31 July, 2007

To Date?

Close beside the pride of modern man there stands his ironic view of himself—his awareness that he has to live in an historicizing, as it were a twilight mood, and his fear that his youthful hopes and energy will not survive into the future.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873.
London is filled with a beautiful architecture—but like all architecture, it is resistant to man. The yuppies and immigrants go about their everyday lives, eyes closed, ears full of the latest noise, never looking up. Even those who, like me, keep their eyes intent upon the built environment, are pushed back, not by its ugliness, but by its lack of meaning. Red brick, yellow brick, brown brick, grey brick—plaster, white and cream—glass, a little oak, a little stone—concrete, slate, plastic, tin, terracotta, pebble-dash, painted porch-tiles, many quite elegant—but all blank, remorseless, and quite empty of signs. I stare and stare, in an attempt to make sense of these objects: to make texts of them, texts with which to work, to communicate. Down Chichele Road there are the rudiments of signs: a plaster eagle perched atop a house (No. 15), and facing it a Neo-Gothic church made mosque with pea-green domes. Almost every terraced house has stereotyped designs, one or several, floral or abstract, carved into the brick, or moulded into the plaster, and flexwinged wyverns are common ornaments on the gabletops of the area.

But I want an architecture that can be made to ask questions—and these objects offer only the faintest and least interesting of enquiries.

One kind of architectural object, however, can be made to ask a number of highly worthwhile questions—the datestone. Until recently the datestone was not even a category in my mental lexicon; I had never considered the things. But then, well, I got thinking.

I distinguish three related objects. Firstly, the datestone proper: a stone, brick, plaster chunk, wood panel or other object containing a date, with or without initials. The datestone marks the completion date of the building to which it is attached, or originally attached. Second, the false datestone: these look much like datestones, except that the date they show is not the date of the building's completion—generally it is the founding date of the company, or else the date of an earlier building on the same site. Third, the commemorative stone, which I will abbreviate to 'comstone': a large stone (or plaque) with a longer text, commemorating a contemporary or historical event, such as the foundation of a public building, casualties of war, and the like. It is usually, but not always, clear which is which, and there are a few border-cases. Here I am most interested in the genuine datestone, although I will show the others by contrast.


From what I can tell, little has been written on the datestone. The British Library has two works on the subject, both ramshackle productions by local historians: A. S. and E. Day's Datestones of Bradshaw and Harwood, and John B. Taylor's Stories in Stone: Datestones in Rossendale. The latter is hand-written. Neither contains anything of theoretical interest; instead they catalogue stones (with drawn reproductions) going back to the 17th century. There is no indication that certain periods of history have left us more stones than others. The same is true of this website, which catalogues datestones in Jersey.

But when I came to look for datestones myself, I found the distribution of dates to be strongly skewed—the overwhelming majority of stones are from about 1870 to 1910. This is perhaps even more remarkable for the fact that the stones can be found on buildings of all types, public and private, plain and ornate—as Taylor puts it, 'from mansion to hen-cote'.


I cannot claim a rigorous or systematic methodology for collecting the stones. I looked for them carefully on various walks, mostly in London—Cricklewood (where I live), Willesden, West Hampstead, Belsize Park, Hammersmith, Camden Town, Great Portland Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, Fleet Street, Holborn and the Inns of Court—as well as a couple of trips to Nottingham and York. Here is a list of the 92 genuine datestones I have found so far, with images from a digital camera. Nottingham stones are marked with an N, York with a Y; the rest are from London.
1682, 1748, 1759, 1789, 1800, 1810Y, 1860, 1860N, 1865, 1873, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1876Na, 1876Nb, 1877, 1878a, 1878b, 1879, 1881, 1883a, 1883b, 1884a, 1884b, 1884c, 1885, 1887, 1888a, 1888b, 1889a, 1889b, 1890a, 1890b, 1891, 1892a, 1892b, 1892c, 1894a, 1894b, 1895, 1895Y, 1896a, 1896b, 1897a, 1897b, 1897c, 1897N, 1898, 1899a, 1899b, 1900, 1901, 1901N, 1902a, 1902b, 1903a, 1903b, 1903c, 1903Ya, 1903Yb, 1904a, 1904b, 1904c, 1904Y, 1905a, 1905b, 1905c, 1905d, 1905e, 1906, 1906Y, 1907Y, 1908Y, 1909, 1910a, 1910b, 1914, 1924, 1930, 1930Y, 1952, 1957a, 1957b, 1960, 1962, 1969, 1972, 1979, 1983, 1996, 2000
Several of these are problem cases. In bold are free-standing objects with dates—plaques, a lamp-post (1902a), a glass awning (1874—from the Criterion Restaurant; I believe this is original, and thus a genuine 'datestone', but I could be wrong). In italics is a curious subclass of datestone (1789 may not be in this group): these are all located around the Inns of Court, and all feature a date with a triangular series of initials, most with 'T' at the apex. Notably, they go back much earlier, and continue late. These stones closely resemble 'marriage stones', which function as a record of marriage, the initials being those of the husband and wife. As far as I am aware, my sole example of the latter is 1810Y. However, because of the concentration of the stones in italics around the Inns, I am confident that their initials are in fact those of heads of chambers. What the 'T' indicates I do not know, but as 1957b and 1960 (both from Gray's Inn) clearly demonstrate, the practice still continues today.

