Monthly Archives: January, 2014

Chips Channon and the Amalienburg… a feeling of blue infinity, of silver lace spread over a transparent sea, spray splashing on summer water…

Chips Channon is now best remembered for his diaries; but once upon a time he was better known for his 1933 book, The Ludwigs of Bavaria, and for the dining room he created in his London home as a love letter to the jewel in Bavaria’s architectural crown, The Amalienburg, and in particular its hall of mirrors.

The blue and silver dining room at 5 Belgrave Square, with its exquisite verre églomisé table, was renowned as “the loveliest room in all of London,” and it was around this table that the pro-Wallace faction was often to be found during the Abdication Crisis.

Here, we have reached that point in The Ludwigs of Bavaria when Channon finally enters the Amalienburg’s rounded octagonal hall of mirrors. This is not just the soul of the building, he states, it the paragon of the whole eighteenth century.

Against the pale grey-blue background of the walls, and round the shimmering mirrors, is a confusion of cool silver. The ten tall mirrors reflect their own glitter, while above the exquisite doors, silver trees shelter goddesses at play and cupids blowing flutes. There are fiddles and harps, flowing jugs and banners, heaped-up cornucopias, garlands and festoons, while along the blue cornice are emblems of the chase, quivers with silver arrows, stags, nets and fish, boats, hunting horns. Silver vines climb to the sky-like cupola, and Pan hides in the bushes, and nymphs brandish symbols of country pursuits, water, wine and gardening. In the ceiling, flying low, there are pigeons, duck, snipe, a silver hoopoe. There is a cascade’s coolness, and over them all a silver glow lends a veil of light so that there is a feeling of blue infinity, of silver lace spread over a transparent sea, spray splashing on summer water, crystals glistening among aquamarines…

Beyond there is another yellow room with inset pictures of scenes from the chase and birds in silver frames. Lastly a small blue room painted with a rococo pheasant design leads to the white and blue kitchen of Delft tiles. Leaving the pavilion is like finishing a Perrault fairy-tale, and one gazes back at its unreal beauty, classically white, in the Bavarian sunlight.

William Gibson goes back to the future: Rory Sutherland makes him a cup of tea

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Rory Sutherland. He is clearly a scholar (of sorts) and a gentleman; and he absolutely excels in his role as the advertising industry’s pre-eminent mouthpiece.

Yes, he has off days. But who doesn’t? For instance, I feel he was unfairly lampooned for stating a while back that there’s no place in the advertising industry for brilliant minds or those with boundless curiosity. (And it was certainly unfair of critics to point out that, in stating this, he may have been reflecting his experience at his own agency, Ogilvy and Mather, which has never, in its long history, been troubled by accusations of intellectual hubris.)

No, he was surely stating the obvious. Advertising (in management or account handling mode) may dress like a consultant, yet it’s never happier than when it’s acting like a trustafarian stoner or a slightly snootered butler in a Wodehousian farce.

Anyway… Sutherland is clearly the industry’s greatest asset. He’s like a dowser, effortlessly channelling its attitudes and insights, its insecurities and its smug satisfactions. But not because he’s typical. Not as such. He’s far too eloquent for a start. Perhaps, though, he’s its Berocca man. He regularly comes up with stuff that others might aspire to – but only on a good day.

But I digress. The confession I’m building towards is the revelation that I was filled with nostalgia when I read his latest Spectator column, thanks not to his evocation of Morphy and Richards and Russell and Hobbs, but because of his use of a witless quote from William Gibson.

Time was, when you could expect to come across it at least once a month. Now, not so much. Here it is, in full: “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Doesn’t look like much now, admittedly, but once upon a time it was a mighty shibboleth.

I’ve written many times about Gibson before, so apologies if I seem to be repeating myself. Your instincts are right: I am.

GibsonGibson is a dreary dystopian and his derivative novels, set in a dysfunctional future, are full of drearily adolescent posturing. He suffers, rather sadly, from toxic self-loathing – and wishes you did too. Yet his mindset (and its wider influence) absolutely encapsulated the intellectual humbug at the rotten core of that disastrous decade known (appropriately enough) as The Noughties.

