Category Archives: religion

Soho Society versus Rector: a parochial digression

 

The tower of St. Anne's Church, Soho, London W1

 

It’s not hard to imagine the quirky little independent film — almost too full of character roles, perhaps racking up a critical prize or two on its journey to modest box office success — that could be developed out of the West End Extra‘s headline this morning: ‘CONSERVATION GROUP FACING CHURCH BOOT’.

Soho residents awoke today to the shocking revelation that the Revd David Gilmore, rector of our local parish church, is apparently ejecting the Soho Society — the local residents’ group which, since its foundation in 1972, has worked tirelessly to protect this historic, pungently characterful London quartier — from the small room in the church tower which it has occupied for the past three decades. According to Fr Gilmore,

‘The Soho Society’s license has ended and they must be treated like all other tenants, and in line with all other leases. Unfortunately, their historic connection with the church and the community, while valuable, does not remove them from this process.’

Fr Gilmore’s wish, he has stated, is to ‘maximise full market value’ for the tower room.

Unless I’m missing something, the room measures 4.8m by 3.2m — it’s located directly above another room already available for hire, hence the otherwise eerie specificity of that description — and is reached by climbing a very steep and narrow flight of stairs with no disabled access whatsoever. I’m not even sure it has any windows. Furthermore Soho, like much of the UK at present, isn’t exactly short of commercial premises languishing in the long wait for paying occupants.

In short, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are seeing here is a conflict far more simple and visceral, and at the same time more completely unnecessary, than the reported facts of the story suggest. Think of it as Barchester Towers meets Night and the City, with extra added heritage campaigners, Groucho Club hangers-on and multivalent sexualities galore, a modern jazz score and a walk-on part for the ghost of Paul Raymond. Yes, I’m sure your agent will be in touch any day now. Continue reading

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Mark Alexander’s ‘Red Mannheim’ at St Paul’s Cathedral

Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.

The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)

The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.

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Fake politics

statue

What are we to make of Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire variously operating as media magnate, financier, real estate tycoon, owner of A. C. Milan, miscellaneous entrepreneur, frequent Prime Minister and probable future President (once he gets the rules changed, Putin-style) of the Italian Republic?

For the more incurious sort of British observer, it’s safe to embrace Sr Berlusconi as the basically satisfying punchline to the long-running joke that is, at least to those whose working model of international relations runs entirely off lazy national stereotypes, Italian postwar politics. On the more thoughtful Left, Sr Berlusconi is regarded with exactly the sort of enjoyable, companionable terror with which older children exchange grand guignol tales of serial killers — ‘the eagle of fascism soars‘, apparently, although it must be said that eagles are, by nature, rather more conspicuously monogamous than Sr Berlusconi. And on the Right, Sr Berlusconi gives pleasure through the consistency with which he stops Communists from winning elections, the temptations that he offered David Mills and — it’s an admirable trait which he shares with Lady Thatcher and shared with Ronald Reagan, but one that few these days even attempt to pull off — his ability to upset, to the point of hysterical derangement, the more plangently excitable left-of-centre commentariat. Continue reading

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Of MPs, moats and the levelling tendency

Is it wrong to feel mildly envious of those of you who’re enjoying the scandal over MPs’ expenses so very much more than I am? Possibly so. Envy is, after all, not a particularly attractive emotion. Subliminally, I suppose what’s so unattractive about it is that it’s the province of losers, the under-performers, the perpetual have-nots, in the same way that whatever else kindness may signal, it’s about possession, competence and success, however relative in measure. So, perhaps I should simply try to find more goodwill in my heart towards the various circumstances that are — according to the media at any rate — triggering a ‘revolution’ amongst our parliamentarians, fired by the righteous angry zeal — so the media tell us once again — of an outraged British electorate.

Yet, truth be told, this ‘revolution’ feels more depressing than inspiring. For one thing, it’s gone on too long already, and I don’t just mean the past fourteen days, either. Remember Nannygate, anyone? Nearly a year ago, most of the scenery had already been dragged into place: the rules on parliamentary expenses exposed as a sort of Montessori-style ‘prepared environment’ in which the full wide spectrum of human nature might freely be expressed, David Cameron’s habitual cringing deference to each passing day’s media narrative already dressed up as ‘ruthlessness’ (if not actually ‘setting the agenda’), public fury already more often assumed or asserted by those who felt the public ought to be furious than actually displayed (at least without aggressive prompting) on the part of the general public, who seem to me, at any rate, far more illusionless regarding the qualities of the political classes than some of those classes, or their friends in the media, fully comprehend. Continue reading