It is worth noting that a datestone is not always a reliable indicator of the age of the building to which it is attached; both Taylor and the Days mention that stones can be incorporated into later buildings:
The datestones on a few buildings seem contrary to what the architecture would suggest and may have been incorporated from an earlier structure, which may or may not have been on the same site.
If the datestone cannot reliably attest the date of a building, it is usually reliable on its own date. However, there are exceptions—false datestones, for instance this double stone, from an old Prudential office in Nottingham. Its date of 1848 is in fact the date of the company's founding, and the building itself is considerably later, an excellent example of High Victorian Gothic, designed in terracotta by Alfred Waterhouse during the 1890s. Another example is this, which unless I am radically mistaken about Georgian aesthetics, is not from 1829, but rather commemorates the founding of King's College London. Often false datestones are combined with real ones—the latter being the restoration date, or else the two stones showing an anniversary commemoration, as here.

This is a chart of the frequency distribution of our 92 genuine stones:

Datestones become increasingly common during the period 1860-1910, and then rapidly fall off; a disproportionate number of those before and after this period are in the 'Inns' subclass discussed above. Comstones, on the other hand, are found throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, although I have not counted them with the same energy and interest as the datestones.


The question is, then: why should the period 1870-1910 present such a strong concentration of datestones? It will be quickly observed that there simply are a lot of buildings from this period—thus the Days: 'Nineteenth-century datestones are linked with the great explosion of population in the Bolton district when expansion took place by building mainly terraced housing along the main roads of the area'. But we observe in return that the architecture of English cities is highly eclectic, and that plenty of buildings remain from all periods of the last three centuries, despite Paul Thompson's claim that the 'medieval and Georgian architecture which now survives is no more than a winning fragment'. The distribution is just too skewed, even taking into account the unsystematic collection of my data—a deeper reason must be sought.

As I walked about London, and thought about London, I noticed that the problem of datestones seemed to become in my mind a much greater problem, of history and its architecture. And a casual remark in the Days' book provides a further clue: 'Datestones add much of interest to the visual apperance of a building, and when in the original setting, place the building firmly in the historical period.' (Italics mine.) When I polled friends, most murmured something vague about the late Victorians being conscious of progress and destiny—particularly sensitive to their own place in history. I emailed an eminent scholar, who replied:
I think that generally the Victorian period was a time of pride and money, and of 'the invention of tradition' (book by Hobsbawm and Ranger) and therefore they were both more conscious of such niceties and more able to afford it. . . In modern times we are generally less interested in identifying ourselves with buildings and they are often made by developers more interested in money than pride.
Most modern developers are concerned with cost-efficiency, and would disdain the datestone as purely ornamental; the comstone, on the other hand, is an imposition from the trustees and benefactors of the building, who wish to commemorate an historic occasion. In other words, certain events are considered significant enough to memorialise, and so are certain buildings as public functions (library, school, council block)—but not architecture itself. This is what is meant, I think, by the claim that our architects have less 'pride' in their work: they are not allowed to give it an intrinsic historical significance.

Why is this? History, as we popularly conceive it, and as it is currently made, describes the State and its subsidiaries, even down to local councils and the petty officials and society-folk who lay comstones. The buildings we choose to make historical, by giving them a date, are thus the buildings that serve a purpose in the framework of the State.

The old datestones, on the other hand, are the equivalent of dates in colophons, or on paintings and picture-frames—they denote the building as a work of art, as a piece of architecture, and as such, part of a history—a history not of the State, or even of society, but of aesthetic achievement.

The craze for datestones in 1870-1910 does not represent a sense of national pride—it has nothing to do with civics, with the public sphere. If it did, we should expect to see datestones on monumental civic achievements—on the glorious and baroque façades of Regent Street, or earlier, on all the triumphal Nash buildings in the centre of the city. But there are none. In fact there seems to be no correlation between the possession of a datestone and the grandeur or civic importance of a building. Some important works have them, others do not—and those that do often use Roman numerals, such as 1800 (Royal College of Surgeons), or at least stately lettering, as in 1877 (Belsize Park Town Hall). Most datestones, on the contrary, are private statements, soft and elegant signatures, equivalent to the dateless monograms also occasionally found through London.


Nietzsche, in the work quoted above, finds freedom in the escape from history, or at least in the mastery of it. I, however, am more sympathetic to Gadamer, who sees liberty in history: the man who would oppress a nation cuts its people loose from their own history, unmooring man from himself, and gives them another history, or even a myth. To sign one's work in stone is to add one's name, however small, to a distinguished list, and to become part of a history. Thus too the marriage stones, with which wed couples solidify and manifest their commitment in the face of history. History is solidity.

Sketched above is a narrative that can be read into the facts of the datestones as we have them. It may be utterly fanciful, or it may yet contain some truths worth sifting. We have yet to determine (if indeed we are on some semblance of the correct track) why the period 1870-1910 should have conceived of its architecture in these historical terms. Perhaps we might invoke the rapid growth of the architectural profession, which 'increased more than tenfold between 1820 and 1870'. Certainly we will want to talk about the changing clients; John Betjeman, in his 1972 Pictorial History of English Architecture, informs us that 'The people who paid for buildings at the beginning of the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine were different from the mid-Victorians'. (And his remark that today's architects are 'brought up in a generation whose romance is to be found in a future which does not exist, rather than the past', while describing the flight from stylistic historicism, applies equally to the decline of historical consciousness, and hence of datestones.)

