Pierre Bonnard

20 Oct
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Of all the pictures I have seen by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), the painting titled La fenêtre (1925) is my favourite. The work can be found in the Tate Gallery in London. At first sight it is nothing more than a view from Bonnard’s study window. But a closer look offers ample rewards. First we see the bruising drama of a purple sky. A storm is brewing. Heavy clouds gather over the distant hills now drained of colour. And almost hidden by the window frame, we catch sight of Madam Bonnard, just her head, with her hands resting on the balcony. Far below her, the terracotta roofs of the village huddle together. She is gazing over the undulating landscape. She senses moisture in the air. At any moment the rainclouds may break, forcing her back inside.




Indoors there is a writing desk. Spread across the table we find a pen, ink bottle, stationery box, unmarked sheet of paper and a book, Marie. This may be the poet Marie de France (circa 1160-1215). The book may be her Lives of the Saints, her translation of Aesop’s Fables, or her poems, the Lais of Marie de France. Beneath that book are what look to be a couple of drawing books or watercolour pads.

Could there be a more simple domestic scene? And yet I am entranced by it. All the action in this otherwise serene picture takes place in the colours. The purples make the sky powerful, the white and terracotta bring life to the village, the light pastels render the interior warm and cosy. There is a story here, captured in a blink of time.


Altiora recommends:

Watkins, Nicholas (1994) Bonnard, London, Phaidon.

Jock Murray

19 Oct

My favourite novelist, Jane Austen, was first published in 1815 by the firm of John Murray. For decade after decade the company remained in the family and was led in the second half of the twentieth century by the universally liked, scholarly and charming Jock Murray (1908-1993). It was Jock who published the superb writings of Paddy Leigh Fermor and for me this fact alone immediately sets him apart in the publishing firmament.

In 1996 his son, John R. Murray, delighted the world by editing a slim volume containing a glorious selection of entries from his father’s commonplace book. The entire print run was soon snapped up by those who were ‘in the know’. Sadly, I wasn’t. But some months later luck was on my side when I was browsing through a second hand bookshop in York. There I came across a used but very fine copy of the volume.

A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book contains a cornucopia of quotations suitable for all occasions. Recently I was thinking of what happens when political extremists find themselves in power. I searched Jock Murray’s book and found this by Samuel Morley: ‘Nothing in all the known world of politics is so intractable as a band of zealots, concious that they are in a minority, yet armed by accident with the powers of a majority.’

By way of a bonus my eye also lighted on a saying from the works of Confucius ‘When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom’, and then I found George Bernard Shaw’s conjecture that ‘democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.’

By all accounts Jock Murray was a charming, cultured and civilized man. On the grounds simply of what he chose to include in his commonplace book, I should very much like to have met him.

Altiora recommends:

Murray, John G. (1996) A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book, London, John Murray.

Henry Carey

18 Oct

The poet and playwright Henry Carey (1687-1743) was born in London. His plays and songs were produced at Drury lane. He is perhaps best known for writing ballads including the song ‘Sally in Our Alley’ and for his poem ‘Namby-Pamby’. After reading the following poem we can be sure that Carey was thought an all-round good fellow by his chums.


A Drinking Song

Bacchus must now his power resign –

I am the only God of Wine!

It is not fit the wretch should be

In competition set with me,

Who can drink ten times more than he.


Make a new world, ye powers divine!

Stock’d with nothing else but wine:

Let wine its only product be,

Let wine be earth, and air, and sea –

And let that wine be all for me!


The theme of the poem reminds me of a story told by the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld (Blowers) who said that on the first day of his employment with Test Match Special he arrived at Lord’s in good time, only to see the inimitable and peerless John Arlott trudging slowly towards the commentary box in front of him. Arlott was carrying two bulging and very heavy briefcases. ‘Well there we are’, thought Blofeld, ‘John Arlott, the consummate professional! Even after all these years he still brings innumerable copies of Wisden with him so that he can check his facts!’ On entering the box Arlott introduced himself to Blofeld and they shook hands. He then opened the two briefcases. From each bag Arlott drew several bottles of very good claret. ‘There’, said the doyen, ‘these should see us safely through ’til lunch!’

Henry Carey would surely have approved.


17 Oct
Sophocles - Wikipedia




Happiness is born in wisdom.

When we deal with the Gods

We must behave with piety.

The great words of the proud

Are punished with great blows.

We learn this as we grow old.


Many years ago I travelled to London, to the Old Vic, to see Jonathan Hyde and Tara Fitzgerald in a new production of the Antigone: a breathtaking version by Declan Donnellan. My tickets were for the matinée so I found myself surrounded by children from heaven knows how many schools. But they behaved impeccably and I soon became engrossed in the superb performance.

The play concerns serious matters, the unbending hubris of a king, the dehumanising impact of revenge upon perpetrator and victim alike, the cascade of grief down the generations, the disaster awaiting those who insult the deities.

