Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Letter from Venice (4) 28-9-16

Yesterday evening I went for a stroll in my neighbourhood. A few yards from my flat a door is left open all day. Inside, about twenty yards away I can see large paintings propped against a white-washed wall. One large one is always placed so that the door through which I look frames it perfectly from a distance. For the first few days of my stay the central painting was a section of the body of a crucified Christ done in a modern style. This evening it has been replaced by a painting of a dancing couple. They both wear large, billowing white shirts and the style is the same as that of the drapery in the Christ picture. The man holds the weight of the woman who is leaning back in his arms, both caught in movement.

Often the water in canals close to the edge of the city slaps and washes against their sides as though there is too much of it to be contained by the channels in which it runs, as though the sea is trying to force too much water into the city. This evening, though, the sea at the edge is still, lapping and shimmering. I have walked a short distance through a poor area with red housing blocks to a Vaporetto stop, which I know from my map is closer than the stop where I alighted on my arrival. It is at the feet of one of the blocks which come right up to the water and is delightfully named Celestia. The housing blocks are separated by a narrow sea moat from the external walls of perhaps, along with Portsmouth’s, the most famous Dockyard in the world – the Arsenale. The walls are very high, made of orange and ancient brick and are topped with Ghibelline swallowtail battlements and sprouting vegetation. I discover that, contrary to the map, there is a raised metal walkway that one can follow, above the edge of the sea, all along the north-facing perimeter of the ancient dockyard where so many galleys were built. Tomorrow morning I will try this route in an attempt to get to the church of San Pietro in Isola, another with a Palladio façade set on a little island reached by bridges at the Eastern end of Venice.

In the morning I make my attempt, walking along the metal walkway bolted, ten feet above the sea, to the sea wall of the Arsenale. The walkway rises on steps midway to accommodate an arched sea entrance to the dockyard. Reaching the end I pass several gated, one-story row houses with, on Venice, of all things, small gardens. I see a small park garden and even a football pitch showing that, at this end of town, space is less at a premium than in the rest of Venice. I feel I am now lost and, in looking for a route to the San Pietro island, I follow a sign for part of the Architecture Biennale called, unaccountably, ‘Gangstory’ which is on throughout my stay. I pass through a boat shed fitted out with sterile canvases of photos of gondoliers or simply rows of dots and stripes. A man with a TV Camera is making a film of it occasionally pointing his camera at the ceiling. There is a spanking new café bar and an unmanned ticket desk. I pass through and emerge, to my surprise, on the dockside of the huge internal sea basin of the Darsena Grande, which was once the engine room of seafaring Venice. The vast dock is about a kilometer across and, unfortunately, I can see the roof of San Pietro on the other side. I explore along the dock for a little. I can see huge geometric shapes on the other side and a banner with the name of Norman Foster on it, also a submarine and Coast Guard vessels. I then encounter a gaggle of Italians, many young, in t-shirts and jeans, and some, elderly, in linen suits. A middle aged man perches on a tall step ladder taking photos of the focus of all their interest. This is a twelve foot high pyramid made out of taped together coloured hoops which, presumably, is a work of modern “art” in the Biennale. It all looks very serious and is typically Italian. They love this kind of loopy pointless stuff and would, no doubt, be horrified at my “emperor’s new clothes” reaction to it. There is something endearing about this crazy behaviour, though, if that doesn’t sound too patronizing.

Along the edge of the quayside are huge cast lions’ heads holding giant iron hoops in their mouths which serve as mooring points and, on the walls, here and there, the primitive lion of Venice is seen in relief.

I return through the boat shed, a patch of overgrown scrubland and along the metal walkway having failed to reach San Pietro.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Letter from Venice (3) 27-9-16

Following a tip from Nige I head for Acqua Alta, a bookshop (largely second hand) in my neighbourhood. Acqua Alta is what the Venetians call the spring tides that sometimes flood Venice and require the bringing out of the duckboards in St Mark’s Square. I find the shop at the bottom of a small courtyard hiding behind a fig tree. On entering the first things I notice are an elderly male shop assistant wearing shorts and braces in the form of crossing over yellow tape measures (he is feeding two cats on the counter) and, secondly, and this causes me a double take, a full size gondola in the middle of the first room. It is filled and stacked up with books - twenty high. Penetrating further into other rooms I find canoes, wooden rowing boats and two bath tubs similarly spilling over with books. There is also a large surf board. Every room is floor to ceiling with books. At the back is one of several outside spaces where books continue to be piled, open to the elements. These books are stacked in regular piles with builders’ foam filling the interstices, binding them together. Wet leather suppurates. One of these spaces backs onto a canal but a high wall spoils the view. Nothing daunted the owners have built steps out of old encyclopedias, something which you can’t do with Wikipedia. The steps are topped with carpet squares screwed into the top book. I climbed them and looked down the canal.