But at least we have begun to press those damned stones—we have at least spurred them to talk, to ask questions—and so we have not succumbed to that effacement of our history, for which our masters so devoutly wish.

29 July, 2007


A train. It is night. There is a sudden noise outside.

Boy: Is that funder an' lightning?

Father: No.

(Pause. Noise again.)

Boy: Is that funder an' lightning?

Father: I told you, no it isn't.

(Pause. Noise again.)

Boy: That's funder an' lightning!

Father rolls his eyes: Is it?


Boy: No.

Father: Well then.

No budding Caesar, then.

25 July, 2007

Africa disappears

The black Africa of tribal dances, of swollen breasts offered to the glory of nature, survives only on movie sets. According to Sergio Rossi, that is. He's narrating a scene in the middle of Africa Addio (1966), the notorious documentary allegedly about the decolonization of Africa. (Mencius put me onto it two months ago. I responded with Salo—but Salo isn't online. Africa Addio was, until recently.) Rossi is talking in his stern, deadpan Italian, over a shot of a Zulu village and its dancers, and a white crew is filming them all. 'Come on, come on, more action!' the director shouts. Rossi continues—
Today, Zulu maidens come out of the academy, speak excellent English, and receive union wages for putting on nylon underwear and dancing the dance of their grandmothers. During their breaks, the ancient rhythm of the tom-tom gives them a few variations on the theme.
The Zulus rush into a mud hut and pull out a piano. A drum-kit and saxophone materialise out of nowhere:

Reality has been suspended, and mingles freely with fantasy. It hardly matters. Africa Addio compels belief by the sheer force of its imagery—and that's art, isn't it? Truth is grounded in the past, in expectation: it is a historical phenomenon. But Africa Addio flattens the past into a single moment of presence, feigning history—Zulus pretending to be savages for the camera, offering their swollen breasts and 'dancing the dance of their grandmothers'. And so it goes on:
The African female has discovered that she is a woman, and is beginning to behave as such. She wants to be modern because she feels the past is against her. . .
Africa Addio is about the disownment of the past, about a moment in which man revolts against tradition and authority in the most violent way imaginable. The film is flush with images of mutiny, murder, slaughter, dismemberment (a pile of severed hands), execution—possibly staged—drowning, explosions, and so on. Animals come in for their share of brutality. Natives fix a rope between jeeps and cut down fleeing wildlife; they chase around a mother elephant until she is too exhausted to protect her young; the camera pans for minutes over fields strewn with the skeletons of slain game. Old foxhunters have no foxes to hunt, so instead they hunt a man running with a piece of meat on a string. Thus there is always the suggestion of the pretend and the fantastic. In one scene a wounded zebra is airlifted into the sunset:

This is the Addio vision of what happened when the whites left the savages to their own devices. One reviewer, while admitting that the film is a 'masterpiece', calls it 'morally disgusting, despicably racist and consistently reprehensible'. Roger Ebert, that bastion of mediocrity, labels it 'brutal, dishonest, racist'. Sound familiar? Perhaps any cultural product that elicits such howls of moral outrage is worth taking seriously.

. . . When she was naked, she had two mammary glands. Now that she's clothed, she has two breasts. She does not want to display herself. She wants to be looked at, to make you guess what's under her alluring clothes. Naked she was prey, like a black female. Clothed she is a tyrant, like a white woman. Africa covers itself consciously, and all wrapped up in the veils of its consciousness, Africa disappears.
The dark continent has eaten of the apple, and lost all her innocence. She has transformed from an animal, part of the natural world, into a human, who triumphs over nature. She has become ironic, a fit subject—or object—for the ironising eye of documentary, casting away, in its lumen siccum, the rich shadows of the past. Hence she simultaneously 'wants to be looked at', and 'disappears'. It is the same in Sudan—
In the southern regions of Sudan, thousands of pairs of underwear, all one size, are distributed to the tribes in the interior by the "Legion of Decency". Among all things to hide, underwear covers what's most urgent. That's enough to decently begin to march toward the conquest of further dignity.
That last sentence, unless you're not concentrating, possesses a beautiful little irony. The narration accompanies a vision of naked locals lining up to receive white pants, yet another surrealist juxtaposition of raw and cooked:


All lies, of course—all lies and fabrications. But is Africa Addio not an allegory for itself? It is a rebellion of the documentary against its own form, a disownment of the past. It rejects the criteria of truth and accuracy: it is a triumph of rhetoric over logic, and so enacts the changes in intellectual fashion of the mid-60s. It is a lament for past values, whether real or imagined, but at the same time it is complicit in their demise. Africa, in Africa Addio, is not naked, but she pretends to be naked, and invites the gaze with astonishing images.