The Gods are not mocked.

At the end of the play, with the dying words of the chorus, the stage lights dimmed. For seemingly endless seconds there was a stunned silence before the audience broke into a roar of applause. Eventually the acclaim subsided. In the seats behind me two girls gathered their things, getting ready to leave with the rest of their class. I heard one say to the other ‘that was a nightmare, a nightmare!’ I was gratified to think that Sophocles (497-406 BC) had conveyed his warning across two and a half thousand years. Through the craft of Donnellan’s writing and the brilliance of a fine cast, Sophocles had struck to the marrow of these young girls’ hearts and souls. ‘I tell you, it was a nightmare, Philippa, a nightmare . . . . . there was no interval!’

Tragedy comes in many forms.


Altiora recommends:

Sophocles [ed Declan Donnellan] (1999) Antigone, London, Oberon Books.

The Dulcimer, Kora and Lute

16 Oct

Three stringed instruments, each with a thousand years of history, originating thousands of miles apart – in Africa and the Middle East – but creating a charming family of similar sounds.

Dulcimer, Kora and Lute

The Dulcimer (left) probably originated in the Middle East around 900 AD and is related both to the zither and the much older psaltery. According to the particular type, dulcimers may be hammered or played with a bow.

In the 1300s the explorer Ibn Battuta mentions the existence of harp-like instruments in Mali, West Africa, and this could well be the earliest reference to the kora, (centre) an instrument designed like a bow with a gourd at its base.

We first hear of the lute (right) in the late 1200s. In Europe the instrument became prominent during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It is believed that the lute developed originally from the Arabic ʿūd, an instrument brought by the earliest Crusaders returning from battles in the holy land. Arriving first in Spain, the ʿūd soon became popular more widely in the West.

What I find remarkable about these three instruments is how similar they sound given their diverse antecedants. Equally, it is sad that such delightful instruments are encountered so seldom in music making today. In the following brief videos we first hear the dulcimer. This clip comes from a wonderful album called ‘The Dulcimer Players’ which, if you find a copy, I can heartily recommend.

The Dulcimer

Stefan Sobell – Dulcimer (with Steve Morrison – Guitar)

I first came across the wonderful kora player Toumani Diabate from Mali on a BBC Radio Three programme called World Routes presented by Lucy Durán (Professor of music at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London). A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing Toumani Diabate play live with the harpist Catrin Finch at the Taliesin Theatre in the University of Swansea.

The Kora

Toumani Diabate – Kora

Finally I turn to the Lute. The late Julian Bream and Paul Odette are extraordinarily fine exponents of this instrument but my favourite player is Jakob Lindberg from Sweden. I first heard him perform at a concert in a small church on the Gower Peninsula in Wales. The foundations of the building were almost as old the origins of lute playing.

The Lute

Jakob Lindberg – Lute


Altiora recommends:

Nicholson, Roger et al (1978) The Dulcimer Players, Transatlantic, The Leader Tradition, LTRA502 [Vinyl]

Diabate, Toumani (2006) New Ancient Strings, Rykodisc LC07433

Lindberg, Jakob (1996) John Dowland, Selected Lute Music, BIS CD-824

Lindberg, Jakob Website: http://www.musicamano.com/

Marc Chagall

15 Oct

On the 25th June, 1980, I had the enormous good fortune of visiting the Paris Opera House. The first huge treat of the evening was to see the ceiling by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). The second was to hear the mezzo soprano Frederica Von Stade sing Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro conducted on that particular evening by Sir Charles Mackerras. (On other evenings Sir Georg Solti took the baton.) The cost of my student ticket was just 20 Francs or about £2 at that time, the equivalent of about £8 today. It was an occasion never to be forgotten.

Ceiling dome by Marc Chagall at Palais Garnier, the Opéra de Paris | Paris  opera house, Opéra garnier, Marc chagall

Chagall was Jewish, born in Belarus. He was a Modernist artist talented in paint, stained glass, ceramics and tapestry. Chagall saw himself not as an adherent of a particular sect, culture or country, his was ‘not the dream of one people but of all humanity’. According to Michael Lewis, Chagall ‘synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Surrealism’.

In checking my facts for this article I came across a third great pleasure, a genuine surprise: I discovered a piece of film of Frederica von Stade in her role as Cherubino singing the wonderful aria Voi Che Sapete from that very season in Paris. Here is the video:

Altiora recommends:

Compton, Susan (1985) Chagall, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Eastern Wisdom

14 Oct

I have long repected the enlightenment of oriental thought and have, for some years now, collected proverbs and quotations to compare them with western culture. Taken from larger and more detailed writings, here are a selection of precepts I’ve found over the years. Some originated in the form of haiku or tanka, some as koans, others as teachings.