A decade and more ago, The Wired Generation (named after their house journal, naturally) decided that Gibson was a Chosen One. He had been gifted. He could see into the future. He was a true Prophet. He had possession of what my great-grandmother (a theatrically fey Hebridean of the most self-indulgent sort) would have called “second sight.”

Gibson was not alone in shaping the intellectual climate of the age but he was pre-eminent among those most heinously guilty in helping The Wired Generation get two P-words all muddled up: progress and pessimism.

Despite forecasting a period of prosperity unprecedented in human history, the movers and shakers in this post-dotcom generation fostered attitudes among their acolytes that almost guaranteed a period of prolonged retrenchment. The one we’re still living in now.

Happily, as we move towards a post-internet, post-Google age (one in which the focus will be on genuine rather than ersatz technological development) no-one of any consequence takes Gibson (or his stooges) seriously any more. We’re in an era when The Wired Generation is now being systematically removed from office.

In the Noughties, if someone tipped a little Schmidt* into your life, you were invited (in another of the decade’s more redolent phrases) to “suck it up” – because refusal to do so represented a refusal to face a future that could not be gainsaid (having been authenticated by Gibson); and that, logically, meant that the future could not include you.

Now, when someone threatens to tip a little Schmidt into our lives, we’re far more confident about stating unequivocally that we intend to tip it all back again.

It’s a liberating feeling – and the advertising industry in particular will prosper from this change.

So, yes, the truly refreshing thing about Sutherland’s use of Gibson’s cutesy aphorism was his wider context. Sutherland was actually writing about the joy of the electric kettle.

It is a gem. My only slight reservation is that he has been given slightly misleading advice as regards another P-word: power. As in power equals voltage multiplied by current. And yes, metaphorically speaking, the experience of some American agencies is that they tend to operate on a low voltage: but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have enough crackling intellectual energy to boil a kettle.

* A term that derives its etymological inspiration from a historical figure, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. Schmidt’s hilarious book about how Google is going to make the world a better place was actually written by his sidekick, Smithers. It is available for free from Amazon. Only kidding. It costs £25.

No, it’s Sutherland you get for nothing. Here: http://www.spectator.co.uk/life/the-wiki-man/9105692/rory-sutherland-why-havent-americans-discovered-the-electric-kettle/

(Though it should also be pointed out that you can purchase a year’s subscription to the Spectator print magazine, plus full online and app access from just £1 a week.)

Containing a deceptively large volume of water

Ann Wroe’s Perkin, A Story of Deception, is not really a history book at all, not in the conventional sense. JD Mackie’s The Earlier Tudors dismisses Perkin Warbeck in barely more than a handful of paragraphs, concluding that “he was a conceited, ambitious youth with an engaging address, who became the tool of Yorkist malcontents and gained a European importance, because great princes sought eagerly for an instrument which would harass [England’s newish king, Henry VII].”

Wroe’s work (first published in 2003: and one of the most important books of the decade) is, as you might expect from a book amassing more than 500 pages in meditation of the same subject, more fanciful. It pursues a man who wasn’t really there down a conjectural labyrinth of hidden byways sprawling across great tracts of the late Middle Ages; and as such it is, in its better moments, a work of poetry as much as it is a work of history, a meditation on myth as well as man, an occluded narrative as dense and allusive as Ezra Pound’s historical Cantos.

Here’s a paragraph from fairly early on in the book, where Wroe, continuing a story that has taken Warbeck from Flanders to Lisbon, draws together many of the images that, so far, she’s offered us only in glimpses. It’s hard not to fall in love with a writer who can turn out this sort of stuff:

