Napowrimo #30: Advice for mice

for mice.

If Lanius excubitor
(the Great Grey Shrike)
should happen to impale you on
a big sharp spike,

it’s really nothing personal:
it just intends to rip
some chunks of flesh from off your bones
and needs a better grip.

They call the shrike the butcher bird
and butchery is harder
if you do it without any knives
and a thornbush for a larder.


Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona

… and Paul Scholes scores. It’s just like the old days.

Really, though, I know we’re all supposed to get terribly excited by the prospect of all-English semifinals and finals, but I don’t watch the Champion’s League for the chance to see Chelsea play Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. I watch to see games like today’s: English teams playing against glamorous foreign opposition, with players like Messi, Eto’o and Deco that have amazing reputations but who I’ve rarely seen play.

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Napowrimo #28: bees and wasps

Honey, of course, is made by bees
but some may not have heard
about the hives of Cornish wasps
that make the lemon curd.


a bit late, but at least I’m back to only one behind schedule.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

Napowrimo #27: Barnaby the Wonderhound

Barnaby the Wonderhound
can leap tall buildings at a single bound
and his amazing supernose
can track a man wherever he goes.
He’d be superb at fighting crime,
but he prefers to spend his time
looking for a place to snooze
and widdling in his owners’ shoes.


Napowrimo #24: Rooster Death

In Italy there lives a fowl
they know as Rooster Death;
but mainly that’s because it has
such dreadful garlic breath.

So if you think your reputation’s 
getting rather ghastly
then after meals be sure to eat
a little bunch of parsley.


Napowrimo #23: Lapwings

Because it’s Shakespeare’s birthday (probably), a poem inspired by a Shakespeherian bird reference:


Now begin;
For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs
Close by the ground, to hear our conference.
Much Ado About Nothing, 3.ii.23-5

The winter flocks of round-winged lapwings
with their creaking, bubbling song
are sharing all the gossip gained
all summer long.

They spend the summer slyly lurking
in the tangled tussock-grass
and listening to every word
as people pass.

Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

Napowrimo #22: the baboon

One night a belligerent young baboon
decided he wanted to challenge the moon.
So he pointed his colourful arse at the sky
defying the moon until, bye and bye,
just as his legs were starting to ache
and his vertical bottom beginning to shake,
along came some clouds and the moon went in;
which he decided to count as a win.

Napowrimo #21: The Seal Voice Choir

If you stand on the beach on Holyhead
and listen attentively,
you may hear, above the sound of surf,
an unearthly harmony.

Upon a tiny rocky islet
out of sight of land
the world’s one and only seal voice choir
are sprawled on a patch of sand;

and sometimes, when the waves are still
and the breeze is off the sea
you can pick out a snatch of Cwm Rhondda
or perhaps Abide With Me.

Peter Doig & the Camden Town Group at the Tate

I went to Tate Britain today, mainly to see the Peter Doig, but while I was there I also had a quick look round the Camden Town Group exhibition.

Doig is a contemporary painter, born in Edinburgh in 1959 but brought up in Trinidad and Canada, who went to art school in London and now lives in Trinidad. So he certainly qualifies for an exhibition at Tate Britain — he’s at least as British as Greg Rusedski and a lot more British than Kevin Pietersen — but many of his paintings feature Canadian or West Indian landscapes. Or at least most of them are apparently composite scenes rather than pictures of anywhere in particular, but the influence is there.

Jetty, Peter Doig

He does large, rather beautifully coloured paintings which are largely landscapes, using that term broadly. The earlier ones are built up of lots of layers of different paint textures: washes, speckles, a few big globs, dry brushwork and so on. But each layer is very light; they’re not encrusted with paint, and in fact the texture of the canvas tends to show through. The total effect is subtle and atmospheric; almost kind of misty and ambiguous. The paintings really don’t translate well to small jpegs, so it doesn’t do it justice, but fwiw, the picture above is Jetty.

His more recent paintings tend to be much less elaborately textured, and overall I didn’t like them quite as much, but the best ones are still lovely. It’s always nice to go an art exhibition where most of the works are attractive objects. I’m not suggesting that it’s either necessary or sufficient that art is attractive, but the basic pleasure of looking at beautiful things is worth celebrating.

Country Rock, Peter Doig

The exhibition website is full of stuff — yay for the Tate, who always do a good job of that — and there’s a nice little video interview by the artist. I found it froze a couple of times when I tried to watch it online, but there’s a link to download it at the top-right of the page.

