Cold War

Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski, with Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot

This was a clever, heartfelt, elliptical, beautifully shot film. It was in black and white with the old aspect ratio to reflect the times in which it was set (late 40s to early 60s) and limit the scope. Even with just B&W, it was astonishing the difference in light between snowy Poland and blazing hot Yugoslavia.

It resembled La La Land only in being about lovers who couldn’t actually live together, but in that film the young Americans were nominally free characters, constrained only by their own behaviour and ambitions. In Cold War, by contrast, the division between Soviet-dominated eastern and foreign western Europe was almost a character in itself, directing the fate of the Polish lovers. They first meet when a small troupe is formed to sing folk songs and perform traditional dances. (Polish only; other languages from that land are frowned on, as is the unSlavic black hair of one of the singers.) The authenticity of the early performances is compromised as the troupe becomes more successful over the years: epitomised in a backdrop of Stalin’s face being raised behind them during a patriotic performance. The lovers are not free in Poland, but neither are they happy living together free in Paris; they can never be at home there and betray each other. Death is the only way of being together.

Put baldly like that, it does sound bleak. The cinematography and the music are sublime, and the folksong of forbidden love runs through it like a thread, whether sung, as at first, in an unaccompanied, rather harsh voice, or later as a jazzed-up version in a Paris nightclub.

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Levens Hall

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Levens Hall and its 17th-century topiary garden

12AF4669-C000-4FC1-BE16-1BDD904FF52BI am getting hooked on stately homes and gardens. Levens Hall is largely Elizabethan, based around a former mediaeval great hall. The house itself is marvellous –  built of local limestone, white plastered ceilings, walls covered in either oak panelling or Cordova leather (making the rooms very grand but dark), enormous carved fire surrounds, and furniture dating from Tudor times, along with some Gillows pieces. Sadly Napoleon’s Sèvres chocolate service (him again!), purloined by the Duke of Wellington, was out on loan. There was also an old patchwork made from scraps of Indian cotton.

(These worked materials from all over the globe (oak, mahogany, leather, Indian cotton), the craft in carving the intricate mantlepieces or painting the leather, the workers that would have been required to service the house, gardens, park and land, and the wealth – where did it come from? – of the families who have owned Levens Hall . . . all this put me in mind of the book I am currently reading, “A history of the world in seven cheap things”. That book would focus on the exploitation of the raw materials, labour and animal products and the appropriation of land that went into producing this delightful sight and experience.)

The gardens are even grander. I’d heard that there was a topiary garden, but I hadn’t realised how old (begun in 1689) or how bizarre it was. It was like being Alice in Wonderland; I fully expected to find gardeners painting the roses red. The combination of lemon-yellow snapdragons and a range mauves and purples in the lower beds was lovely. The gardens are laid out very formally – rectangular “rooms” divided by beech corridors and archways – in the fashion of the time. Had they been designed a century later, they would have been far less obviously formal and their orientation might have been quite different to take in a view of the River Kent a stone’s throw away.

This pair are surely Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in furs:

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There were some old lime trees with deeply ribbed trunks (but not as old as the Holker lime). The orchard has delightful flower-filled borders, and the line-up of beetroot, artichokes and hazel in the vegetable beds made me very envious:

There was a brief talk by the head gardener; learning that the flower beds were emptied and replanted at least twice a year punctured any dream I may have had of experimenting in my own borders!

I couldn’t stop taking photographs, though.

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Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy L Sayers

Now that rain is lashing against the window and I have started wearing socks in bed, I am revisiting those long summer evenings in the garden when I binged my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey books, a glass of wine on the table, until I could no longer read the words in the fading light.

They were a cracking read, both the novels and the short stories. I liked the detective story element, the inter-war settings, the depiction of the various milieux, the satirical touches, the characters, and the fact that Sayers wrote what she wanted to and avoided being formulaic. If she wanted to write at length about change-ringing, she did. If she wanted to include train timetables, she did. If she wanted to make it clear who the murderer was in the first chapter, she did. If she wanted to include a crossword puzzle to solve the murder, she did. And if she got rather indulgent towards Wimsey as the novels progress, well, that’s fine by me.

The books also conjure up the period wonderfully well. Granted that it’s a world of lords and deference and attitudes that are deplored today, but Sayers also covered other ground. In Strong Poison, Wimsey goes to an avant garde party:

This is Stanislas – such a genius – his new work on the Piccadilly Tube Station – great n’est-ce pas? Five days he was continually travelling upon the escalator to absorb the tone-values.