In the seventh century a Bishop had a dream about a buxom and shapely Virgin Mary. I really don’t know what to say about that! There is, no doubt, much that could be said. Anyway they took him at his word and the church of Santa Maria Formosa was built. In the surrounding square I found what I had been looking for – a Farmacia. My Braun Oral-B toothbrush charger, in spite of having a twin-pronged plug, did not fit the Italian sockets in my flat so I had to buy a toothbrush. I learnt the word for toothbrush which couldn’t be more Italian – lo spazzolino. They came in three degrees of hardness – morbido, medio and duro. I bought uno spazzolino duro.

On the way back a builder standing in a long boat loaded bricks high in a wheelbarrow which another builder raised up to the third floor on a single wire with an electric winch, the overloaded wheelbarrow swinging above the guy in the boat as it rose.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Letter from Venice (2) 26-9-16

I locate the Co-Op food store in my district. Passing through a pair of rusty light blue gates I find myself on a quayside with a gantry and a boat hoist. Beneath it are a pair of canoes and a gondola on trestles. The sea on the northern side of the city, facing the island of San Michele, heaves and sparkles in much agitated crests and troughs just inches below the quayside. The medium in which Venice is set conveys great power, almost to the point of being menacing. Large, stretching fields of water shrug and writhe very close to us. A few yards away from the water’s edge is the entrance to the Co-Op which is situated in an old boat shed.

I board the vaporetto 5.1 at Ospedale and, once again, experience the exhilaration and bustle on the water as we pass the stops of Fondamenta Nove, Madonna dell’Orto and San Alvise along the northern edge of the city. From the boat I notice the black-bordered street signs painted on the crumbling walls alongside the promenade. Stencilled in black capitals on a faded white-washed background are etched the name of the district – Sestier Canaregio – and, beneath it in a separate box, the parish – Parochia di SS Apostoli – and then, in a third box, the name of the bridge near the sign – Ponte Donà. We pass the many triple piles, some old, some brand new, bound with two metal hoops and set in the water to guide the shipping.

We plunge into the city down the Cannaregio canal which connects the northern edge with the Grand Canal. The Cannaregio canal is a delightful sequence of bridges, canal-side café’s, baroque facades, colour and activity. I notice the garbage boat lifting a wheeled container from the canal-side with its crane and tipping it drunkenly into its own bowels. A tall and elegant priest passes among the crowds. He is black, young and bearded, wears a long black cassock topped by a perfect, domed and wide-brimmed, straw hat, also in black.

Later I return to my flat. Living here in this silent quarter is like inhabiting a Martin Escher painting. In one direction is the occluded façade of San Francesco which seems to be hiding its mass behind buildings on the adjacent side of the square where it is set. Looking down one calle I see no water but a section of a bridge rising from left to right. Looking down another I glimpse a section of a different bridge falling from left to right. In the distance people climb up and down as on escalators and traces of voices reach me. I have the sense of being locked inside a Rubic’s cube of buildings which affords me views of strips of sky. The world seems to tilt. Around another corner I encounter large ochre colonnades by the edge of a canal. There are glimpses of cloisters, well-heads and courtyards. Nothing gives up its secret. It could be a dream.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Letter from Venice 25-9-16

As I stand at the bus station in Portsmouth, a coach pulls in just as a silent silhouette of a jet liner fuzzily climbs across a misty sky between buildings and the hiss and clank of a departing train’s brakes signal its departure from the rail station behind me. Eight hours later I take the European Union channel through passport control at Marco Polo airport with some white clad muslims and they and all of us are greeted as we emerge into the Arrivals hall by a knot of thirty or so similarly clad Muslims ululating their pleasure at being reunited and carrying plates of dates for their friends. It makes me think of the Arabian Nights influence on the architecture of Venice. The crowd is hard to negotiate with two wheeled cases. I head to the boat station about 800 yards away on foot and queue for the Linea Blu Alilaguna boat. The young pilot helps me on with my massive suitcase and we are soon ploughing toward Venice, between wooden marker spars, buffeted by huge furrows of water set up by the speedboat taxis passing in both directions beside us. I watch herons, egrets and cormorants on the mud flats. The water sparkles in the sunlight. The crew are in polo shirts and sunglasses in late September.

