Mirror image

There is quite possibly no object we use so frequently and carelessly -other than our partners- than mirrors. Whether it be in shaving, combing our hair, checking ourselves before we venture out, or seeing that chocolate has not remained on our lips, mirrors are our daily companions. On one level, it’s quite odd that the first thing we do on getting up, apart from feeling miserable, is to check out our appearance in the mirror, as if to verify that some usurper has not stolen our body. I mean,what do we expect to see other than ourselves in the looking-glass? Mirror is a compact little term and I much prefer looking-glass which neatly combines two concepts (sight and reflection) than the very humdrum sounding mirror. This older use survives in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) and in the familiar yet enigmatic remark by St Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Through a Glass Darkly is the title of a 1961 movie by Ingmar Bergman, part of his faith trilogy and which, despite the promise of the title, is quite possibly his most claustrophobic and impenetrable film. Some sounds don’t do justice to what they represent. To me, mirror has always been in this category. While we might mirrors for granted in our homes, toilets, restaurants, and cars, it was not always a banal item. The manufacturing process was very expensive and the process was secretive, being closely guarded by Italian craftsmen working on the Venetian island of Murano, who held a monopoly on producing mirrors which were worthy of the name. As part of the systematic and purposeful manipulation of his image, a propaganda strategy which has been adeptly analyzed by Peter Burke and Joan DeJean, Louis envisioned the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (below), which would involve mirrors of dimensions and number hitherto unknown, all for the purposes of reflecting his grandeur, literally and figuratively.

Image

Louis did what everyone who wants to break a monopoly must do: he resorted to bribery. He lured several of the craftsmen to France to share the mercury mirror formula and this knowledge spread over the years. Venice was so incensed at this that it sent agents to attempt to poison the renegade artisans. The Hall of Mirrors still remains very impressive and I’m glad that it’s now back on show after a decade of restoration, though it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate this grandiose testament to one man’s self-belief when surrounded by hordes of tourists whose idle chatter and clumsy gait slowly erode one’s spirit and concentration. If I could use a time machine, I would go back to an iconic moment which took place within the mirrored walls of this room. This would be when Louis XV first encountered Madame de Pompadour at a ball held here on 25 February 1745. It began a relationship which would endure until her death nineteen years later, a genuine love affair which outlived the charms of physical passion. Pompadour used her influence well; the Place de la Concorde was designed by her, though jealous courtiers openly libelled her, a gossip strategy which would come back to bite them, as the impetus of this anti-royal slander would drive the Revolution.

ImageI love this painting of her, above, by François Boucher (c. 1750). She is so self-assured that she does not need to look at the spectator for reassurance and affirmation. The book held in her hand – apparently carelessly at first glance but clasped firmly on closer inspection- is no mere prop. Despite the flowers and ribbons which testify to her love of enjoyment and worldly things, the grey background and pensive expression, together with the quill in the foreground -standing on end to denote that she is an active letter writer, all point to an intelligent and deep individual. It is as if we are invited to see the superficial mistress who is much talked about but then are visually guided to go beyond the stuff of legend to consider the real figure. The detail of the first meeting of Louis XV and his love at this costume ball which appeals to me the most is the costume that the monarch was wearing: he was dressed as a yew tree.

Image

One unintended consequence of Louis XIV’s poaching of the Venetian mirror manufacturers was that mirrors became more available and therefore less expensive, meaning that, within a few years, they became common household objects rather than a sign of opulent wealth. Given the mirror’s ubiquity, it has long served as an obvious and laden symbol in literature and film, and I’m particularly interested in its use in fairy tales, a genre which one of my research interests. It occurs in many tales, from the talking mirror in Snow White to the shards of the magic mirror in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In Jean Cocteau’s delightful 1946 movie, La Belle et la Bête, a mirror image is first used in the reflection of Belle on the floor she is scrubbing, highlighting her simplicity and obedience, whereas an actual mirror occurs later in the film as a means of Belle to see what is happening at her home (when she is at the castle) and at the castle (when she is at home). In this way, the motif becomes not a vehicle to show introspection in the heroine but rather her concern for others, a purposeful distortion of the Narcissistic trope of mirror images. Ovid’s tale of Narcissus illustrates the dangers of egocentricity and self-fixation, just as the fate of Echo in the same tale, whose obsession for the epicene youth leads her body to fade away to just her voice lamenting her personal tragedy and repeating what she hears – Echo’s echo and whence the origin of the word, demonstrates the risk of unbridled desire.

Image

John William Waterhouse’s stunning depiction of Echo and Narcissus, above, painted in 1903 during the relatively racy Edwardian period, encapsulates all of the layers of this mythology, including the homoerotic suggestion of Narcissus’s choice of male beauty, albeit his own, over the acutely sensual Echo. Despite the negative connotations of this association, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, to know that it is ourselves peering back from the glass, is an observable stage of intelligent development known as the Mirror Test, which occurs in humans at around 18 months of age. It is not only humans which pass the mirror test but also great apes, dolphins, and elephants. Rather than denoting wanton curiosity or unhealthy self-examination, the mirror then also functions as a sign of awareness, of our very consciousness. In exactly a week’s time, the Norwegian village of Rjukan will have direct sunlight for the first time in its history. Nestled in a valley, the population does not enjoy solar daylight for up to six months a year, but this is about to change thanks to a system of mirrors which will reflect and beam sunlight into the town. The mirror should clearly never be taken for granted.

Image

Today’s cufflinks rather remind me of car side-mirrors. They are fashioned out of sterling silver and are hand signed “aFD ’58” on the backs, meaning they were made in 1958. It’s a quirky and timeless shape on the cufflink fronts which, for me, reflects the timeless topicality of the looking-glass in our lives.

Mellow yellow

Pity poor yellow. In studies on people’s favourite color, it consistently scores the lowest, with under 6% of the population selecting it as their preferred shade of the rainbow. This is somewhat surprising since it’s one of the most positive of colours, with warm associations – think of buttery snacks taken in golden sunlight among yellow flowers. John Hertz opted for yellow as the colour of his taxicabs in Chicago in 1914 after he read a survey indicating that it was the easiest colour to spot. The tradition carries on in many parts of the world, the same reason for which school buses, post boxes in many countries, and fire hydrants are painted thus. Despite these optimistic links, it’s rarely been fashionable in the west at all, during any point in history. There are exceptions, such as yellow neckties and bow ties on men and Queen Elizabeth II looks particularly agreeable in it, wearing a vibrant canary-yellow ensemble to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, below. It is has many associations with Asian monarchies. It was reserved for the emperor alone in long periods of imperial China, and it is still the symbolic colour of the monarchies of Thailand and Malaysia today.