There is a preparatory stage to meditation. In the far east tea is much more than a simple beverage. The ritual of serving tea, the calming action of jasmine or bergamot, the beautiful artwork of the cup, so pleasing to the eye, and the necessity of taking time in the drinking, all these things prepare one for thought and reflection.


Without tea inside him, a man is incapable of understanding truth and beauty. (Japanese proverb)

One drinks tea to forget the world’s noise. (Tien Yiheng)


Another element required for thinking is silence, or at least calm. It is noticeable just how many eastern sayings praise the benefits of solitude, quietness, and a peaceful way of life.


I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone. (Yoshida of Kenko)

Silence is the greatest revelation. (Lao Tzu)

The one who understands does not speak. The one who speaks does not understand. (Chinese proverb)


The fruits of careful reflection then fall naturally into two categories: how one treats oneself, and how one treats others. Commanding one’s own learning, behaviour and self-understanding can bring rich rewards and avoid terrible consequences.


If you are patient in a moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. (Chinese proverb)

He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind. (Buddha)

He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened. (Lao Tzu)

Not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. (The Dalai Lama)

Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. (Chinese proverb)


How one treats others can bring happiness or disaster.


Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. (The Dalai Lama)

Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own. (Chinese proverb)

Happiness never decreases by being shared. (Buddha)


It would be easy to dismiss such ruminations as facile or simplistic. If so, so be it. These adjurations can do no harm. But before making any final choice, compare them perhaps with the go-getting, up-and-at-em, tough-get-going, dog-eat-dog mantras of the West. Some, of course, may relish riding the wave of the tsunami. I prefer to sit still, enjoying the serenity of a placid lake.

Altiora recommends:

Moonlight Jasmine Green Tea. http://dragonflyteas.com

Kakuzo, Okakura, The Book of Tea, (1906, [2019]) Danville, Kentucky, Benjamin Press.

Blyth, Reginald Horace (1942) Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Japan, The Hokuseido Press.


Wystan Hugh Auden

13 Oct
WH Auden: the poet for our times | Saturday Review | The Times

The monastic day is measured in prayer. The canonical hours take place at prime (sunrise), terce (mid-morning), sext (midday), nones (mid-afternoon), vespers (sunset), compline (on retiring) and lauds (before or at dawn). Beginning in 1949, over a period of six years, W H Auden (1907-1973) wrote a series of poems, the Horae Canonicae, each element of which reflected one of the seven observances. From Nones come these lines about, and of, prophecy:


What we know to be not possible,

Though time after time foretold,

By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil

Gibbering in their trances,

Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme

Like will and kill, comes to pass

Before we realize it.


These reflections or meditations on the canonical hours comprise a project on a staggering scale equal to, for example, Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Born in York and raised in Birmingham, Auden went up to Christ Church, Oxford to read English. In 1939 he travelled to the USA, stayed, and became a citizen. In 1947 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his epic poem The Age of Anxiety. Auden returned to Britain in 1956 to take up the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

Auden’s interest in the monastic day stemmed from his Anglo-Catholic and Augustinian beliefs. The complete collection of seven poems was first published in his book The Shield of Achilles in 1955. The subtitle Immolatus Vicerit translates as ‘Sacrificed, he will be victorious’.

My reaction to these poems is threefold. First, this is poetry at its most intense and serious. I have the impression that the project mattered to Auden perhaps more than any other of his works. He must have exhausted himself on a labour akin to that of Hercules or Sisyphus. You can almost feel the strain, the effort to get the structure, the verses and each word absolutely right. Everything had to cohere. One mistake and the edifice would collapse.

Second, why was the work so important? The verses feel almost like an act of contrition. Auden, an Anglo-Catholic, was serious about his religion, but he was also, in the context of his own time, a flawed individual. He was a practising homosexual in an age when the church regarded that condition not merely as a sickness, but as actually sinful. His friend Christopher Isherwood characterised Auden’s view of his own behaviour as knowing full well that ‘his religion condemned it and he agreed that it was sinful, though he fully intended to go on sinning.’

Third, perhaps in the clarity afforded by the passage of time, Auden felt himself to be acting dishonourably when he went to America in 1939. Was he conciously avoiding the dangers of war? Was his work created in expiation of that act? Here the evidence is far more complex and there is no simple answer. Auden had written to Henry Treece as early as autumn 1937 indicating his desire to emigrate. The urge to move abroad had been building up for several years. It is debatable whether Auden foresaw, and sought to escape, a conflict that in 1937 was still two years away.

So, then, is the Horae Canonicae in any sense a mea culpa? Is it an acknowledgement by Auden of conflict within himself: a dilemma about what he ought to have been compared with what he was? Or does the work represent a point at which Auden became reconciled not only with himself, but also with his God? In Terce he writes: ‘It is only our victim who is without a wish, / Who knows already . . . that in fact our prayers are heard, / That not one of us will slip up.