The vaporetto is soon skirting an island whose first signs of habitation are scruffy white council flats. As we round the island the architecture changes to stock venetian. There are glimpses of arched marble bridges, ogive windows, balconies and pale, weather-scrubbed brickwork. The mustard-topped strip of the Vaporetto stop – Murano Colonna – heaves into view and we rock alongside it slamming against the wooden pontoon. I see glimpses of the word “Fornace” (furnace) on buildings by the dockside. We bounce away from Murano towards, immediately, the cemetery island of San Michele with its orange wall and multitude of cypress trees. The corner facing Murano sports the beautifully proportioned Renaissance church of San Michele in Isola with its onion-domed belfry. The facade and the belfry are bleached and skeletal, white, Istrian stone. We don’t stop at San Michele, turning instead towards the shimmering city before us, a strip of low dark buildings from which half-projects the tympanum of the mighty Gesuiti church, surmounted by climbing stone angels striking dramatic attitudes in the empty sky. At a distance they seem to move in their beetling fixity.

We stop at the Fondamenta Nove and then a short hop along the northern edge of the city to the Ospedale stop which we reach after passing the Pronto Soccorso covered jetty where the A and E boats arrive driven by boatmen in luminously striped orange oilskins. I alight and drag my cases along the walkway for a hundred yards before the path ends and plunges inwards to the city. I emerge into a small rectangular campo and exit it to cross a high marble bridge over a canal with the help of a passing tourist who grabs my hand luggage and deposits it next to me on the other side. Two more turns, a glimpse of a huge church façade, and I find myself at the corner of the Calle Tedeum. The door opens and I am greeted by my young host, Marco, with the word ‘Carissimo!’ He is delighted that I made it. He is extremely helpful, even advising me on which brand of starch - Merit - I should but to use when ironing my shirts. Charlotte would be impressed.

Later, after Marco has left, I explore the shabby district where I am staying in a small, gloomy ground-floor apartment with exposed beams. Fifty yards away is a silent square with a single, towering lime tree in the centre. Towering above it and making one end of the square is the façade of San Francesco della Vigna, the church I saw earlier, partially occluded as it continues beyond the rectangle formed by the campo. The church is the size of an Ikea showroom. Its elegant façade - all perfect Renaissance proportion - is the first designed in the sixteenth century by perhaps the most influential architect Europe has known – Andrea Palladio – the man who inspired Christopher Wren. In keeping with the dilapidated area in which it finds itself the pediment of Palladio’s façade is fractured by sprouting vegetation high above. On a small plaque by the entrance to the church it mentions, just in passing, that it contains works by Veronese, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Bellini amongst others. I am tired but I take a cursory walk around the interior where three completely white-clad (in an echo of the earlier Muslims) nuns sit in the front rows intoning a liturgy in bright electric light at their end of the building. As I leave the church I catch a glimpse of two gas-holders above the houses. On my first night, lying in bed, I hear bells ringing across the city and nearby. Voices pass by my window and I hear rumbling from the floor above.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Calling all anti-cancer heroes/Join the Rebellion against Cancer

These advertisements, supporting the Youtube “Stand up to Cancer” campaign, to be seen on bus shelters currently give an insight into the way that people now see themselves. Before I proceed I will acknowledge that in even presuming or daring to make comments on this campaign which do not amount to a wholehearted endorsement of it I run the risk of being roundly and unequivocally accused of not caring about people with cancer or not understanding that conducting research into a cure for cancer is, generally, a good thing; or, yet again, of being defeatist or complacent. In the face of such unreason I can defend myself only by saying I do commiserate with those unfortunate enough to get the disease and with their loved ones and I do think devoting our efforts to the search for a cure is a good thing. You either believe me or you do not.