ImageAt the same time as being the hue of power, as Victoria Finlay points out in her excellent study Color: A Natural History of the Palette, it also denotes declining power as in the decay of autumnal leaves. No matter how vivid the foliage display might be, it indicates the death of the leaves, lacking light and chlorophyll. Yellow pigment for artists was often sourced from saffron and for many decades Indian yellow was particularly prized, being obtained from force-feeding cows vast quantities of mango leaves in India, then  boiling their urine. The shades of yellow have some interesting names, including Chartreuse yellow, amber, jonquil, and, my personal favourite, Mikado yellow. Believe it or not, both mellow yellow and unmellow yellow are also officially recognized shades.

ImageFor me, yellow will always and steadfastly be associated with a fictional ursine creation, Rupert Bear, whose annual I received every Christmas. The little bear, who was, naturally, ageless and timeless, was always bedecked in yellow trousers and a scarf, even in the height of summer. The strip had a format geared to different ages -and temperaments- of readers. You could simply follow the images and have a pictorial adventure or you could read the rhyming couplets situated beneath each cartoon. Serious readers could follow a lengthy narrative at the bottom of the page, as above, though there was something seriously suspect about children who did. I was a couplet lad. I loved Rupert and the tales often involved magic and wonderful fantasy kingdoms. The fatal flaw in the comic strip was the fact that all of Rupert’s friends were the same dimensions as he was, even an elephant. Children can accept supernatural occurrences and they might even suspend their disbelief at a talking bear partial to yellow, but they draw the line at such imaginative bestial sizing and I count the day on which my childhood innocence disappeared to be the same day on which it dawned on me that a badger, pig, elephant, and bear couldn’t all be exactly the same height.

Image

Yellow enjoyed a brief surge in popularity during the Renaissance, a relic of which may be seen in the uniforms of the Papal Swiss Guard, above. Swiss mercenaries enjoyed huge prestige for many centuries not only because of their reputation but also because there was a ready supply of young men ready to quit their impoverished and overpopulated Helvetian Federation. Yellow has become more acceptable in recent years thanks to Kate Moss who wore a one-shoulder citrine-lemon cocktail dress to a party during fashion week in New York. Sometimes it takes just one person to buck the trend in order to kickstart another one. Orange might be the new black, but yellow will always be the choice of the brave, despite the colour’s traditional use of depicting cowards.

ImageToday’s cufflinks were made by a pair of artists from Quebec, Micheline and Yves de Passillé-Sylvestre. This married couple was active for a couple of decades from 1960 and they specialized in enamel jewellery creations. The base of the relief pattern is dark-chocolate brown with golden-yellow highlights, the enamel being over copper. They’re a spectacularly beautiful pair and date almost certainly from the 1970s. The shapes suggest, to me, phases of a harvest Moon and I’m pleased to have a little dash of yellowness in my life.

Button up

There is something immensely satisfying about the ritualistic act of putting on clothes for a special occasion, perhaps laid out the preceding evening or morning, and getting ready to go forth and mingle. I had this feeling of apprehension and excitement on Monday of this week when I made ready to teach the first classes I’ve taught in fifteen months, having enjoyed a sabbatical year, spent in Canada, France, and the UK, as well as the US, taking up three different fellowships. For me, the emblematic moment is buttoning up my shirt before putting on a necktie. It is an act which takes me back to the age of 4 years old and wearing my first school uniform (with a pre-tied necktie), or 11 years old and beginning a new school (with a real necktie), or 19 years old and buttoning up the 33 buttons of the black cassock of my religious order (a symbolic number representing the 33 years of Christ’s life). It is a reassuring and measured sartorial ceremony and different men have their own methodology; some commence from the bottom and work their way up -the optimists; others work their way down -the realists; while others make at it in an apparent haphazard fashion -the thrill seekers. We might take buttons for granted, but they’ve been with us for five thousand years and, unlike garments such as ties or decorative scarves, their purpose is eminently -though by no means always- practical, serving to keep the very fabric we wear together. As such, they represent that peculiar human trait of wanting to keep our skins and bodies concealed from our fellow creatures.

ImageButtons can be very ornamental and occasionally outshine the jackets or shirts which they embellish. There have also been particular peaks of buttonery mania; the Victorians favoured painted buttons with characters from their preferred plays, novels, and opera, while gentlemen at the end of the eighteenth century often wore porcelain buttons such as the cameo ones shown above (from the extensive button collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum), designed by Josiah Wedgwood. Being buttoned up evokes, perhaps above all, the dress uniform of the armed forces, particular the British ones, whence the expression the “top brass” originating from generals festooned with an array of brass buttons. Brass buttons were the preserve of the military in many countries until relatively recently, one reason being that they are relatively inexpensive to manufacture, polish very well, and can easily be stamped with regimental or national insignia or logos.

ImageThe painting above, of Edward VII on his coronation in 1902 (painted by Luke Fildes) shows one occasion on which gilt brass buttons are positively overshadowed by the rest of the monarch’s dress, a quite unusual state of affairs for such prominent buttonery. Edward came to the throne at the age of 59 years old, reigning from 1901 to 1910, having once remarked that he seemed to be blessed with an eternal mother (Queen Victoria) as well as an Eternal Father. While his reign was relatively brief, he gave his name to an era, the Edwardian one, and was to prove a capable and popular monarch, personally brokering the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and being responsible for forging warmer relations with the papacy. This was despite all expectations and previous evidence to the contrary; Edward was not only what was euphemistically called a womanizer, he was also almost certainly a sex addict. He used the pretext of afternoon tea to facilitate his liaisons, thus starting an adulterous subtext that continued for decades surrounding this apparently innocuous break, perhaps best exemplified in Cole Porter’s Tea for Two, which has little to do with taking tea and everything to do with an assignation. Rather bizarrely, this whimsical song from a musical was set into a 45-minute arrangement, Opus 16, by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1928, as a result of a wager made with the composer. Despite Edward VII’s wandering eye and attentions, he nonetheless had a genuine affection for his long-suffering Danish wife, Alexandra, who was serially late for anything and everything, very nearly causing the coronation to be delayed. On his deathbed, the Queen arranged a discreet visit of his beloved mistress, Alice Keppel, so that the pair could say goodbye to each other; this must have been a difficult decision yet it is an extremely humane and sensitive one. Alice is the great grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall, formerly Camilla Parker-Bowles. It is possible that Edward was also received into the Catholic Church at around the period, during the last two weeks of his life, by the chaplain to the French Embassy in London.