Perhaps the work is one of thanksgiving for the certainty of redemption in spite of his failings, rather than a lament for inescapable condemnation as a result of them.

Altiora recommends:

Auden, W.H. (1966) ‘Horae Canonicae‘ in the Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, London, Faber and Faber.

Carpenter, Humphry (1981) W. H. Auden, A Biography, London, George Allen & Unwin

Evelyn Waugh

12 Oct

There is rich entertainment to be found in the comic absurdities of Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Books such as Decline and Fall, Scoop, Vile Bodies, the Sword of Honour trilogy, and of course, Brideshead Revisited provide page after page of laughable prejudice and grotesque snobbery tailored in the most exquisite prose. Waugh’s own life was not without farce. He turned down the offer of a C.B.E. believing himself to be worth at least a knighthood. Sadly his view was not widely shared by those who mattered and when he died his name remained embarrassingly unadorned.

Of the major Waugh biographies, Christopher Sykes is judicious and incisive, Martin Stannard erudite and scholarly. But it is to Selina Hastings’ sympathetic and more intimate portrayal that I turn here, mainly for her inclusion of a particular letter.

During the war – doubtless to clear them out of the way – Evelyn and a number of other eccentrics were initially sent by the War Office to the further reaches of Scotland. During this posting Waugh wrote the following note to his wife:

“No. 3 Commando were very anxious to be chums with Lord Glasgow so they offered to blow up an old tree stump for him and he was very grateful and he said don’t spoil the plantation of young trees near it because that is the apple of my eye and they said no of course not we can blow a tree down so that it falls on a sixpence and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever and he asked them all to luncheon for the great explosion.

So Col. Durnford-Slater D.S.O. said to his subaltern, have you put enough explosive in the tree? Yes, sir, 75lbs. Is that enough? Yes Sir I worked it out by mathematics it is exactly right. Well better put a bit more. Very good sir. . . . .

Then they all went out to see the explosion and Col. Durnford-Slater D.S.O. said you will see that tree fall flat at just that angle where it will hurt no young trees and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever.

. . . They lit the fuse and waited for the explosion and presently the tree, instead of falling quietly sideways, rose 50 feet into the air taking with it a half acre of soil and the whole of the young plantation. And the subaltern said Sir I made a mistake, it should have been 7 and a half pounds not seventy five.

Lord Glasgow was so upset he walked in dead silence back to his castle and when they came to the turn of the drive in sight of his castle what should they find but that every pane of glass in the building was broken.

So Lord Glasgow gave a little cry and ran to hide his emotion in the lavatory and there when he pulled the plug the entire ceiling, loosened by the explosion, fell on his head.”


Altiora recommends:

Hastings, Selina (1994) Evelyn Waugh, A Biography, London, Sinclair-Stevenson.

see also

Sykes, Christopher, (1975) Evelyn Waugh, A Biography, London, Collins.

Stannard, Martin (1988) Evelyn Waugh, (I) The Early Years (1903-1939), London, Flamingo.

Stannard, Martin (1993) Evelyn Waugh, (II) No Abiding City, London, Flamingo.

Georg Philipp Telemann

11 Oct
Georg Philipp Telemann - Wikipedia

Whenever I hear the glorious overture to Telemann’s Suite No. 3 in D major for trumpet, 2 oboes and string orchestra, I am transported immediately to those lovely days on which my students were awarded their degrees to be followed by a ‘gaudy’ in Abbey meadow. Academics rarely don the distinction of their office, seldom appear in full fig, and though it may be old fashioned to say so, I always found those annual days of celebration rather moving.

Telemann’s overture is the essence of pomp and splendour, and it often graces the custom and ceremony properly owed to successful scholarship. In Britain (says Stefan Collini) intellectuals are widely disparaged. All the more reason, then, to defy untutored opinion and celebrate thought, logic, and expertise.


Overture – brief excerpt


Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was remarkable for being almost wholly self-taught. Originally intended for the law, he turned instead to music and prospered, becoming music director of Hamburg’s five main churches. He was less fortunate in love. His first wife died within two years of their marriage. His second gave him nine children before leaving. He was very nearly ruined by the excess of her gambling debts.

Telemann was very highly regarded by Bach, Handel and other giants of the Baroque. But Albert Schweitzer, in his biography of Bach, criticises Telemann’s work before going on to admire certain of Bach’s cantatas. In a delicious irony, it transpires that the cantatas were actually written by Telemann.

A prolific composer who drew on pan-European sources for his inspiration, Telemann is thought to have completed more than three thousand works in his lifetime. Would that he were better known and appreciated today.


Altiora recommends:

Telemann, Georg Philipp, (1993) Tafel Musik, Pilz GMBH CD449054 2

Collini, Stefan (2006), Absent Minds, Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press.