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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.