ImageButtons have made out of many materials through the ages, from precious metals to shell, ivory, and my own favourite, horn, as seen in the distinctive horn toggles, crying out duffle coat, in the image above (sold by Benno’s as an organic product).  Charles Dickens wrote a charming essay, “What there is in a button”, appearing in 1852, which concludes with the words: “It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button”. Quite. The word itself derives from the Old French bouter or boter, itself a Germanic borrowing, meaning to thrust out, which is the origin of the modern words bud (in the sense of a shoot thrusting forward) and butt (that part of us which stands out behind -on some of us much more than others, it might be added).

Image

Today’s cufflinks are really quite lovely, being made out of brass with a real red garnet gem in the middle. They’re shaped like semi-globes and have an interesting ornate pattern repeated across their surface. They bear the maker’s mark of Michaud. This is the married couple of Gladys and Arthur Michaud who founded their company in the 1930s, a venture which lasted half a century. Gladys would scour the Paris flea markets for buttons which were then converted into cufflinks and sold to high-end stores on the East Coast of the USA. This pair, which might be unique, is almost certainly made from brass military buttons, with the garnet being employed to cover up a hole. I like the recycling that has gone into this product and while they most likely date from the late 1930s, the buttons look like they might be from the nineteenth century. There’s something especially appropriate about buttons metamorphosing into cufflinks since the French term is boutons de manchette, literally “sleeve buttons”. While I adamantly refuse to wear my heart on my sleeve, my cufflinks show how I manage to button up my lax, emotional self in a triumph of style over substance. And thus attired, I am ready to face the world, bright as a button, it could be said!

Painted black

Black has had a very bad rap, as they say. The colour has long been associated with mourning rituals, evil, and has sometimes possessed unpleasant racialist connotations. Its reputation has been blackened, so to speak. We speak of blackspots and of people being blackballed, though Black Friday and black markets are not entirely negative, neither is being in the black, the ideal financial situation. It is, nonetheless, a particularly prized colour for flowers mainly because of its rarity, so black orchids are especially well esteemed and black roses and tulips were the objects of myth. Coco Chanel was the designer who reclaimed black from mourning during the twentieth century with her concept of the LBD (little black dress). Inspired by the dress of rural peasant widows, this is one of the rare cases in fashion history of a trend beginning from the working classes and working its way up rather than the other way around. Perhaps the most iconic depiction of the LBD is in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s based on a short story by Truman Capote. Holly Golightly, seen below as portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, looks stunning in her ensemble. However, the colour she wears is associated with her superficial and vacuous character; she is colourless and is, in all but name, a prostitute.

ImageOne of the reasons for which black became so popular following Chanel’s vogue for the LBD is that production methods made its manufacture much cheaper in the twentieth century than had hitherto been possible. Historically, black dyes have been very expensive to produce, a rather ironic fact given that black has often been adopted by religious groups as a symbol of penitence and worldly spurning. The puritans had the best of both worlds in that they wore black clothing as a sign of mortification but in reality it was a deep indigo, so they avoided any great expense in their outward display of renunciation.

ImageIn a sense, Chanel was repopularizing the colour. We might imagine that sovereigns were festooned with ornamentation and fine livery in former times in Europe, but really many monarchs wore black from the fourteenth century on, particularly the Holy Roman Emperor, as seen above in Titian’s breathtaking portrait of Charles V who ruled from 1519 to 1556. It was painted in 1548, when the Emperor was 48 years old, yet he looks like a much older man here; the years and events have visibly taken a heavy toll. What I think Titian conveys in a striking way is a man racked by doubt. This is not the face of an imperious, decisive man, and his slightly awkward pose -particularly his legs which do not align with the chair or his sword- reveal a man who is trying to project majesty yet is not quite sure of himself. The fact that the sword is hidden to the right is significant; Charles was dragged into many wars yet obsessively wanted peace. The black that he wears makes him look human and, in a curious way, endearing. It hints at a certain mystery which is certainly real. Within a few years of this scene, Charles abruptly and unexpectedly abdicated in 1556, retiring to a monastery to spend his last remaining two years, surrounded by clocks affixed to every single wall of his apartment.

Image

Black was, in many respects, the very lifeblood of the nineteenth century, not least of which because of the Industrial Revolution. Claude Monet’s magisterial La Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) captures the decidedly unromantic scene of a railway station. The smoke drowning out the sky, the grey and black hues, and the faceless figures all seem to denote the downsides to progress and the terrifying march of progress. Yet this would miss an important point: all of the black in this painting, and it’s the predominant shade of the scene, is actually made up of extremely vivid colours such as vermilion red, ultramarine blue, and emerald green. In fact, Monet used almost no black pigment at all in this painting. Is it possible to see a work of art in which seeing is not believing is depicted so forcefully, almost brutally? It’s in the Musée d’Orsay, a museum that is worth visiting for this painting alone (though, in point of fact, there are many works that could claim this title there).

Image

I have platinum-blond hair, so black is not a frequent sartorial choice, since it makes pale-skinned Celtic lads like me look like freshly revived corpses in a nightmarish zombie holocaust. I did of course, wear it as a trainee priest for two years, though had a bespoke cassock made by Parisian tailors, which was, in retrospect, a sign. However, I love today’s cufflinks, a pair crafted out of black enamel with brass fasteners by Jules Perrier, a Quebec-based founder of a family-run firm that is still going strong, and which was founded in 1956. What I especially like about this pair is the ruthless subversion of the black. They most likely date from the 1960s, given their style. The lozenge shape and delicate gold-painted motif are strenuously futuristic, yet based on the traditional black. This shade is, after all, the colour of space and our cosmos, so what better choice for representing the past, or, indeed, the future? Black truly is and always will be the new black.