19 July, 2007


A little bagatelle for your pleasure. The Rabelais Club existed from 1880-1888, and its membership comprised a Who's Who of cultural giants: Edward Bellamy, Walter Besant, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Renan, James Russell Lowell, George du Maurier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Hardy, W. E. Henley, Charles Godfrey Leland, John Everett Millais, George Saintsbury, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, F. W. Maitland and Andrew Lang, as well as many unfamiliar names. The Club's published Recreations consist largely of humorous poetry (mostly in English, Latin and Rabelaisian French) and homages to the Good Doctor; but take this, from the third volume (1885-88), the menu for a rather pataphysical repast—

Harnais de Gueule.

Pour le sacrifice des magnigoules gastrolatres à leur
Dieu Ventripotent.

‘A l’entrée du
premier service,
la royne prit, en guise
de pillules qui sen-
tent si bon pour soy
desgraisser l’estomac
une cuillerée de pe-

Soupe Petasinne.
De Pasque de Soles.
Des Ambares de Mer.
Des Ballivarnes en Paste,
Des Conquiguoles Savoreuses.
Des Coquemares à la Vinaigrette.
Les quatre quartiers du Mouton que porta Hellé et
Frixus au destroit de Propontide
Le Boeuf Apis de Memphis en Egypt que reffussa
la pitance de la main de Germanicus Cezar.
Les cramastères du Toreau tant aymé de Pasiphé.
Longes de Veau routy, sinapisées de pouldre zinziberine.
Oysons couvez par la digne oye limatique, laquelle
par son chant saulva la Rocque Tarpée.
La foye de l'ourse Calixto.
De la friande vestampenarderie.
De la gallimaffrée a l'estifignade.
Des moque croquettes.
Brededins-brededas glacés.
Le tout associé de brevaige sempiternel de
Vin de Chinon.

‘Les vezes, bouzines et cornemuses sonnerent harmonieusement
et leur furent les viandes apportees.’

‘Et la ne considerons l’harmonie des contrehastiers,
la temperature des potages, l’ordre du service de vin?’



Some further notes, though not as many as I would have wished. 'Harnais de Gueule', or 'gullet equipment', is a Rabelaisian kenning for posh nosh. 'Magnigoules gastrolatres' (Quart Livre, ch. 59) are 'great-throated belly-worshippers'. The quotation preceding 'Soupe Petasinne' is unknown to me, as is petasinne itself, but googling the word turns up a Dutch reference (pdf, from this Rabelais site) to Mireille Huchon on the pseudo-Rabelaisian Disciple de Pantagruel (1538), apparently the source of the soup in question. [Update: I've skimmed through the Disciple and can't find the quote. Possibly I overlooked it.] I have also failed to trace 'ambares', 'conquiguoles', 'limatique', 'estifignade', and 'brededins-brededas'; not one seems to be in Rabelais.

However, the news is not all bad. 'Coquemares' is an archaic form of 'cauchemars', ie. nightmares. The story of Germanicus and Apis is from Natural History 8, ch. 46. 'Vestampenarderie' derives from an altered spelling of 'vistempenarde', which Cotgrave defines as 'a duster made of a foxtaile fastned unto a staffe'. Sainéan tells us it is Anjou dialect: 'plumeau monté sur un long bâton. . . En Anjou, le mot designe (suivant [Jacob] Le Duchat [1658-1735, important Rabelais editor]) des torchons liés avec du fil au bout d'un bâton.' The foxtail, according to the OED, was a common symbol of the court fool. Rabelais also has vistempenardé, which Cotgrave has as 'Dusted, or slapped with a Fox-taile; also, raggedly, vilely, or basely attired'. When Rabelais writes, 'voyez comment le monde est vistempenardé' (III.29), Urquhart, who used Cotgrave religiously, translates 'you see yourself how the world is vilely abused, as when with a foxtail one claps another’s breech to cajole him'. Sainéan does not attempt an etymology of the word, but vi- or - often seems to signify a prick in Rabelaisian compounds.

What else? Chinon, supposedly founded by Cain, was Rabelais's hometown, and 'brevaige sempiternal' features in the meal of the Gastrolastres at IV.59. Cotgrave tells us that 'veze' is a bagpipe in Poitevin dialect, while 'cornemuse' is another word for the bagpipes. Cotgrave gives 'bouzine' as a 'rusticall Trumpet or wind-instrument, made of pitched barke'. 'Contrehastier' is an archaic word for a roasting-spit, found throughout Rabelais.

17 July, 2007

Dead flies

In the 1440s, Poggio Bracciolini, one of the great humanists of the early Italian Renaissance—the age of Valla, Guarino and Niccoli—compiled a book of jests, which he called Facetiae. The jests of the Renaissance were the same as the fabliaux of the Middle Ages—in this field there was much more continuity than innovation, and the jests remained hugely popular throughout Europe, from Chaucer and Boccaccio, through Poggio, to Till Eulenspiegel and An Hundred Merrye Tales. The 19th of Poggio's facetiae runs as follows:
A beaker of wine was once brought to an Englishman at a banquet, and all present took their wine from it. And while the Englishman was putting it to his lips, he saw a dead fly in it, which he took out. Then, after having taken his drink, he replaced the dead fly in the wine. Asked why he did this, he replied: "I, personally, do not like flies in my wine, but how am I to know if some of you do not like them?"
We can read this story in two ways. Does the Englishman lack common sense, or is he witty, ironical and idiosyncratic? There are no clues in the telling; and it is this compressed ambiguity that lends the story its particular piquancy. I, of course, read it in a favourable light. My Englishman—by which I mean, me—is ironical and idiosyncratic. He is difficult, rebarbative, satirical; he is the man to whom Hitler referred in conversation in 1941, a rare moment of praise:
They have an unexampled cheek, these English! It doesn't prevent me from admiring them. In this sphere, they still have a lot to teach us.
It pleases me to think that these two Continentals never knew quite where they stood with the Englishman: they could never quite gauge his sincerity or irony. And here arises the spring of English comedy—the eternal ambivalence, the making of humour from discomfort, social awkwardness, and even unexpected aggression. Perhaps it is Poggio, and not Chaucer or other native purveyors of occasional and conventional bawdiness, who gives us our first taste of what I think of as the genius of English humour.