It is not improbable that in Portugal the personality of the prince, whether judiciously hidden or deviously constructed, began to emerge from the shadows. Indeed, it is almost certain. He had taken courage, galante contra fortuna; he had breathed in the tang of the sea. At Afonso’s wedding celebrations, the most memorable pageant was a procession of dream ships. They sailed into the special wooden “fortress” constructed for the jousts on bolts of cloth that were painted as stormy waves of the ocean, behind a great swan with white and golden feathers. The ships had quarter-decks of brocade, sails of white and purple taffeta and rigging of gold and silk, the whole ablaze with candles and oil lamps. When the make-believe masters and pilots in silk and brocade swung and climbed in the gold ropes, with a tumult of shouting and whistling, the mysterious boy was perhaps among them. Richard Plantagenet unfolded like the unfurling of the sail, the crack of the boards, and the intoxicating swing and dip of the ship as it moved, away from dreams, into the open water.

prosperos-books-060By the by, as a concluding aside of no great significance, the sailing ship as plaything (though this time in the mind of a magus) is a start point also in The Tempest, not least as brought to us within the living, breathing, storm-tossed pages of Prospero’s Books, a volume of water beginning here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pdoUjdaIVM

Tristan’s Queen’s Gambit

It is often said that if the captain of a seaworthy vessel invites you aboard for a game of chess while said vessel is tied up at the quayside, you should politely but firmly decline.

I’m not entirely sure I concur unreservedly with this precept.

Take, as a specimen case study, Tristan’s tale. He and his adoptive family are aboard an unnamed merchantman to check out the wares for sale – jewels, silk, rich clothes and fine hunting birds. Several pre-emptive deals having been done, Tristan and his entourage are about to bid adieu, when…

… it so happened that Tristan caught sight of a chess-board hanging in the ship, with its field and fence very marvellously decorated. Beside it hung a set of men superbly carved in noble ivory. Tristan, accomplished boy, regarded it attentively. “Oh,” he said, “noble merchants, in Heaven’s name, don’t tell me you play chess?” and said it in their language. Hearing them use their speech, which none in those parts knew, they looked at the boy with mounting interest and took stock of him minutely. And to their minds no youth was so blessed with looks or had such beautiful manners. “Yes,” answered one of them, “quite a few of us here are versed in the game. You can easily put it to the test if you like. Come, I will take you on!” “Done!” answered Tristan. And they two sat down over the board…

And so, Tristan’s companions leave him to it and disembark. The game commences; Tristan conducts himself rather elegantly.

cornish_fingerpostEvery now and then this polished young courtier interposed with fashionable small-talk and exotic terms of chess. These he pronounced well – he knew a great many of them – and with them he adorned his game. Then he also sang most excellently subtle airs, “chansons,” “refloits,” and “estampies.” He persevered with these and other polite acquirements to such a point that the traders resolved that if, by some ruse, they could get him away they would reap great profit and honour from him. So they promptly bade their rowers stand by while they themselves weighed anchor as if they attached no importance to it. They put to sea and got under way so gently that Tristan was unaware of it until they had carried him well on a league from the landing place. For the two players were so absorbed in their game that they thought for nothing else. But when they had finished it with Tristan as the winner, and the latter began to look about him, he saw only too well what course events had taken. You never saw mortal man so thoroughly woe-begone as he. He leaped to his feet and, standing among them, cried: “Oh noble merchants, in God’s name, what are you going to do with me? Tell me, where are you taking me?”

And thereby, as it happens, hangs a tale. (The version excerpted above is told by Gottfried von Strassburg.)

And there’s a moral here too, if you care to chase it out. Some of us are unapologetically anxious to step ashore. Others (as mischievous historians never tire of pointing out), passive adventurers that we are, seek eternally for a ship at quayside, a band of unscrupulous merchants and a field of ivory men.

Still, I can’t help feeling there are probably easier ways of getting to Cornwall.

Time sits down on a tree stump, thinks about the past and lights up a cigar

wellingtoniaTime is the writer’s magic ingredient. This is especially the case where narrative writers are concerned; but the proposition applies to any sort of writing. Without a sense of time (and timing) you have, at best, a thesis; at worst a shopping list.

For the narrative writer (historians, polemicists, and sophisticated types of journalists as well as novelists and playwrights) time is a primary structural material. All stories take place in the past, clearly, but you must choose, for instance, which parts of a narrative form the back-story and which are intensified into a passable imitation of the present tense.