Seeing red

It’s fair to say that no other colour stimulates a reaction in us quite like red. There are immediate, almost visceral, responses to seeing this shade ranging across the gamut from danger to passion (though passion is, of course, often dangerous…). The use of red on the highway to indicate vehicles must stop, in the form of stop signs and traffic lights (as well as on the brake lights of cars) is universal and has historical and practical origins, rather pleasingly. Red possesses a longer wavelength than other colours and therefore doesn’t scatter as easily, making it more distinct to the naked human eye. The green for go and red for stop may well derive from maritime rules governing the right of way where precedence is given to starboard ships (green) rather than vessels on the port (red or left) side. In medieval liturgical texts, instructions were provided in red ink, leading to the motto “do the red, say the black”. From this use, we have gained the term “rubric”, coming from the Latin word for red (ruber, rubri). I am pleased that this ancient use is retained in the otherwise soulless Microsoft Word, in which the tracking feature employs red for comments and deletions. It was also used in headings and to mark special feast days, which is why we still talk of a red-letter day. Even if signage might be crooked or askew, as in the pedestrian lights I snapped below in Paris this summer, on the rue des Archives, we always know that we need to proceed with caution.

ImageRed has traditionally been one of the most expensive and laborious colours to produce, which has led to its appropriation by the rich and powerful. The most sought-after reddish shade, carmine (from which derives crimson) was made from kermes insects for centuries, who would absorb the tint of the red oaks on which they lived, then was replaced by the blood of cochineal beetles from the New World. Many food dyes and cosmetic products still rely on the blood of the female beetle, which lives on prickly pears and is still harvested by hand  in Peru and Chile. In clothing, the use of it has trickled down. Originally the imperial colour, it became more widespread among the elite when Tyrian purple was preferred by Roman emperors (see my post here on this topic). Popes wore it until the sixteenth century until the election of Pius V in 1566 who, as a Dominican friar, preferred to retain his white habit. The cardinals, whose official colour was purple -we still talk today of a man being raised to the purple upon his elevation to the cardinalate- then took on red for themselves. While the papal colour is still white, any accessories have remained the original red – cloaks, shoes, capes, and headgear – at least until Pope Francis preferring to keep with black shoes, a sartorial single-mindedness that is not unlike his Renaissance predecessor.

ImageThe image above shows Raymond, Cardinal Burke dressed in the red of his rank, though the finery is meant to symbolize a reminder that these princes of the Church should be ready to shed their blood for Christ. To show that she was dying a martyr for her Catholic faith, murdered by her heretical tyrant of a cousin (Elizabeth I of England) , Mary, Queen of Scots wore a red dress to her execution. She had concealed this very political statement under an enveloping black cloak, only revealing her red dress at the scaffold in what must be one of the finest last-minute acts of revenge in history. As well as her martyrdom, Mary should be remembered as the first woman to play golf in history -at St Andrews-, an act for which her dour Calvinistic denizens never forgave her. At the same time as red’s positive religious connotations, it possesses markedly negative ones too. In the Old Testament, we read “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18; KJV). Towns have red-light districts and adulteresses were marked with a scarlet letter as a visible sign of their shame. In accounting, debits were written in red ink, giving us the expression to be “in the red”. In fact, red is probably the colour used more than any other in expressions, from red herrings to a red rag to a bull, from being a red flag to being marked by a red arrow. There is something about this colour that fascinates and appeals to us, reflected in its broad use and the ambivalence of the meaning and significance that we give to it.

ImageI am particularly interested in the use of red in clothes. Once the preserve of the mega-wealthy – scarlet was originally silk cloth from India, the most costly material but the price of red dye resulted in it becoming synonymous with the shade itself- it is used in the ceremonial costumes of the professions – judges, clergy, and academics. Holders of doctorates from the old universities in the United Kingdom have red academic dress, and the photograph above shows me wearing mine and looking like a member of some extinct, pompous avian species. This semester I will once again have the pleasure of teaching one of the loveliest novels in human history, Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, first published in 1678. I make it a point to re-read every text again that I teach, no matter how many times I’ve previously read it, and this will be the twenty-fifth time I will read the work again. The heroine, the eponymous princess, blushes at several points during the narrative. Rather than being a sign of her shame or embarrassment at her behaviour, the novelist turns this visual trait into something else: an indication of her innocence and unwillingness to collaborate with the superficiality of court intrigue. In this, the author is subverting the deep-seated erotic links that go with the colour and which still, largely prevail, and which have such cultural markers as the extremely sexual coming-of-age fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to Chris de Burgh’s song Lady in Red (1986). Clearly, then, red does not cease to be both ravishing and perturbing.

Red cufflinks 005

Today’s cufflinks are made by Rafael Alfandary, one of the best known of the Canadian modernist designers, although he was born in Belgrade and moved to Canada in the early 1970s. Alfandary was a mechanical engineer who turned to jewellery making by accident when he made a necklace for his English teacher; he didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in his adopted country. I love the chunky yet almost delicate lines of this pair, which are crafted out of brass and Murano glass and most likely date from the mid-1970s.

Red cufflinks 010

The cabochon made out of Murano glass is very vibrant and has some lovely depths and interior detail, changing hue with the type of light. They’re an exceptionally beautiful pair of cufflinks, made even more special by the fact that Rafael produced very little jewellery for men. He died in Toronto in 2005 and during his last few years turned his hand to clock-making with his wife, Eriko, producing several dozen examples made in solid brass. Despite the ambiguous heritage of red, the subtlety of this pair inspires joie de vivre and leaves one wanting to, well, paint the town red.

Staircase wit

There are times when I am reminded about how utterly delicious French can be. There are many terms and expressions in this language that make English look positively impoverished (a prime example would be faire du lèche-vitrine; whereas English speakers merely, and politely, window shop, their French-speaking counterparts indulge in window licking, a description that captures being in the throes of materialistic desire). Words can be beautiful and powerful tools. The only time I’ve fainted in my life happened when I was around 7 years old. I was a hyperactive child and constantly craving attention and creating a maelstrom. One particular day I was running around the house and my mother, never one to refrain from apposite commentary, blurted out in exasperation: “Stop running around like some flibbertigibbet”. I am still not sure whether it was the expended energy or simply the hypnotic quality of this old English word denoting a spirit or fiend, but I was momentarily overcome. In some senses, my life has been punctuated with such moments where the strangeness, beauty, or cadence of words has forged out a pause in my time. One of my absolute Gallic favourite idioms is l’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit. This describes the moment when, after the fact, you think of what you should have said in response to someone’s put-down, joke, or unexpected interjection, that retort which would have been perfectly perfect. The idea is that you’re on the staircase on the way out (with reception rooms being traditionally on the upper level of a residence). While in English we have to resort to a long-winded comment such as “Oh I wish I’d thought of that at the time”, French possesses a succinct phrase that is so attractive that it could be taken out on a date.