Tonight, Mrs. Roth and I attended a show—Simon Munnery's warm-up for his forthcoming stint at the Edinburgh Festival. Munnery, to me, is the perfect English comedian—discomfort, awkwardness, and unexpected aggression are all there intact. He has the talent of making his audience laugh with shock and embarrassment, as well as in sympathy. One anecdote in his free-associative stream recounted the decision to buy up a stack of Daily Mails from a newsagent, and consign the lot to a recycling-bin—a little act of local heroism. As a titter and muffled cheer went up from the audience—young, bohemian, leftist—Munnery snarled, 'It'll be the Guardian next time'. The audience roared: they had been nailed, numbered, and they were delighted.

Halfway through the set, he did some character-skits. He paused to note a previous review: 'the change of character is little more than a change of hat'. 'Well,' he replied, 'this one is more than a change of hat—I'm taking my glasses off'. Munnery exuded all the charm of the half-organized and haphazard: he bumbled into each skit without apparent order, promised more minutes at the end, seemed to forget lines, but forgot them hilariously, remembered that this wasn't the last song, that's the next one, so actually we've got ten more minutes, so don't clap after this one, well you can clap if you want, but don't leave, because there's another one after it, and so on. He sings a song about his dad getting him out of bed in the morning—'although the cold hard world is on your side, mummy is on mine'—and does a poem about London. It takes two and a half hours to drive across London, he reasons, and you can fly to Rome in an hour and a quarter, which makes Rome a suburb of London. The city becomes a horrifying presence, absorbing people and other towns alike. (In a previous show he flashed up a map of Britain, marked 'Greater London'.) He does a skit with Dysmas and Gestas, rendered as crude drawings on a board with moveable eyes and mouths, and bickering pathetically in the wake of Christ's deposition. (What is it that draws the Englishman to comedify Calvary?) He pulls apart Springsteen and Lennon lyrics with a delighted contempt. He does a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, the story ending with an imagined roomful of people enthusiastically chanting 'Science!' at different pitches—and the narrative seems motivated by a surreal and inexplicable anger. The rhythm of Munnery's comedy has an unpredictable logic, and an unsettling insouciance. I could readily have imagined him challenging his audience on the possible appropriateness of dead flies in wine.

14 July, 2007

For Cerberus

For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion; and consequently contributes to the shortening of our lives.

— Lemuel Gulliver, Works, Vol. IV, Book III.
And so, too, every word we type is a diminution of our fingers by corrosion, and the vice of blogging, in truth, contributes if not to the shortening of life, at least to its squandering. Still—squander we must, squander we must.


Mencius is in favour—pardon, in favor—of abolishing universities: 'the university, which was established as a refuge whose purpose was to pursue truth without regard for the opinions of the world, has become a power center whose purpose is to impose its own opinions on the world. As such it has no more use for independent thought than a dog has for beets'. He further claims that 'universities are directly responsible for almost all the violence in the world today'. His post is full of stories about academic ill-practice. And so Mencius wants the 'Henry VIII treatment—unconditional abolition and confiscation'. And he's in good company, as his readers snap and bite with gusto at the dripping, dishevelled limbs of Academia.

One wonders, though—if this terrible plan were executed, if the universities were abolished and their inhabitants scattered to the winds—who would be left to defend the world against racism, sexism, and homophobia? Who would remain to combat the statist and imperialist marches of the Bush dynasty? Who would be there to show us the truth about Hegel (liberal), Shakespeare (subversive) or even Plutarch (bigot)? Who would be called upon to fill up television shows with their opinions on Seurat and/or Rodrigo Rato?

And moreover, what haven would there be for cloudminded codicophiles and functionshirkers like myself? The cold city does not beckon. The dim looming of pixels and cordless mouses, of bonds and pensions, conservative suits, readers of Alain de Botton—of a life without dust, vellum and hot air, without glorious idling—less glorious than of old, granted, but glorious a little nonetheless, and all at the expense of others—without impressionable acolytes to be scorned and inspired on alternate days, without that charming community of men and women who genuinely believe they're doing something useful, brings out the shudders in me, and all the terrors of tenure and theory and undergraduate apathy fade into utter insignificance by comparison.

