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.



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.


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.


Magnus Engstrom

8 Nov

At present, nowhere is more exciting in the realm of contemporary art than the Nordic countries. This work, ‘Musicians playing music‘ is by the Swedish artist Magnus Engstrom (1936 – ). So far I have not been able to find anything out about him. All I know is that this second painting, Sail Boats on Choppy Waters, was sold at auction, possibly in New York, in 2015. I have no idea what price it fetched.

I am 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 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 me 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 love of 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.


The Cure

Time passed.

I didn’t call.

Nor did he.

And suddenly

I found it didn’t matter after all.


I’m cured!

~ Sara Kestelman


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).

The Art of Courtesy

4 Nov

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

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 :


2 Nov

Neither Latin nor Greek was offered at my school. I had to discover the classical authors independently. If you are in the same difficulty may I recommend two sources of help? The Loeb library provides hundreds of texts with the original language on the left and an English version on the right. I can also recommend the Oxford World’s Classics series which offers excellent translations of the ancient masterworks.

At the same time, I was once given this useful warning by a Professor of Classics: ‘Remember that most Victorian translators regarded the ancient Greeks and Romans as if they were English gentlemen swanning around in togas.’

No such charge can be laid at the door of David West, whose translation of the Odes and Epodes of Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 – 8 BC) is vibrant and fresh. Here is a brief extract from Vides ut alta (Odes, Book One, IX).


You see Soracte standing white and deep / with snow, the woods in trouble, hardly able / to carry their burden, and the rivers / halted by sharp ice.

Thaw out the cold. Pile up the logs / on the hearth and be more generous, Thaliarchus, / as you draw the four-year-old Sabine / from its two-eared cask.

Leave everything else to the gods. As soon as / they still the winds battling it out / on the boiling sea, the cypresses stop waving / and the old ash trees.


Horace animated the natural world in a way that few writers have ever achieved. At the same time he captured the quiddity of human understanding. He fathomed how time works on our perception of what is valuable and true. And he shows us in the starkest terms what is worthless and false.

Occasionally some ask why we should study dead languages. From dead languages living wisdom may be disinterred.

Altiora recommends:

West, David (1997) Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Rudd, Niall (2004) Odes and Epodes, Harvard, Loeb Classical Library.

Bertolt Brecht

1 Nov

The Threepenny Opera, The Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and her Children, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle: What a formidable set of plays to have to one’s credit. But the Brecht play that has remained fresh in my memory for more than forty years is The Good Person of Szechwan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan).

Shen Teh is a young prostitute doing everything she can to change her life, and herself, for the better. Finding her to be compassionate and kind the Gods give Shen Teh a large amount of money and she uses this unexpected benefaction to buy a tobacconist’s shop. However relatives and local people soon hear of her good fortune and they arrive in increasing numbers to take advantage of her good luck. They eat her food, live free of charge and generally make themselves comfortable at her expense.

Shen Teh reaches the end of her tether and transforms herself. She assumes a disguise and reappears as her (wholly imaginary) ruthless cousin Shui Ta. In double quick time ‘he’ drives the spongers from Shen Teh’s home. But of course no sooner has Shui Ta gone than the hangers-on are soon back. And now they behave even worse than before. As the cycle proceeds, ‘Shui ta’ has to return for longer and longer periods of time. The upshot is that Shen Teh feels her own sweet and gentle nature changing gradually into that of the heartless Shui Ta.

Brecht confronts us with the question as to how we can be altruistic in a selfish and individualistic world. In a land of dog-eat-dog what room can there be for the charitable deed? Brecht drives home his message that he is not merely telling a story: he uses the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or alienation effect) to interrupt the action. For example an actor may walk across the stage with a placard saying ‘You are watching a play’ or ‘Think about the problem’ or ‘What would you do?’ Such intrusions are designed to break the immediate illusion and confront the audience with the reality that exists beyond the theatrical event.

Brecht places Shen Teh’s altruism in conflict with Shui Ta’s mercilessness. The play implies that whereas it was once solely within the realm of religion, it is now economic systems that determine a society’s morality. And Brecht leaves it for the audience to answer the question ‘What would you do in these circumstances?’

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Augsburg (Bavaria) but fled Nazism, living in Scandinavia and the USA before returning to Berlin after the war. He died from a heart attack at the age of fifty eight.

Altiora recommends:

Brecht, Bertolt (2011) The Good Person of Szechwan, London, Methuen Drama.

Leoš Janáček

31 Oct

The Makropoulos Case, Jenufa, From the House of the Dead, The Cunning Little Vixen: Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) stands a major figure in the operatic world. Born in Moravia, he was admitted to the Prague Organ School and after graduating as the finest scholar of his year Janáček taught music in Brno. Later he attended both the Leipzig and the Vienna Conservatories, after which, for many years, he served as director of the Brno Conservatory.

The new century began tragically for Janáček. His daughter, Olga, fell seriously ill and died in 1903. He dedicated the opera Jenufa to her memory. During the 1910s and ’20s more opera followed and towards the end of his life he composed the Glagolitic Mass. Perhaps his music might not be so well known today had not the conductors Sir Charles Mackerass and Pierre Boulez brought Janáček’s work more prominently to notice. They did the world a great service.

Frequently on a winter’s evening I reach not for the opera but for Janáček’s superb string quartets. In particular I thrill to the String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”. There is an extraordinarily fine performance by the Meccore Quartet and the musicians have kindly uploaded an extract of the piece to youtube:

Each person will have a unique response to Janáček’s music. I find it both lyrical and, at the same time, other worldly. There is a strangeness here conjured by rich tones woven into a fine and mysterious melodic cloth.

Altiora recommends:

Janáček, Leos, The String Quartets.

Superb recordings of these extremely popular pieces have been made by the Meccore, the Lindsay and the Prazak Quartets. Three other recordings I haven’t yet heard are by the Panocha, Talich and Takacs Quartets.