ImageStairs are so much part of the very canvas of our daily lives that we take them without even realizing what we are doing for much of time. It’s interesting that we take stairs rather than use them (using only being employed when it’s an alternative to another route such as an elevator). They have been with us for at least three millennia and make life easier and much more practical, at least for able-bodied people. There are some magnificent staircases and stairwells in existence, such as the sixteenth-century double-helix stone staircase at the Château de Chambord, above, which was probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci. While there are countless examples of attractive, impressive, and large stairways, it is very rare that we would deem one to be ugly; at worst, they would only be practical. Often, otherwise interesting buildings can be let down by uncomplicated and unimaginative stairs but, happily, some designers see this integral item as a challenge, whether it be in the conceptualization, materials used, or simply the detail. I very much like the organic yet modernist design below, of Atmos Studio.

Image

The designer explained this bold design as follows, and I quote this since it is so poetic:

The stair is a continuation and intensification of the simple graphic skirting board lines that trace their way through the house. As they turn the corner into the stair void, they expand like a genie released from a lamp, curling and separating and bifurcating from the wall to form the delicate edge of the stair treads, lifting into the air to rise as the veil of the balustrade. This veil hangs gently from above as a series of thin paired threads, softly pulled back at the entry to allow movement past, gently splaying around the corner to meet and carry the arriving visitor onwards and upwards.

It seems to me that poets are rarely architects, though if there were more who were, we would undoubtedly be living in a more dangerous world. Given the ubiquity of stairs in our lives, they have long functioned as a metaphor. Freud somewhat inevitably held that dreaming about stairs had erotic connotations, explaining that the feat of climbing and descending stairs imitated the rhythm of making love, though this seems to ignore the fact that we are either going up or going down; rarely would we dream of doing both actions. Stairs have more tie-ins with the symbolism of going places, achieving things, since we take steps in our jobs and relationships, we climb the ladder of ambition, we social climb, and we take one step at a time. Conversely, we can make false steps and fall down the spiral. There is something quite startling as well as exhilarating about looking down from a tall staircase. It is certainly a reminder about the frailty of our mortal coils. Hitchcock used a staircase to great effect in Vertigo (1958), a masterpiece whose lead character, Scottie, played by the demure James Stewart, is a man inflicted with the psychological defects of obsession and stalking coupled with the physical one of acrophobia. There are two iconic stair sequences (here and here), both involving the same staircase and the director captures Scottie’s terror on his sweat-spotted face and a camera zoom that is now called the Vertigo Effect. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most disturbing, use of stairs in cinema is the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), depicting a massacre of innocent civilians, including the elderly and babies, by the Czar’s troops. The clip has been enormously influential in cinema and art, not to mention as a propaganda tool. The atrocity itself was an artistic liberty; no such outrage ever took place.

ImageStairs have long featured in spiritual symbolism to represent the path towards salvation and God, separation and sin being only a false step away. One of the most curious episodes in the Old Testament is Jacob’s Ladder, the dream that Jacob experiences of angels climbing and descending a ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). A ladder is, of course, nothing than a vertical, simple set of stairs. Jacob needs God to provide an interpretation of the dream the following day -not a Freudian one- and it concerns the foundation of the Promised Land. Despite the fact that stairs are used for the two-way process of going up and coming down, the English word derives from the proto-German word staigri meaning to climb, a sense also retained when we say a “flight of stairs”. Since it comes from the Barbarian tribes of Europe, it is obvious to see why they wanted to concentrate on reaching goals, rather than coming down. The same sense of overcoming and mastering the stairs is to be found in the Latin scala, from which we have acquired the term to scale something or the variations to be found in a musical scale.

Image

One more obvious stair symbol occurs at the beginning of the Mass. Before starting the Mass proper, the celebrant recites what are known as the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar before he takes the three steps up to the altar (the right foot must be the first to ascend). The image above was taken during a High Mass at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. During these prayers, contrition is expressed for being unworthy at being a participant in the sacred mysteries that are about to take place. The prayers themselves are mainly scriptural and are very beautiful, with a psalm and the Confiteor being said. The Confiteor is where the “mea culpa” is intoned thrice and the breast struck with the head bowed, a surprisingly haunting prayer and act. The whole section is a dialogue in which the cleric sets out how unworthy he is to stand at the altar of sacrifice; yet, go to it he must, since God overlooks transgressions and forgives. I like the sense of all of this; we do not dwell in Lent but head for Easter, though there are many religious people who are somewhat happy to remain steadfastly in Lenten rigour and set aside the splendour of beauty, truth, and grace. The symbolism of these prayers is overwhelmingly rich and the act of the priest preparing to climb the steps and the moment he does so become endowed with a higher purpose. The moment has its secular equivalents too; certain leaders and monarchs are often led to a raised dais or chair (or throne) on assuming their responsibilities. And who could forget the fairy-tale balls in which stairs play a crucial part? Cinderella’s descending the stairs into the ballroom denotes her social ascent out of the ashes of the kitchen. And we should rather hope for this than the endless frustration of Escher’s never-ending, and destination-less, stairways.

Image

Today’s cufflinks are by my very favourite designer, Guy Vidal, a Quebec pewtersmith who was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He used a pewter and silver mix of metal and injects great imagination into his work. I have 23 pairs by Vidal, representing half of the cufflinks he ever produced, though I’ve only blogged on one other pair before, here. They’re really rather lovely, with different sizes of square-shapes set at differing heights, embellished with a variety etched or plain tops. The faces suggest stepping stones to me, which mentally led me to stairs. These cerebral connections are actually not unlike stairs, taking us from one place to another, but leaving the opportunity of return, possibly with new knowledge and experiences, tantalizingly and eternally open to us.

Against the storm

Ever since Oedipus refused to cede priority to Laius at the intersection of three roads and ended up killing him -in self-defence when the king tries to run him over in his chariot- the younger generation has ached and longed to take over from the older one. The myth is pregnant with symbolism. Unwittingly, Oedipus has killed his own father, fulfilling a disturbing prophecy and the elements of power, sexuality, and adulthood are explored to terrible effect. Little wonder that Freud, when coming to analyse the deepest and darkest aspects of human nature had recourse to Greek archetypes that encapsulated his theories. The episode occurs at a crossroads and pride is present in both characters, imbued with a youthful stubbornness on the part of the young man, and an engrained stubbornness on the part of the elder man, in both cases a different manifestation of a patriarchal and deadly trait. Ingres’s version of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, below, executed in 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution’s merciless dismantling of the old order of things, captures the ambivalence of Oedipus. He is seductive, endowed with the timeless allure of youth, yet there is something dangerous in his self-assured posture, consolidated by the elements of destruction and death to be found on the canvas.

