It’s been a busy month since I last posted, so my apologies for the gap.
I have been reading George Orwell’s My Country Right or Left, essays, letters and reviews from the beginning of the Second World War. In early 1940 he is frustrated that no one (in Britain) seems to take the war seriously. When he bursts into a pub announcing, ‘The German army has just crossed the Rhine,’ the only response after a silence is ‘Parley-voo!’
Zak and I watched the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend, in which Britain deserved to do better. There is too much to discuss about it – who was Russia’s entry singing to in that stomping anthem: Mother Russia? Putin? – so I’ll just say that we deserved to do better, very well done Ukraine and everyone who voted for them, that the Polish singer looked exactly like Albrecht Dürer in the Munich Self-portrait as Christ, and set aside the politics of Europe for another time. If you’re reading this you might feel as I did last Saturday when I told a lady pamphleting here in the Square, ‘I’m sorry but we just can’t read any more leaflets.’ She was very nice though, and it was about battery hens so I took one. And when I got in Zak said that’s going straight in the recycling.
Dürer, Self-portrait 1500 (c) Alte Pinakotek, Munich
This week my parents and I went to see the Beuckelaer Fish Market in its final stages at the restorers.
There are three other versions of this composition, also signed and dated 1568 but none of them is considered the prime. In the studio I could see there was a smudgy penumbra round the left side of the dish with the carp in it, just below the wharf scene.
This suggests that the artist changed his mind about the placing of the bowl, or maybe which side the swing-handle should go on, which could argue for ours being the prime version.
On my way to London, I read about this fantastic new exhibition at the British Museum Sunken Cities: Treasures from the Deep. Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were two major cities of the Nile Delta, occupied right up to about 700AD before they were flooded by rising sea-levels. They were then lost until a couple of decades ago. The excavation and rediscovery of these sites, a sort of sunken Venice crossed with Pompeii, has given us a time capsule of life and art (including vast statues!) in Egypt from the Pharaohs through the Greek and Roman occupations to the early middle ages. It’s on until November 27th and it’s a must-see.
In other news, David Horspool, an old friend from university days, has written a superb book on King Richard III, Richard III a Ruler and his Reputation. The book is vastly researched with a prodigious and thoroughly digested bibliography, but I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read it yet. The author’s judgment and good sense avoid any conclusion for which we do not have evidence, and thanks to this light touch, Dave’s argument is all the more compelling. Both sides in the battle for the King’s soul can agree with him, which is no mean feat.
It is also full of remarkable facts delivered in passing. I hadn’t know that William Caxton was in Bruges at the same time as Louis de Gruythuse, one of the last and greatest patrons of manuscript illumination. It reminded me of an interview I heard with Robert Crumb the cartoonist. At one point he was considering the eclipse of printed books by e-readers. Crumb imagined a 1470s manuscript painter thinking: ‘This printed shit will never catch on.’ I wonder if that’s what Louis de Gruythuse hoped.
Meanwhile, despite all reports of their demise, books go from strength to strength. About the same time as I was reading Richard III, I found a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in a litter bin on my round at work (brand-new, still with that Waterstone’s smell on it). The Guns of August, is a minutely-timescaled, meticulously researched account of the first month of World War One, chock-full of prime material. I was amazed I’d never heard of it before, an absolute treat. It was curious to read it alongside Richard III because they are so similar, even to the inclusion of laugh-out-loud moments. Tuchman considered herself a popular historian rather than an academic, and it was a badge she wore proudly: she said academics knew their readers would go on reading regardless; she had to make hers want to turn the page. Her preference for building an account on first-hand sources and observations, rather than imposing a doctrinal straightjacket on events, may have seemed revolutionary when The Guns of August was published in 1962, but it is exactly the historical method that my generation was taught at university, and the one that always makes most sense to me. I remember being told it could go too far, though. There was someone – I forget who – celebrated as ‘the man who proved the Civil War never happened.’