05 July, 2007

The Lung Goodbye

When I wrote about my visit to San Francisco back in December, a local commenter named Cara remarked that 'I run into many who visit here and are disappointed by seeing a single homeless person, or a worn-looking bus, or a dirty street'; she was proud to live in a 'real city'. I can appreciate these sentiments; after all, cities don't come much dirtier and realer than London—the Big Smoke. (Well, one of them.) Smoke is integral to the city, from its pipe-clubs to its fuliginous chimneys. When I was younger you could still smell the smoke from approaching tube trains, and smoke is enshrined also in the institution of G. Smith & Sons, an antique cigar emporium on Charing Cross Road that proudly retains its Edwardian trappings. Last time I was in Smith's, there to purchase a fine Cuban for a friend's coming-of-age, Will Self, in full cycling gear, like some modern-day Alfred Jarry, was chatting merrily to the clerk—evidently a regular. Not too long ago, the bright-lit shisha-bars in Edgware Road basements were a choice evening destination for my associates. Smoke is there in London's architecture, too—from the cigar of 30 St Mary Axe to the cigarette-lighter of Tower 42. It is only a matter of time before some young postmodernist creates an architectonic representation of smoke itself. Smoke is a constant, an omnipresence, a totem of the corrupted flatus et spiritus of urban life. One steps out for an evening, and becomes impregnated with it, as with the city itself.

As my British readers know, and probably the rest of you too, smoking in enclosed public spaces has been outlawed as of last Sunday. My friends and family are all strongly in favour of the ban; it has been a talking-point in the papers of late, and nobody, to my knowledge, has said much of interest about it. I feel a twinge of libertarian rebellion, personally—and I don't even smoke. ('Twinge', I hasten to add, is about as strong as my political instincts and principles get. I'll be not so secretly glad to take advantage of the ban, and my asthmatic lungs, not to mention the smell of my duds, will be all the better for it.)


Tobacco has long been a source of opprobrium. The most notorious critic of smoking in England's history is undoubtedly King James I, whose Counterblaste to Tobacco, published a year after he acceded to the throne, set the model for tobaccophobes to come. Here's what James writes about public smoking:
And for the Vanities committed in this filthy Custome, is it not both great Vanity and Uncleanness, that at the Table, a place of Respect, of Cleanliness, of Modesty, men should not be ashamed to sit rotting of Tobacco-Pipes, and puffing of the smoke of Tobacco one to another, making the filthy smoke and stink thereof to exhale athwart the Dishes, and infect the Air, when very often men that abhor it are at their Repast;
Then there's Richard Braithwaite's satirical The Smoaking Age: or, the Life and Death of Tobacco (1703), which gives a pseudo-mythological account of tobacco's origin, asserting it to be the bastard son of Bacchus and Proserpina, who has cuckolded Pluto. When Jupiter learns of the scandal, he orders:
We therefore to Root out the very Memory of such Disgrace, and the Existence of so unworthy an Issue, Do in Our Power Transform the said Bastard (in resemblance of Acanthus) into a Plant; Which to express his Father, shall retain the name of Bacchus, and therefore have we in his memory, call'd him (as one commended to the Care, Protection, and Tuition of his Father) Tobacco.
Tobacco is remanded to the care of Pluto, who sends him out into the world to beguile sinners into hell. At the end of the main body of the text is the Complaint of Time against Tobacco, finishing with an address to the smoker: 'how will the last Minutes of thy Life by concluded, when all your days are spent in Smoak and Vapour, the lively Emblem of Hell?' The association of tobacco and hell is a lively one, and goes back to James's pamphlet, which famously described the habit as 'loathsome to the Eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the Brain, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stigian smoke of the Pit that is bottomless'.

But Braithwaite is not quite so one-sided as James; he admits in a postscript that 'The Soveraign Quality of this Herb, may be gathered from the very radical Derivative of it, for תב [tb] in the Hebrew signifies Bonum, and ακος in Greek Remedium; implying, that it is a good Remedy against any Malady'. His final thoughts, however, are certainly hostile to tobacco:
I see no tolerable Account can be given of the way of Smoaking now in fashion; for it appears to have been taken up upon no Necessity; it is recommended by no real Advantage either to the Body or Mind, and therefore must owe its rise to no better causes than Dulness or Idleness, a silly obsequiousness to other mens humours, or Epicurism and Wantonness of our own Inclinations.
It is curious that one of the oldest complaints against tobacco, along with the fact of its deleterious effects on the body, is that it encourages laziness and time-wasting. And this is not just in James and Braithwaite: the same criticism was made by the Biblical exegete Adam Clarke in his 1797 Dissertation on the Use and Abuse of Tobacco:
For the sake of your time, a large portion of which is irreparably lost, particularly in smoking. Have you any time to dispose of—to murder? Is there no need of prayer—reading—study?
Here the good Protestant work-ethic is very much to the fore. One must always be occupied and industrious: that is what makes us good Christians, and good Britons. But Clarke also takes up James' theme of the effects smoking has on others, appealing to the 'politeness and humanity' of his readers—
Consider how disagreeable your custom is, to those who do not follow it. An Atmosphere of Tobacco effluvia surrounds you whithersoever you go. Every article about you smells of it; your apartments, your clothes, and even your very breath. Nor is there a smell in nature more disagreeable than that of stale Tobacco, arising in warm exhalations from the human body, rendered still more offensive by passing thro' the pores, and becoming strongly impregnated with that noxious matter which was before insensibly perspired.