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Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin

forum

A few sentences into David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, notice is served that this will be no ordinary guidebook. The first paragraph establishes a tone that will persist throughout:

“The Roman Forum is one of the most famous of all historic sites, the heart of the ancient city, the hub of the Roman empire, the goal of tens of thousands of Grand Tourists. It is still visited by millions of people a year, yet it can be a baffling experience. Part of this is because archaeologists dig deeper and deeper in the understandable pursuit of knowledge about Rome and its early history, leaving behind rubble and holes which are ugly and difficult to understand. It is also because some of the most prominent monuments, which are believed by almost all visitors to be antique, turn out essentially to be products of the nineteenth or twentieth century.”

Yet how many other guidebooks would, by way of introducing the reader to ‘one of the most famous of all historic sites’, begin by asserting that the site in question is not only ‘baffling’ but also ‘ugly’ and ‘difficult to understand’ — let alone insist on the illusionless point that what may be seen today of the Forum is, in large part, a modern restoration? How many authors would dismiss archaeologists’ ‘pursuit of knowledge’ at the Roman Forum, of all places, with recourse to that pity-saturated adjective, ‘understandable’?

Prof Watkin, on the other hand, is no ordinary compiler of guidebooks. Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse since 1970 and a convert to Roman Catholicism, he has written important books on Sir John Soane,Thomas Hope, C. R. Cockerell, Athenian Stuart, John Simpson and others. His account of George III’s architectural patronage was a scholarly history in which the effort to avoid writing an instruction book for princes was palpable, if not wholly successful. Prof Watkin’s most famous work, Morality and Architecture (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, zeitgeist or positivist assertions of ‘progress’.

Not everyone has admired this. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g. here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.

For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly congratulated. The Roman Forum is, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph. Clear-eyed, surprising, malicious, injunctive, polemical and often intensely funny, it achieves a minor wonder of the world in taking a place all civilised people feel they know and rendering it, if not new exactly, then far more complicated, contestible and immediately significant than had previously seemed to be the case. Continue reading

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Jacobinical hyenas, we’re watching you

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

“The ricks burnt around Shoreham, within sight of Palmer‘s house, under the moons that he had painted broad and full. The moons charmed away neither fire nor reform, and on June 4th, 1832, the Reform Bill was passed the House of Lords. The anti-Reformers still saw some last hope in the General Election which followed in December, and while purple banners were being stitched for the Tory candidate in West Kent with the arms of the county, St. George and the Dragon and ‘King and Constitution’, Palmer left painting to gesticulate in print against the change and the future. Continue reading

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The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Some civilisations vanish. Others endure, at least at the level of shorthand signifier, conjuring up in a single, highly-charged word vast networks of association — networks, it must be said, often weak on detail, depth or historical accuracy, yet boundlessly rich in the stuff of imaginative sympathy, normative distancing, moral disgust or approbation.

In that sense, Byzantium — the subject of the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 — is still very much with us. It never really went away. Contemporaries, both Muslim and western Christian, of the later Eastern Empire had obvious reasons for denouncing a major geopolitical rival as untrustworthy, cruel, effeminate and worldly — while retaining a sly regard for Byzantium’s imperial wealth, splendour and occasional military successes. Later, once republican Rome had again become the measure of all things, at least for reasonably well-educated people in Western Europe and dependent territories, it became possible to despise Byzantium simultaneously as a debased — which is to say, altered — form of classical civilisation, and at the same time, as unalterably despotic, reactionary, God-bothered and doomed. Its thousand-year history was reduced to nothing more than ‘a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’, as Gibbon put it, sounding only slightly more enthusiastic about Byzantium than Montesquieu and Voltaire had done previously. And thus it was that, by the time at which Ruskin, Yeats and Cavafy all began to invoke Byzantium within the ambit of their own differently modernist writing, they did so more with reference to what Byzantium meant, that with what it might, at some point, actually have been.

It’s this tension — the ever-widening gap between the historical Byzantium and its literary, artistic and moral cognates — that lends the current Royal Academy exhibition a sharp polemical edge. Without it, the experience might well have added up only to 350 marvellous objects, most rare indeed and a few of them astonishingly beautiful, deployed theatrically across ten rooms, dimly lit, dressed with a light gloss of scholarly commentary and packed, even early in the morning, with far too many visitors — each of them presumably lost in the creation or revision of some inner, highly personal, differently-inflected version of ‘Byzantium’. Continue reading

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