Image

Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Edipo Re uses the story as an implicit commentary on his time. The movie was made in 1967 and the young traveller has an acute case of road rage. The incident takes up 9 full minutes of the film and Oedipus picks off the guards one by one, then brutally slaughters a helpless Laius (the full clip is here). It seems that the director is both entranced with the unbridled frenzy of the youthful social revolution of the 1960s and aware of the risks of it allowing to have its full expression.

ImageThis struggle, youth rebelling against its elders, has punctuated history in every place, every culture, at every time. Societies have had their own statutes and taboos in attempts to contain it but it is never far beneath the surface in even the most oppressive, or repressed, environments. The most potent literary portrait of this phenomenon is in Shakespeare’s brilliant yet difficult King Lear. The play deals with many power struggles and women have parity with men in their desire to seize control from their elders. It is not a coincidence that the work was begun in 1603, the year of Elizabeth I’s death and during which James VI of Scots, son of the monarch the tyrannical Elizabeth had had executed, came down to London to take the English throne. James was in his 30s and provided quite a contrast with Elizabeth who died in her seventieth year. The aged Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, with the largest portion going to the child who loves him the most. The two flatterers gain a half-share each. The other daughter, Cordelia, genuinely loves her father but cannot find the words to express her affection. Lear is infuriated and disinherits her. It soon transpires that the two heiresses despise him and consider him to be a liability as well as a fool. When the monarch finally realizes his gullibility, the product of his vanity, he rushes out in a storm and rants furiously and impotently against the tempestuous conditions. It is one of the most striking and affecting moments in any drama of any age, represented above by William Dyce (c. 1851).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

The former ruler is on the threshold of despair. He has lost everything, including his judgement and is beginning to lose his mind. And yet, Shakespeare does two marvellous things at this juncture. Firstly, Lear might be without hope, hopeless in the true sense of the term, but he has one remaining weapon that does, despite everything, empower him: his tongue:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. (III.2)

 The other significant feature of this scene is that Lear is not alone during this iconic moment of irascible realization. There is a fool present to paraphrase the most tragic words that we can ever hear: “I told you so”. Yet the company and interjections of the fool during this powerful scene add an unexpected ingredient: they moderate Lear’s fury and in so doing, they serve to humanize this headstrong, silly person.

Recently, in fact during the course of the past few months, Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Albert II of the Belgians have all abdicated, citing the infirmity of age as the reason. Media commentary has, on the whole, been positive, hailing the chance of different, younger people to have their turn. There is, I think, something quite dangerous about this implicit form of ageism. It relies on the belief that younger people have more energy and dynamism and therefore can prove to be more effective leaders. As I’ve dealt with in a different post, The destroyer of worlds, it was the young John F. Kennedy who very nearly precipitated a global nuclear war in October 1962. It was an elderly, peace-loving Italian, Pope John XXIII, who played a major part in averting the wicked possibility. We can learn from older, wiser people. Unfortunately, we now live in the midst of a cult of youth which goes hand in hand with a disdain for knowledge of the past. And those who do not know the past will inevitably repeat its errors. Our elders might be slower, less fit, and more physically frail and vulnerable than younger men and women, but we are making a capital mistake in not tapping the wisdom of our previous generations. Winston Churchill was 71 years old at the end of the Second World War. Set this aside, and we commit metaphoric patricide, leaving us orphaned and exiled in the realm of our pride.

Image

Churchill was Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, a fact of which she reminded Tony Blair in 1997 during the audience in which she appointed him prime minister after a landslide general election victory. It was an important fact to remind the young premier of; his time would come and go. Every week, the Queen has an audience with her prime minister. They are alone and no record is made of the occasion. One former prime minister spoke of this hour as the most precious of his week since he could tell her anything at all and know that it would never be repeated to another human soul. The same ex-premier, James Callaghan, added that this was an invaluable asset, particularly when sometimes one’s very own colleagues could not be trusted. The birth of the child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is imminent and there has been some speculation about the Queen’s continued role as sovereign, given the fact that there will be three heirs apparent in line to the Crown, an unprecedented occurrence in British history. The Guardian, which claims to be a newspaper, has been running a series of articles urging Elizabeth II to abdicate. In all of these, the journalists miss the point. It is precisely her age and wisdom which make her an attractive asset as head of state and abdication would be nothing other than a shameful enslavement to the spirit of the age and the outrageous and ageist youth cult of contemporary society. I think the photographic portrait of the Queen taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 eloquently shows why Her Majesty should not bend to pressure. Her pose, with the mediocre and menacing conditions outside is both regal and human, at once assured and exposed, and, above all, reassuring. Throughout the storms that we endure, we desperately need the anchorage of constants, whether it be in our leaders, our values, art, or liturgy. Fortunately, the Queen believes that hers is a job for life and she is not going anywhere just yet.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are hand-wrought, etched copper cufflinks made by Gret Barkin in the mid-1950s. She specialized in copper and almost all of her work involves this fetching metal, operating out of the delightfully named Hope, Pennsylvania. I have three pairs of Barkin cufflinks, this one consisting of two superimposed, etched disks with the top disk curving upwards, shown better in the second image below.

ImageHer ouput is spectacular, in particular her women’s jewellery. I like the fact that she had simple yet enduring designs with an attention to small details. Gret was active right up to her death in 2007 at the age of 99 years old, injecting a lifetime’s expertise and craft into her work, a well-needed anti-ageist beacon for these troubled times.

The mating game

Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.

Wfm_lewis_chessmen

The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.

Image

Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.

Image

There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.

Image

For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.

Image

There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.

P1070708

 Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.

Fruit of the vine

From the ages of 19 to 21 years old, following a year spent in Paris -and how everyone should live in Paris when they are 18 years old, the only age at which you believe you know everything- I lived in Burgundy. My home was the red-roofed medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, a place so outrageously beautiful and so suspiciously idyllic that you never can quite completely believe it to be real. These three years were spent training for the priesthood and while that particular dream was never to be fulfilled, I left with a love for French and France that ultimately ended up with me becoming a scholar specializing in French literature and cultural history. The photograph below shows Flavigny, a charming place nestled on a hill, and the building on the very left of the photograph (with a grey bell tower whose persistent bell woke me up every day at 6am, with the decadent later time of 6:30am on Sundays) is the seminary in which I spent those two years. From my bedroom window I could look down on the thirteenth-century Porte du Val gateway, visible in the photograph, built to keep out the English, and from the bottom of the seminary garden was a vista overlooking the valley of Alesia, where Julius Caesar finally defeated the Gauls and captured Vercingetorix in 52BC. I count myself fortunate to have spent my salad days in such a salubrious environment.