Consider what pain your friends may be put to in standing near you, in order to consult you on some important business, or to be improved by your conversation. Will you oblige them to pay so heavily for the benefit of your advice?
Now this is not quite 'passive smoking', of course. Clarke has not argued that smoking is harmful to the health of others, and he is not speaking of lung cancer; he is merely concerned for their physical discomfort. Still, what a modern complaint! The familiarity of these sentiments is not by any means the product of a false historical consciousness.


It is worth asking—why must we wait till 1884 for a defence of tobacco? Was it only in the period of decadence that a smoker could extol his habit as an elegant fashion? Certainly at this time, among certain sections of the literary populace, the wicked and immoral was in vogue, and in a most delicious ironic way. Arthur Machen was a typical product of the era—and I am grateful for his rather loose translation of Beroalde de Verville's Moyen de Parvenir, for otherwise I would not know how second-rate is that work—he also did the Heptameron and wrote Gothic horror stories. His 1884 Anatomy of Tobacco, written under the pseudonym of Leolinus Siluriensis (the first word reflecting Machen's middle name, Llewelyn, the second indicating his Welshness), 'Professor of Fumifical Philosophy in the University of Brentford', is a delightful panegyric to the art of smoking. Formally it is a pastiche of the scholastic summa, analysing the where, when and how of smoking, full of mock erudition, very much in the vein of his hero Rabelais.

Machen begins—after promising to induct those who wish to learn into the Flamma Esoterica, teaching them 'the study of Cloudiness and general Tubulosity'—with a definition of smoking as 'the inhaling of the fume of tobacco', and proceeds to prod this definition every which way he can. He lists and describes schools of thought on the nature of the 'complex pipe'—these being the chorizontic, the solidic, the medioliquorean, the megacremasuotic, the coelosphaeric, and the orthopoetic. He has an amusing passage discussing the theory that, since the spirit is in the breath, and pipe-tobacco is solidified smoke, the pipe must be a potential means of storing and communicating spiritual ideas. Analysing the 'where' of smoking, Machen offers the categories of hypaethral (outdoors) and anaethral (indoors); this leads on to a discussion of smoking in public places, and specifically in churches, a practice that some individuals have voted to outlaw:
It may be said that the fumes would be disgusting to certain persons, but this objection assumes that whatever is disagreeable to some must be unlawful for all, but this is plainly not a fact; for if it were, since it is disagreeable to some persons to be sober, it would follow that we should be all drunkards, which is absurd.
Has this objection been floated in the tabloids?
And again, granting that it would be disagreeable to some, and that therefore all should be debarred, what easier than to have smoking galleries, by which all possible annoyance would be avoided?
Yes, you say, but one might as well have a pissing-corner in a pool, as a smoking gallery in a room or church.
Fourthly, it will be argued that what may be called the associations of smoking are of such a kind that though per se it is not profane, yet by its relations it has become so, and so should not be allowed. Those opponents would talk of how "tinkers and beastly folk" do smoke, of the vile places they smoke in, and of the vile words that proceed out of their mouths as they smoke.
This is an interesting point—Machen is aware that objections to smoking are often as not objections to smokers, and that what appears a purely ideological argument is in fact laden with social prejudices—prejudices which, one suspects, may well be justified. Do we not today object to the tinkers and beastly folk who puff away at their cancer-sticks? What Machen represents is a reassertion of the nobility of smoking. It is not so far from the nobility of indolence, in that time a favourite theme of Jerome K. Jerome's, and long championed by the German Romantics. Take this, for instance, from Schlegel's little novel Lucinde:
Then, with the greatest indignation, I thought of those evil people who want to subtract sleep from life. Probably they've never slept as well as never lived. Why are the gods the gods, if not because they consciously and intentionally do nothing, because they understand this art and are masters of it?
The nobility of indolence and of smoking is the nobility of the contemplative life, in distinction to the active life championed by James, Braithwaite and Clarke. (Clarke's 'prayer—reading—study', while ostensibly contemplative, is surely an industrious, even an active sort of contemplation, as it had been for, say, Peter of Celle.) In the tradition of Machen we find another great hymn to smoking, Compton Mackenzie's 1959 Sublime Tobacco. Mackenzie is not wholly averse to segregation, although he is rather sardonic about smoking-carriages on trains; he recalls his father's strictures on the habit:
He had a smoking-room like a Temple of Vesta in his garden to which guests who desired to smoke had to remove themselves, and what is more to don the smoking-jackets and smoking-caps he provided for them to avoid bringing the odious fumes into his house.
Mackenzie's main thesis is that 'the advantage tobacco has been to the mind of man has far outweighed any harm it might have (and that might is still highly problematical) done to a few bodies'. He is thus quite sceptical of any damned nonsense about the dangers of smoking, let alone passive smoking (eh?). He notes, in true aristocratic fashion, that 'the great majority of men of letters have been smokers, whether they were poets or dramatists, philosophers or historians, essayists or novelists'. Mackenzie thinks it not a coincidence that Ruskin, an anti-smoker, had his marriage fall apart, and his wife defect to Millais, 'who was such a devoted smoker that he was said to have indulged in a clay pipe when driving in the Golden Jubilee procession of Queen Victoria'. He muses that 'the absence of any reference to tobacco in Shakespeare's works has been a source of much encouragement to tobaccophobes'; had he lived a generation longer, his heart would have warmed to this brilliant article, which categorically proves that Othello is about tobacco addiction. Mackenzie concludes:
It can be maintained that with the spread of tobacco there was a perceptible relaxation of tension in the progress of the ordinary man through life. . . If cigarettes vanished from the earth to-day, I believe that the world would go to war again within a comparatively short lapse of time.
Just as before, we see tobacco linked to peace, which in the wake of the War did not seem such a contemptible consideration. Similar thoughts crop up even now in tabloid disputes, albeit in banal form—smoking brings people together; it is a source and a token of communal pleasure and peace among men. In Paris it is universal to cadge fags off strangers; in London less so. But will we now find any diminution in sharing spirit in our public houses? Will drinkers be less relaxed—more prone to violence? Or will smokers, on the contrary, bond in persecution: will the measures taken against them serve only to strengthen the faithful, and to winnow out the weak and the easily beaten?