Miss Climpson – Miss Marple in straitened circumstances – muses on the changing position of women in society:

I had no difficulty in getting a comfortable room at the Station Hotel, late as it was. In the old days, an unmarried woman arriving alone at midnight with a suitcase would hardly have been considered respectable – what a wonderful difference one finds today! I am grateful to have lived to see such changes, because whatever old-fashioned people may say about the greater decorum and modesty of women in Queen Victoria’s time, those who can remember the old conditions know how difficult and humiliating they were!

The advertising industry in Murder Must Advertise:

Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realised the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.

You don’t get those insights in Agatha Christie! In Unnatural Death, Sayers also includes a sympathetic West Indian character and (perhaps avant la lettre) lesbians, in the two elderly women who lived harmoniously together all their lives, and – less sympathetically! – the murderer. The First World War lingers on in the early novels – Wimsey’s nightmares and in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. And the landscapes remain with me – whether Galloway in The Five Red Herrings or the fens in The Nine Tailors.

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Zabriskie Point (1970)

Dir Michelangelo Antonioni, with Mark Frechette and Daria Halpin (DVD)

Something I didn’t know before watching the film was that Zabriskie Point is in Death Valley. (I did know that Z is the final letter of the alphabet, though.)

Hmm, yes, well. Where’s Monica Vitti when you need her? The photography and Antonioni’s camera-eye were as interesting as ever, and you did have the sense of an outsider looking hard at something very foreign – whether the incredible landscape or the sights and sounds of Los Angeles – but the two main actors were just pretty ciphers. Granted that they were disaffected – an armed activist and a hippy – and that the scale of the desert rendered them insignificant, but, even so, they became tiresome to watch. They weren’t helped by the lack of synchronisation between action and sound; the first scene of a rebellious campus meeting looked as if it had been badly dubbed.

Nevertheless it was an interesting film. I watched it decades too late to be captured by the counterculture or music, but the foreigner’s contemporary view of youthful west coast America in conflict with authority and big business at the end of the 1960s was worth watching. There were the black students who were fighting discrimination, and then there were the white students who wondered if they had the right to support the same cause; a property developer with grandiose plans for a desert suburbia; a police officer who typed “Carl Marx” as the name of the latest detainee; a pack of emotionally disturbed, threatening children; a mini-orgy where white bodies and desert sand were indistinguishable; a vast look-out bridge of a building in the desert, which Daria imagined blowing up in her grief and rage at the shooting of Mark and the rapacity of the developer. And there it ended.

Z.

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Imperial War Museum North

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“Weeping Window” by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. It has been on tour over the last four years since it was first exhibited in a much bigger version at the Tower of London – when it was called “Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red” (a more evocative title, I think) – so the sight was not a surprise. The impact, however, was – from a distance, it really does look like a dreadful wound in the side of the building (below).

B620E66F-ED34-4C46-B888-42790005DDA0To Manchester today to see the exhibition “Lest We Forget” at the Imperial War Museum. (I’d seen the paintings before in London, but they are definitely worth a second look.) After four years of marking the centenary of the First World War, everything seems very familiar – war artists, war memorials, Imperial War Graves Commission initiatives, letters home, dog-tags – but it is still moving.

As an aside, I haven’t seen any post-war British art like that of Otto Dix or George Grosz (possibly because I haven’t looked hard enough) – works that portray savage horror, pity and rage at the injustice of the war and its aftermath. The anguish and unease are always there in British art – the war artists like Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, or the non-commissioned bronze by Charles Sergeant Jagger that I saw last month at the Tate which was far more despairing than his public work. The only real sign of British dissent I saw at the IWM was from a 1937 newsreel, when a former soldier burst out of the crowd lined up at the Cenotaph, raging at the hypocrisy of the armistice commemoration – but his trigger may have been more to do with the impending new war than the aftermath of the old.

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Gassed by John Singer Sergeant, 1919, oil on canvas

This painting is such a surprise from someone better known for society portraits, but it is very powerful. It portrays men suffering the after-effects of a gas attack as they are led to medical tents. It’s carefully composed – there is even a football match going on in the sunlight background (shades of Brueghel’s Icarus) – and that manifest skill and taste jar with the horror of it. Sergeant’s sketchbooks were on display: there was a beautiful sketch of the orderly helping the men, just as Sergeant saw him and just as he painted him. Sergeant wrote: “The further forward one goes, the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes an empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men?” Which brings me to:

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The Menin Road by Paul Nash, 1919, oil on canvas

Where is the road? As Sergeant said, “the fewer and more hidden the men”. There is another at the very bottom, floating in the pool; the livid colours of the painting give a clue to the rest of him.

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A Battery Shelled by Wyndham Lewis, 1919, oil on canvas

Distortion and abstraction seem like the only sane response to the war by artists who served in it (although CRW Nevinson also travelled in the opposite direction, from cubism to realism). Trees, humans, shells . . . all indistinguishable from each other.

