovely story within Irish Journal of an old fellow called Seamus, the proud owner of a bicycle, who enjoys his beer. Each day in his own village the pub is only open for certain hours as set by law. But all too often, when Seamus is thirsty, the inn is closed. There is, however, another, more helpful law that any traveller who is at least three miles from home may not be refused a cooling drink.

Seamus can, therefore, mount his bike and make his way to the next hamlet, some six miles away. The pub in that neighbouring habitation, being sufficiently distant, stands under an obligation to serve Seamus his beer.

Half way through his Journey, at the top of a steep hill, Seamus meets his cousin Dermot. Dermot happens to live in exactly that place where Seamus is headed. Now, Dermot also wants a drink but he cannot get it at home. By law Dermot must cycle to the pub in Seamus’s village if he is to quench his thirst.

They meet again later that same day at roughly the same spot, both melodiously drunk and both of them homeward bound.

Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) was born in Cologne. He opposed Nazism from the outset but had to serve as a conscript during the war. In his book Wo warst du, Adam? (And where were you, Adam?) Böll writes movingly of the idiocy and senslessness of war. Again in Der Zug war pünktlich (The train was on time) Böll depicts the tragedy of war through the inevitability of fate and the horrors met by German soldiers on the Eastern front. He points to the permanent mark left by such experiences on the human beings subjected to them. In 1972 Heinrich Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1974, thanks to Heinrich Böll and my excellent German teacher, Mr. Robinson, I passed my exam. I went to the pub and raised a glass to them both – and afterwards a second glass to Seamus and Dermot.

Altiora recommends:

Böll, Heinrich (1984) Irisches Tagebuch, Irish Journal, London Abacus.

Böll, Heinrich (1994) Wo warst du, Adam?, And Where Were You, Adam?, Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Böll, Heinrich (2019) Der Zug war pünktlich, The Train Was On Time, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Ludwig van Beethoven

5 Nov

This year we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (17th Dec 1770 – 26th Mar 1827). Some forty years ago my father, an artist, asked me what I should like for a birthday present. I answered that if it weren’t too great a request I had long wished for a portrait of Beethoven and would he paint one for me? On my birthday I was given this wonderful canvas (above) and it continues to take pride of place in my study.

My favourite chamber piece by Beethoven is the Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 13, the ‘Pathétique’. There are, of course, excellent recordings by Barenboim and Ashkenazy, both of whom give the music immense space and an impressive range of emphasis. Equally there is Wilhelm Kempff’s delightful rendition which, in the slow movement, offers a slightly quicker tempo than many pianists, so giving us a little more of the cantabile without sacrificing the adagio. But I think that for most of the time the performance I particularly enjoy is that of the relative newcomer Freddy Kempf. Here he plays the second movement, marked Adagio cantabile.

To my ear this is a beautifully restrained performance. The tempo is just right, allowing the full expression of the music without becoming either ponderous or hasty. The cantabile is true and full, but at the same time unforced. And unlike some pianists, Kempf refuses to swamp the personality of Beethoven with his own ego. Most of all, the music is allowed to breathe. Each of us will have her or his own view, but for me this is an exquisite performance. It does full justice to one of the world’s greatest piano compositions.

Altiora recommends:

The website of Freddy Kempf (includes a complete discography of CDs and DVDs).

https://www.freddy-kempf.com/

The Art of Courtesy

4 Nov
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In 1528 ‘The Book of the Courtier’ by Baldassare Castiglione (above) was published in Venice. The work defined good manners, the rules of etiquette and courtly behaviour.

‘Manners-books’, as they were known, were already popular in Europe and the most famous example of the genre in Britain appeared some two hundred years later in 1737 with Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Chesterfield adjured that courtesy and good manners were important because they allowed one to take one’s place in polite society.

In all these books specific advice was offered in such matters as treating others as one might expect to be treated oneself, giving people a fair hearing, refraining from boorish and loutish behaviour, and assisting others (especially older or ill people) in order to create a courteous and civilized world.

Contemporary equivalents of such books are noticeably more difficult to find. Today the genre seems to be wholly out of fashion, if not actually the subject of satire and derision. Their very absence is a token of how far the Anglo Saxon world in particular appears to have fallen. Civility and kindness have given way to a ‘me-first’ dogma and a ‘me-only’ approach often conducted with rudeness and aggression.

Within a ‘me-only’ æthos no one else counts. Examples include acting illegally or encouraging others to do so, denying others a chance to speak, lying to get one’s own way, scams and frauds, ‘ghosting’ or failing to reply to personal correspondence and summarily blocking others online. All such actions embody an expression of contempt. Courtesy and consideration are snuffed out.

In the absence of politesse a community cannot survive for long. Where ill manners and abuse are rife the consequence is the growth of intolerance, violence, and injustice. Without courtesy, both civility and society are put gravely at risk. Baldassare Castiglione and Lord Chesterfield both knew this well.

Piero della Francesca

3 Nov
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I have it on the best authority that a suggestion I’m about to make about this painting is wrong. Nonetheless the idea continues to intrigue me enough to want to share it with you. But first things first. One of my favourite artists, Piero della Francesca (1415/20 – 1492), created this magnificent work, The Baptism of Christ during the 1450s using egg tempera on poplar. The painting can be found in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London.

In the picture we see Christ being baptised by John the Baptist. Behind them others are preparing for baptism. Above Christ’s head we see the holy spirit in the representation of a dove. To the left are three angels. (The angel dressed in white seems particularly worried about the path on which Christ has embarked.) Anyone who has read Kenneth Clark or Marilyn Aronberg Lavin will be aware that behind the visual impact of the work there are astonishing geometrical complexities. But I’m not going to explore these more mathematical facets here. Rather, please allow me to describe my idea to you.

My speculation concerns the function of the tree trunk. To the left of the tree we see three angels, ethereal messengers of the heavenly realm. But to the right of the tree, Christ has become flesh. Ecce homo – Behold the man! It seems to me that the tree trunk separates the heavenly from the earthly and reminds the viewer that for his lifetime Christ is of the Earth, not of heaven. By dividing the two spheres, the tree emphasises how starkly Christ has committed himself to his earthly mission. Well there we are, that is my idea about the function and iconography of the tree. Whether Piero ever had such a thing in mind I don’t know.

Whatever else may be the case, we can all agree I’m sure that this is a wonderful work of art.

Altiora recommends:

Aronberg Lavin, Marilyn (1992) Piero della Francesca, New York, Harry N. Abrams.

Clark, Kenneth (1951) Piero della Francesca, London, Phaidon Press.

Langmuir, Erika (1994) The National Gallery Companion Guide, London, National Gallery

Larger image of the painting : http://www.imagesbible.com/nouveausite/uploads/images/nouveau_testament/p-della-f-le-bapteme-du-christ-1448-50.jpg