Image

Courtesy of JohnVenice, Flickr

The one thing that always reminded me of being transplanted in an exotic place, like Ruth’s alien corn, was seeing grapes growing everywhere in the surrounding region, and even in our very garden. Coming from savagely beautiful rural climes of the north-west of England, this seemed to be intoxicating to me, providing many sudden moments of awareness of being a stranger in a strange land. While grapes produce a range of products including ethanol and grape juice, it is virtually impossible to think of this fruit without the mental association of wine. My love affair with wine began, fittingly, in Burgundy. Until then, wine had been something I tolerated when offered, my teenaged beverage of choice being sweet cider. Then, one rare free day, a fellow French seminarian who had a car offered to take three of us to Nuit-Saint-Georges, one of the premier vineyards in the world. We ventured to a small, ancient holding  for a free tasting and found ourselves the only ones there. The proprietor was on duty and seemed bemused at the sight of four earnest young men dressed in black cassocks who wanted to sample some of his produce. I don’t know whether he was a believer or was sympathetic to the Church, or quite simply divined that we didn’t get many treats in our austere lives, but this fellow decided to let us liberally sample some of the most expensive vintages that were obviously usually earmarked for richer customers, the bottles being priced at eye-watering prices. He spoke of each one in the respectful hushed tones we normally reserved for church and from the first mouthful of the first vintage he offered us, I had an oenophilic epiphany. I finally got it. I knew at last why wine was an integral part of the fabric of human history and I knew a Rubicon had been crossed and I would never turn back. Another memorable epiphany for me occurred in my 2009 trip to Portugal. I tried a 1952 white Dalva port, below, at Vinologia, a port bar in Porto run by a Frenchman, that I felt I had been born to taste. I went back to enjoy it by itself before the end of my visit.

Image

Wine-making has been taking place for at least 8,000 years and there is something mysterious about the fermentation of the fruit to make a drink that can have such potent effects. The fact that this drink can transform our mood and have quantifiable physical effects on us explains its prominent role in many religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Wine is mentioned no fewer than 155 times in the Old Testament. Indeed, Psalm 103 praises God for facets of His creation, including “Et vinum laetificat cor hominis”: and the wine gladdening the human heart. At the heart of Catholicism, there is the liturgy, that feeling of the pulse of the divine enacted out countless times all over the planet every day, in which wine plays a central role and perhaps a more visually striking one than the Host, the bread, since it resembles blood, a fact that has not been lost on poets throughout the centuries. In Charles Baudelaire’s semi-blasphemous “Hymne à la Beauté” (Hymn to Beauty), the first stanza makes a comparison between being bewitched by beauty and being under the influence of wine:

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss,
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal,
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime,
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

Baudelaire, whose poetic manipulation of the French language achieved things with it and for it that were unthinkable until that point, daringly rhymes “divin” and “au vin”, but really the simile is not at all sacrilegious because the transformation of mood heralded by wine is also mirrored in the process of viticulture itself, where very inviting looking fruit metamorphoses into an incredible drink, a veritable secular transsubstantiation.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Wine growing also brings to mind human labour and the many people involved in its culture and production. My favourite image in this respect is the month of September in the fifteenth-century Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, above, which depicts peasants busily tending vines. One indolent figure is contentedly and greedily devouring grapes while his pregnant wife momentarily pauses from her toil. There is a particular timeless resonance about the societal inequalities that have many working hard for the enjoyment of a few, made more raw and poignant when it comes to a product that is a byword for merriment, feasting, and conviviality. Whether purposeful or not in the medieval illumination, the cold, menacing, and impersonal walls of the castle loom over the human, hard-working, and diverse characters in the vines. John Steinbeck picks up this trope in the title to his 1939 masterpiece about the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath. In this connection, there is a very fitting singular irony in the invention of the printing press. Gutenberg’s press was directly modelled on the screw wine presses of the Rhine Valley. The printing press would directly spawn revolt, change, and revolution, an unintended consequence of wine-making indeed.

jan 2012 1424

Today’s cufflinks are fashioned out of sterling silver by the Californian artist Harold Clifton Fithian (1905-1972). They date from the 1950s and display an astonishing level of detail and craftsmanship as shown in the ornate sides, below.

jan 2012 1420

Fithian led a somewhat lively and varied life, trying his hand at acting and music as well as jewellery. These links are much more elaborate than other examples of his work, and they are definitely made by his hands rather than by an apprentice. They are a very striking pair. The choice of grape motif interests me very much. Fithian had an acute sense of social justice, having a completely non-segregated studio and training apprentices from all races, something that was all too rare in the 1940s and 1950s. He also was very closely involved in helping to organize strikes and action among farm workers against unjust working conditions, including, significantly, those working in the wine industry. The grape then remains, above all, a potent symbol of transformation, be it social, socially, or spiritually.

The Child within

There are essentially two kinds of people who have acquired deep specialist knowledge: the contagious and the contemptuous. I know this all too well, being a professor, and an academic condescending to a student is as perverse as it is outrageous. One of the true teachers of the twentieth century is Julia Child (1912-2004), someone who could stand as the very definition of fabulous. Her career was unexpected and deeply rooted in her humanity, for Julia was someone who exulted in life and raised cooking from a chore to something vibrant, exciting, and sensual. As well it should be. What is remarkable about Julia’s career is that she went into cookery purely by chance and as a direct result of her passion for Paul Child, the friend who became her husband. They are both pictured below in a whimsical Valentine’s Day photograph from 1952, an image that captures the deep affinity that bound these two people.