Having got past that I’d like to proceed to what is really interesting me. That is the terms in which this campaign is couched. The narrative is that there is an evil oppressor – like a Saddam Hussein style dictator and, then, there is us – his subjects. Our role in the narrative is to stand up against him heroically, to say ‘no more!’ In modern times this is who we have to believe we are. We are Garibaldi, Che Guavara, or Simon Bolivar cocking a snook (or an AK47) at the forces of oppression. We are revolutionaries filled with heroic virtue and passion. This is fine except for two small facts – firstly we are not this thing, at least most of us are not. And secondly cancer is not an evil-intentioned dictator to whom personality can be ascribed and it may not even be, in the long run, defeatable. It may just be a function of mortality – one of the many ways in which death is eventually dealt to us all, one of the many ways in which our systems eventually pack up.

Whence this need to cast ourselves as heroes fighting a wicked tyrant who is, on principle, against life and happiness? Who is this imagined person? Is he/she just a chimera who exists (or not) just to facilitate the angry posture which we are striking? Does this ‘standing up’ to the bully Cancer actually mean anything at all? Might it smack a little of our trying to convince ourselves of an illusion which we think will materialize if we make enough noise?

One has to wonder also whether this approach is helpful to those many people who, while the campaign is in force, will be moving towards an unavoidable end thanks to cancer and are having it painfully demonstrated to them that, sometimes, at least, it is not possible to stand up to cancer. What’s next? – ‘Stand up to mortality?’

Recently on Social Media I witnessed a man demanding an explanation aloud (with many expletives) for why his elderly mother had died and he had had to pass on the news of her demise to his small children. He was full of indignation and outrage as if he had been sold a duff car and wanted a refund. His main priority seemed to be to convince his audience about how very angry he was at this intolerable development in his life and what a disappointment to his expectations it represented to him.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Imaginary Extract

"To their dismay, he had been obnoxious and, perhaps, impertinent enough to become a real person. To this they could not but take exception."

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Arrogance and Equality

The very worst thing with which one can be branded in keyboard warrior debates is ‘arrogance’. First of all let’s be clear that there is such a thing and that it is a very undesirable thing. It resides in an attitude towards others which is haughty, 'patronising' (another keyboard favourite, the true sense of which being that one speaks to others as a father might address a child and this, in a world where real fathers and real children exist), snobbish and, literally, condescending – talking down from what is considered to be a height above others.

However, in this age where “equality” is considered to be the most desirable quality in society and, consequently, egalitarianism to be the greatest virtue, and again, conversely, where ‘elitism’ is seen as the greatest sin, there is great confusion. People are terrified of being branded as arrogant and will even participate in an anti-intellectual race to the bottom in order to avoid it and to reassure others that they are free of this vice. They will go so far as to pretend that they are worse educated than they are and will deny knowing things that their education has taught them and books that it has introduced them to. This can extend even to their mannerisms and the way they speak.For example you will see well-educated young men and women aping Billy Bragg in intoning words which they grew up pronouncing as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as Liber’y, Equali’y and Fraterni’y. They will also live in the ci’y. They do this because they believe that to speak in this way gives them egalitarian credibility. They are on the side of and standing shoulder to shoulder with the poorly educated and the poor. What they haven’t understood is that aligning themselves with a lower stratum of education or of wealth doesn’t do the trick and may even betray their own haughtiness and prejudices in that they have so signally and deliberately sought out people who, secretly and precisely (it is their perceived 'lowliness' in these respects that recommended them to them), they believe to be ‘beneath’ them. The use of the glottal stop is an attempt to disown an education of which they feel ashamed (which is a great tragedy) or a social cachet which they also wish to slough off seeing it as inconveniently according them the wrong social credentials.

In what, then, resides, true humility? It is, perhaps, in the realisation that virtue pays no heed to social class, education or wealth. You will find hugely attractive virtues, such as courage and honesty, amidst the poorly educated and the plain poor just as you will find exactly the same virtues amidst the Hooray Henrys (you will also find the opposite vices amongst the whole of society of course). To assume that all of the poorly educated or all of the poor have a monopoly on virtue and that all of the well-educated or rich are devoid of it is to make a schoolboy error of over-simplification. Morality has no class and even those who go far out of their way to protest and advertise their egalitarian humility may, unwittingly, and in doing exactly that, betray that they are the true snobs.