The Camden Town Group were less exciting, for me. They were a group of Edwardian artists, with Walter Sickert the most famous, who lived in Camden (obviously) and were interested in urban subjects: cityscapes, the music hall, working class life. They painted rather drab Impressionisticky pictures which are sort of interesting but without much in the way of snap, crackle or pop. I think if I found one of these pictures in a second-hand shop, I’d think it was by one of the many many fairly talented but conventional painters who still churn out Impressionisticky landscapes all over the place. Obviously the work was a bit more radical at the time, but still… it didn’t do much for me. Here’s one of the few I really did like, a painting by Sickert of pierrots performing on an outdoor stage in Brighton in 1915.

Brighton Pierrots, Walter Sickert

Generally, though, it was most interesting as history and sociology rather than for the art itself. I think the gallery almost admitted as much by the amount of contextual material included: archive film, Suffragette pamphlets, music hall fliers, advertisements for the Underground. Perhaps that’s unfair.

» All pictures are taken from the Tate’s exhibition websites and are © accordingly.

Napowrimo #20: Iceweasels

Deep in the forests of Finland
where humans rarely go
are sometimes found unusual tracks
curving across the snow;

they’re rather like those of the stoat
but each is twelve inches by nine
And often nearby there’s a tuft of blue hair
caught in the bark of a pine.

If you spend a few years with the locals,
persuade them you’re discrete,
they may whisper of the iceweasels
that pad on hairy feet.

They say they live on baby elk;
cloaked by the night they creep,
and ever-so-softly snap the spines
of fawns while they’re asleep.

Napowrimo #19: the cinnamon owl

Birdwatchers know
the Cinnamon Owl
by its tempting aroma
and blood-chilling howl.
Indeed, with the owl
and the Aniseed Swan
the scent often lingers
after they’ve gone.

Napowrimo #18: the Buffalo

A buffalo can make
a quite delightful pet,
as long as you can find
an easy-going vet
who doesn’t mind an animal
that’s really very boring,
apart from the occasional
trampling and goring.


A buffalo will often make
a charming household pet,
but just in case, make sure you have
an easy-going vet
who doesn’t mind an animal
that’s really very boring
(apart from the occasional
trampling and goring).

Coming of Age: American Art 1850-1950

This is a touring exhibition of paintings from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts that is currently at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Though it will be going to Venice and then Fort Lauderdale later in the year, if that’s more convenient for anyone.

The West Wind - Winslow Homer

I didn’t have hugely high expectations, because the DPG exhibition space is fairly modest in size for a review of a whole century of art, but actually the show works well. It may not be the definitive exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century American art, but it has enough material to suggest an overall narrative, including plenty of enjoyable work. With a very few exceptions it’s one painting per artist, so there’s a kind of lucky dip feeling about the whole thing; especially since it’s hung without too much editorial commentary. It’s like: here’s a load of paintings; see what you think.

Wave, Night - Georgia O'Keeffe

There are plenty of big names represented — Winslow Homer, Sargent, O’Keeffe, Hopper, Whistler, Pollock — but with the one-painting per artist thing, they are very much in the context of other peoples’ work. I don’t know enough to judge how representative that context is, but it worked pretty well for me.

Acrobat in Green - Walt Kuhn

Here and there on the walls between paintings there are quotes from the artists about art and, often, Americanness. I think it’s quite a nice device: it provides some context, some connection to the painters, but again without too much curatorial commentary.

So all in all, not a life-changing exhibition, but well worth popping in and having a look.

» The Addison website has photos of all the work in the exhibition. Those I’ve picked out are The West Wind by Winslow Homer, Wave, Night by Georgia O’Keeffe and Acrobat in Green by Walt Kuhn.

Napowrimo #17: Music hath charms

Music soothes the savage beast —
or so the Romans said, at least —
but you still need to identify
what kind of beast you’re threatened by.
Gators loathe Puccini but are calmed by Johann Strauss;
crocodiles hate everything that isn’t acid house.

» Actually, the main source of that quote in English seems to be William Congreve, who really said ‘music hath charms to soothe the savage breast‘; but by the time I checked it, it was too late to start writing something new. So there.


Napowrimo #16: double dactyl

Littoral Kingfishers
hover by seashores on
flashing blue wings.

Monarchs beware of their
given the choice they’d be
fishing for kings.