The truth also is that every utterance of any worth, every chapter, every article, every paragraph and every sentence, contains eddies and vortices of the past and future as well as the present. And this is how words may move us at the deepest psychological level. For we are each of us on a personal countdown to oblivion.

Many writers have written overtly about time – and indeed the carpe diem theme has been with us since antiquity. Few writers, though, have attempted to theorise about the very stuff of time itself. With good reason.

No-one has ever really been up to the task, not even the very best of philosophers and theologians; and even the more accomplished attempts to nail this have been disfigured by unintentional bathos and low comedy. As indeed is the case with one of the earliest and best known examples, to be found within the pages of St Augustine’s Confessions.

Written on vellum in 398, this text was, prior to the printing press, one of the most copied documents in history: and hundreds of mediaeval manuscript facsimiles still survive to this day.

What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provide that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled. All the same I can confidently say that I know that if nothing passed, there would be no past time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time.

Of these three divisions of time, then, how can two, the past and the future, be, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time but eternity. If, therefore, the present is time only by reason of the fact that it moves on to become the past, how can we say that even the present is, when the reason why it is is that it is not to be? In other words, we cannot rightly say that time is, except by reason of its impending state of not being.

[… The manuscript continues in this vein for many pages…]

EM Forster: “And the novelist must bounce us; that is imperative.”

Most people toiling at the pithy end of the creative industries tend to have ambivalent feelings towards the whole issue of rules. Everyone, even the wildest and most anarchic of free-form improvisers, needs rules of thumb. Equally, though, the game is well and truly up when absolutely everything is subject to algorithms, methodologies, templates and checklists.

(Sadly, the sector suffering most in this respect is the magazine publishing business, which had already embraced an enthusiasm for “idiot-proofing” well before it was persuaded, more recently, to succumb to the mindlessness of more pernicious digital methodologies.)

Trouble is, it’s all too easy to bend to the will of those who come armed with rules, especially if they’re zealots or militants. Because what do you have concretely to offer in opposition?

Not even EM Forster can help you.

Oh, hang on… Yes he can. It turns out that he can.

Here, for instance, is Forster talking about that sometime bee in fiction editors’ bonnets: the “rules” pertaining to point of view.

emforsterThe whole intricate question of method resolves itself not into formulae but into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says… Look how Dickens bounces us in Bleak House. Chapter 1 of Bleak House is omniscient. Dickens takes us into the Court of Chancery and rapidly explains all the people there. In Chapter 2 he is partly omniscient. We still use his eyes, but for some unexplained reason they begin to grow weak: he can explain Sir Leicester Dedlock to us, part of Lady Dedlock but not all, and nothing of Mr Tulkinghorn. In Chapter 3 he is even more reprehensible: he goes straight across into the dramatic method and inhabits a young lady, Esther Summerson. “I have a great deal of difficultly in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever,” pipes up Esther, and continues in this strain with consistency and competence, so long as she is allowed to hold the pen. At any moment the author of her being may snatch it from her, and run about making notes himself, leaving her seated goodness knows where, and employed we do not care how. Logically, Bleak House is all to pieces, but Dickens bounces us, so that we do not mind the shiftings of the viewpoint.

Critics are more apt to object than readers. Zealous for the novel’s eminence, they are a little too apt to look for the problems that shall be peculiar to it, and differentiate it from the drama; they feel it ought to have its own technical troubles before it can be accepted as an independent art; and since the problem of a point of view certainly is peculiar to the novel they have rather overstressed it. I do not myself think it so important as a proper mix of characters – a problem which the dramatist is up against also. And the novelist must bounce us; that is imperative…

A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off [as it comes off in the case of Bleak House]. Indeed this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting viewpoint is a symptom), this right to intermittent knowledge – I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life. We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occasionally but not always, because our own minds get tired; and this intermittence lends in the long run variety and colour to the experiences we receive. A quantity of novelists, English novelists especially, have behaved like this to the people in their books: played fast and loose with them, and I cannot see why they should be censured.