Update 19/10/07: I have just received in the post the latest copy of Machenalia, the journal of the Arthur Machen Society, in which will be found a transcription of this post. My fingers tingled this morning as I saw my blog for the first time in print, and my appetite has now been whetted for more. Where will the Varieties be in five years?

02 July, 2007

The Large Glass


— Merry Christmas, replies Gawain, with a twinkle. We're on swift halves in St. Stephen's Tavern, just across from the Houses of Parliament, as a brief refreshment before continuing on to Westminster Cathedral. Gawain has been enjoying himself immensely—educating me on Cosimo Tura and Cima da Conegliano at the National, and before that reminiscing of his adventures in intimate Lisbon fado bars as we stroll down from Kensington to Trafalgar Square. Gawain is enthusiastic about everything, which makes the showing off of one's beloved city an even greater pleasure. And so we bond immediately. Much later, over several pints of Pride, he confides that he has never before spent twelve hours straight with another man—only with women. Good gracious—I've popped his amicitial cherry—withdrawn his homme du milieu!


We have seen Westminster Cathedral, where Gawain got particularly excited by a squamatic ceiling of golden tesserae; we are walking, beneath a bright grey sky, along Horseferry Road, down to the old river, rolling in glutinous ignorance of all the developments on this side and on that—towards the Blackfriars drinking-house, with its own marble fixtures and squamatic vaults, where we are due to meet my wife, and quaff several pints of Pride—

— How are we going to write about this? he asks. Gawain's English, allegedly acquired during teenage years, is terrifyingly idiomatic. He wants to do the 'man thing' of roughing each other up—locker-room towel-beatings, only with words. He wants me to laugh at his glabrity, his approaching senescence, his 'feel-good' blogging, perhaps—anything. (This is the truth about Sir Gawain—as far from chivalric delicacy as might be imagined. Here is a man so much more fascinated by women than by men, and yet wholly in his element with me, as if he has been too long deprived of serious male company. He speaks with great fondness of his old friends among the kshatriya Rajput.) I say I'll write something sentimental. He insists I leave a note at the end that it's all bullshit. Should I?


Gawain is constantly changing his glasses, but he cannot hide a very robust gaze, eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase. You do not see this at all in his picture, where with artful hands he masks the true shape of his physiognomy. Mrs. Roth remarks, too, that he is much more handsome in person. He is worried about his age, but there is no age at all in his eyes, and when he opens his mouth, his galvanized chatter operates just like the motion of his pupils, full of life.

Three fine black crows in silhouette, on the surface of a most beautiful inro, in a dark corner of the Japanese room on the first floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, remind Gawain of the three ages of man. (He is preparing a post—I must not give away too much.) What happens when a man evolves? What does he lose, sacrifice, and in search or hope of what?

There are implicit themes in our interactions, alluded to, but never smothered with language. We are both struggling to get our bearings to one another, but there is no timidity, no caution or reserve—more of a sizing-up, like the noisy tuning of an orchestra, or the gestural jabs of boxers as they begin to square in the ring. The instruments, and the pugilists, are at ease with each other: they are playful and relaxed. We do not hesitate to touch each other, and when we part after the first day he kisses me roughly, abrading me with stubble, like my father used to do when I was little. But here is no paternalism. This is a question of age. My youth keeps cropping up in conversation, a leitmotif. He says that the Varieties reveal the interests of a younger man, not yet weathered by life. It is not an insult, though if I were insecure I might take it for one. He says I am lucky not to have experienced all the miseries that come with being in the world. I reply that it is the hardest thing of all for me not to be ashamed of my own youth. He feels old, and is gloomily resigned to a future when younger women have no longer any interest in him. That time has not arrived yet—he knows it. He is fascinated by the thought of a late Titian crippled by age, unable to paint, trading on name alone—important perhaps, but no longer capable of beauty.

Age is something that hangs over us both, a gentle and ambiguous threat, or at least a mild uncertainty, holding us together in opposition—an Ionic sort of bond. Never have I met a man so aggressively intelligent, and moreover so remarkable in character, for whom I feel so much warmth, and so little competition. It is the chemistry for a most perfect affection.

Note: a third-party account of our trip to the V&A by the accomplished sculptor Robert Mileham, whose quiet charm was quite the foil for Gawain; alas, our time together was far shorter, and future visits will, I trust, provide increasingly greater returns. Chris Miller comments, wittily. And finally Gawain himself.