(I first saw this painting in the IWM in London. There was a class of children sitting in front of it – 10 years old or so, multi-ethnic, ordinary Londoners – with an adult. She encouraged them to look at the painting and asked them questions, eliciting the kind of responses she could build on. It was great to watch the children having their eyes opened – but, oh, why wasn’t I taught like that!)

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Kelvingrove

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No, not a big herring gull but an albatross

I went to the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum today. It really is a wonderful place – there is something for everyone. I am now persuaded of the benefits of taxidermy; how else can I really grasp how big an albatross’s wing span is or what a tiger looks like up close? No more creatures need to die or be kept in cages to educate me, and I don’t need to travel to the Antarctic or India. The casts of fossilised flying dinosaurs were also brilliant.

1E9AE80F-9FED-4C1E-BD47-CA1D79074E83I was having coffee in the hall when the organ recital began. It’s a stunning sound in such a large space, and it was fascinating to watch the screens showing how the organist used his feet as well as his hands. However, I confess that I find organ music just a hair’s breadth away from noise.

I noticed a few Christopher Dresser designs amongst all the Mackintosh artefacts. Some coloured Clutha glass (very appealing) and a bizarre chair made of oak and cast iron. It made sense when I saw that it was made in Coalbrookdale. Obviously Dresser designed what was commissioned.

I visited the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists again. Reading how the painters used to spend their summers in remote Scottish places sketching and painting, I thought of Lord Peter Wimsey and “Five Red Herrings”. I also admired the flower paintings of Rachel Ruysch: so lovely to look at, but here a leaf is starting to decay and there a newt is gobbling up a butterfly.

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An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, oil on canvas, ca. 1683

Then a look at Windows in the West as a farewell to tenements, and a closer look at Embassy Lodge – the Visit by Anthony Green. It’s clever and a bit gimmicky, but that all-seeing eye of the artist’s mother is terrifying!

Oh, and there was an Epstein bust there too.

0FE990A3-1929-4A94-B370-8BEEF82A2D22On my way to the Kelvingrove, I came across a section of “wally close” – the entrance (close) to a tenement house that was once upmarket enough to be faced in tiles. Since entrances these days have communal front doors, only a sliver of the tiling was visible.

 

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The Tenement House

My itch to learn more about tenements has been scratched. This afternoon I visited a tenement house (i.e. a flat) in Buccleuch Street run by the National Trust. Between 1911 and 1965 Miss Agnes Toward lived here, initially with her mother, making few alterations (apart from putting in gas lighting in 1960) and not throwing much out. It’s a fascinating time capsule – both of a place and a life.

There were varying grades of tenement blocks; this one, with indoor bathrooms, was quite middle-class. Mrs Toward was a dressmaker and Miss Toward was a shorthand-typist. There were two flats on each floor with a communal entrance, originally open (I guess like the ones I see cycling from Scheveningen to Den Haag) and a back court (for hanging out washing, etc.). In some respects, it’s not much different from the flat where I grew up or the one where Grandad lived – but those were built in the 1950s and 1930s respectively, whereas tenement blocks arose in the 19th century in Scotland. And Grandad’s definitely had a bedroom for everyone; no such things as recess beds.

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The recess bed in the parlour. (The china dog on the mantelpiece could have come straight out of Jerome’s musings in “Three Men in a Boat”.)

I think it was the discovery of the recess bed that disconcerted me. (Even worse: a recess bed with a spare pull-out bed underneath it. How many people could you cram into a room?) Miss Toward had four rooms: the parlour “for best” (with a spare recess bed), the bedroom (which was let to a lodger) , a bathroom, and a kitchen . . . with a small double recess bed where Mrs and Miss Toward slept. So not only did you have neighbours on all sides and practically live and sleep in the kitchen, but you couldn’t even escape when you went to bed. That seems to me like a terrifyingly claustrophobic life . . . but that’s just my self-contained, atomised, well-off point of view. Perhaps it was warm and reassuring to have constant congenial (ay, there’s the rub) companionship when an unattached life pre-welfare-state was precarious.

However, in other respects, well-built tenements are ideal for housing large numbers of people in a compact, communal fashion in the centre. You had to interact with your neighbours to determine a rota for cleaning, and, although there were grades of houses, they didn’t generate the big social divides of, say, Mayfair and the Old Kent Road. The fact that there are still so many of them – now modernised – suggests they are both useful and popular. They have large windows and seem to be built on wide streets (so no blocking out daylight).

And, my goodness . . . the range. That’s a serious piece of equipment! It had to be kept going at all times if you wanted so much as a cup of tea.

The smell of the gas mantles was noticeable, and I thought of the coal dust and industrial pollution that would have been the normal air of Glasgow.

Yes, fascinating. It taught me something about others’ lives and something about my own.

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