 Image

I always compare Julia Child with her British equivalent, Fanny Craddock (1909-1994). These two TV chefs from both sides of the Atlantic have long been staples of the drag-queen circuit, most likely because of their extraordinary respective presences. While Julia Child stood out in front of the camera because of her imposing height of 6′ 2″, Fanny was distinguished by her painted eyebrows and perpetually surprised expression that reminds one of a shrew in the process of being electrocuted (below). With Fanny there is the sense that she is speaking at the audience whereas Julia always manages to cultivate a conspiratorial affinity with her followers, one that was real. Fanny seems to want audiences to be able to cook so they can better themselves, best seen in the comment she once made about how to pipe cream on to a sherry trifle: “Don’t tell that woman next door how to do it and then you’ve got a bit of one-upmanship … which is always satisfying”. I must, in the interests of frankness, declare at this juncture that I am of the firm opinion that a trifle is a sickly and inhumane concoction that should be served only to prisoners and politicians.

Image

With Julia, on the other hand, her goal was always that her audience enjoy themselves, both during the preparation and in the enjoyment of the food. On this score, she had no time for the blog by Julie Powell which inspired the movie Julie and Julia (2009), which, in her opinion, was a gimmick, and mainly because Julie never talked about how the final product tasted, which for Julia was a cardinal sin of disrespect. The movie is notable not only for being the first film based on a blog but also for Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance in the role of the culinary pioneer. The radically different approaches between Julia Child and Fanny Craddock may be seen in two clips of them instructing viewers how to make a good omelette, with Fanny performing here, and Julia here. Whereas Fanny looks like she would spank anyone who didn’t carry out the task according to her specifications (doubtless part of her appeal to a certain generation of privately educated men), Julia appears to be having a friendly chat with the viewer as she busies herself.

 Image

One anecdote relates how, at a book signing taking place in the early fall, one person in the line gave Julia Child a small bag of homemade truffles, cheerily suggesting she save them for Christmas. Julia immediately tore into them and announced “Oh no! We’ll have them right now!” and started to purr as she enjoyed a truffle she had popped into her mouth, all the while signing other books. I think this story is very much a metaphor for how she lived her life: living in the present moment and doing things the way in which she wanted to, a rejection of puritanism. When things went wrong in front of the cameras, an audience, or friends, Julia would state defiantly “Never apologize”, a motto that was important to her as a lanky person who was somewhat exuberant –and awkward- in her movements and overall demeanour. I feel a great rapport with her in this, being one of life’s clumsy people. Hell, for me, would be having to parallel park in limitless spaces for all eternity.

The key to Julia’s enthusiasm is in the support and love she enjoyed with Paul. Letters they exchanged reveal a profoundly sensual and authentic bond between the two, and food played an important role in their relationship. In her first meal in Rouen with Paul, she experienced an epiphany that changed her palate and, indeed, the course of her life and countless people influenced by her magisterial cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published in two volumes released in 1961 and 1970). She reflected later that this meal constituted “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me”. I have had one relationship in which food was a very key ingredient –pun fully intended- and it is no accident that this has been the most striking, deep, and influential relationship I’ve had in my life. We would talk over food, savour and discuss the flavours, and, all the while, enjoying each other. A meal we shared at the Modern in New York stands out as the most satisfying culinary experience of my life, enjoyed with an individual who enabled my heart to sing tunes I didn’t know were there. It was a long evening of sumptuous courses on the tasting menu, gently lubricated with Laurent Perrier champagne, and impeccable service and seats. Emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually, the evening was a benchmark. Nothing can ever take that incomparable evening away, not even my own insecurities or failings nor the disruption of a rupture. Thankfully!

Image

I’m currently in Paris and a restaurant which I frequent frequently is Le Trumilou. It’s a place that Julia would approve of in very forceful terms. Julia had an unreconstructed distaste and suspicion of health fads in cooking, and attributed her longevity (dying just shy of her 93rd year) to red meat and gin, defiantly and perhaps accurately. Le Trumilou is located next to the Seine and run by a pair of brothers who took it over from their godparents. The interior looks like a 1950s photograph and hints at a retro makeover, but in fact it simply hasn’t bucked to, and become enslaved by, trends. The restaurant offers different daily specials that are both simple and pleasing such as chicken with thyme, suckling pig, roast rabbit, and duck with prunes (pictured above, from Saturday’s dinner, and served with a gratin as per my special request). It is comfort food that does not disappoint, and during these past few weeks of a particularly painful break-up, the fare at Le Trumilou has been a companion that has not let me down and has offered the particular and peculiar reassurance that only solid rustic cuisine can provide. One reason for this is that I had the good fortune to be brought up with a good supply of local country food. Rabbit pie, freshly caught river fish, and homemade bread and cakes punctuated my upbringing, so Le Trumilou’s offerings momentarily conjure up the childhood state of not realizing how harsh life’s realities can be.

There is, sadly, a puritanical attitude towards food on the part of some people that manifests itself in a suspicion of taking pleasure in meals, photographing them, and talking about them. This is the Craddock approach. The Child attitude is very European, particularly Gallic, in not rushing food, in knowing what you are eating, and in allowing meals to be fecund opportunities for exchange, laughter, and enjoyment. It is not for nothing that some of Christ’s important teaching moments occurred within the context of shared food nor that the central element of the Mass is a meal of bread and wine literally transformed, transubstantiated, into nourishment for our soul as well as for our all-too-weak bodies. I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s striking poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” in which the priest-poet describes administering the Eucharist to a crimson-clad lad: “Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet / To his youngster take his treat”.

Image

Today’s cufflinks are at once pretty and optimistic, as well as both whimsical and serious. They are crafted by Orla Eggert for the company he founded with his wife, Flora Danica, and I’ve already blogged about another pair in my collection by this quirky artist. He delighted in making jewellery that took, as its inspiration, the herbs in his garden, and this pair features chard leaves, made out of sterling silver coated with a gold wash and dating from the 1950s. It is not the most recognizable of herbs, and it was not I who first identified it. Julia Child does something radical with this unassuming leaf in the second volume of her masterpiece: a Swiss chard gratin. The combination of cheese, butter, lemon, and cream transforms the plant into something very special. Gratins are always an interesting item to have because, by their very presence in a special dish, they already assert their superiority over other side ingredients and vegetables. It is nothing other than the apotheosis of root crops (or leaves in this case) and a muted declaration of rivalry against the main course’s primary ingredient, whether meat, fish, or a vegetarian option. The gratin for me is a very attractive metaphor, as is cooking itself. By means of daring, passion, and imagination, something ordinary can be made exceptional and memorable. And, despite the pain and pleasure of falling in love, it is the only feature in our lives that has the power to metamorphose us and make us strive to be the people we should be. Despite ourselves. Would that we could all permit ourselves to unleash the joie de vivre of our inner (Julia) Child…