Posts Tagged ‘John Ruskin’

I won The grandparent (Michael Joseph, 2016) at our annual street barbecue raffle.  Chose it, even, from the prize table loaded with various smellies and assorted other passed on ex-presents.  I guess the first couple of these Ladybird Books for grown-ups were a good joke, had something about them – contemporary situations wed, or rather mis-matched, to that original period Ladybird art that it is hard not to fondly recall – but, hey.

Now I’m a grandparent, and, yeah, some of it hits (the all-purpose child-minding), but there’s no consistency here as to the generations.  Sure, probably my parents had a kettle like that, that you heated on the stove I vaguely remember, but so what?  (And it was never that clean).  Not sure what “Janet is always popular with her rotarian [sic] friends because she has gin stashed all over town” – pictured at a naming ceremony for a boat – is doing here, especially when you turn the page and some old duffer in a sports jacket, apparently called Bill, “is telling his grandchildren about the time his band opened for The Sex Pistols.”

Glad it wasn’t a present, then.  Kids, do not let your parents persuade you to give this to a grandparent this Christmas.  It has a price tag of £6.99, which more than 10p a page, though Amazon are selling it at half-price.  I noted it was listed as being the No.1 bestseller in their ‘Grandparent’ book category.  That’s a link as a grandparent you have to follow, right?  No.2 is the Kindle edition of My grandpa is NOT grumpy; no comment.  No.3 is the Kindle edition of The incest diary (the physical book is there at No.7).  Don’t you just love unedited computer listings?

MK: a living landscape

Glad I managed to catch this beautifully presented exhibition at Central Library.  You wound your way round the organised space, high quality photos on boards – and on the floor (a grass snake!), on the ceiling – augmented with greenery.  Hardly a pioneer, but I’ve lived in Milton Keynes for 34 years now, and I’ve never understood the comic status, now thankfully receding, it was landed with for a long time (you know, like that British Rail sandwich joke).

MK was/is a more than decent bash at Ebenezer Howard’s idealistic garden city concept, delivered with style, ingenuity and wit.  Most of us love our concrete cows.  Shame the city centre resembles and out-of-town shopping mall and mammon threatens further, but all is not lost.  The struggle is to maintain the vision, which is where  the Fred Roche Foundation (http://fredroche.org/), the exhibition’s organisers, come in; Fred was a main man at the Development Corporation (the semi-legendary MKDC) that set the ball rolling.  The exhibition quotes John Ruskin, a man whose progressive thinking, I would say, while I’m here, is long overdue a major revival.  There’s a decent short summary of his thoughts here: http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/content/john-ruskin/who-was-john-ruskin.php.

Why you should trust Alison Graham …

… at least as far as tv crime thrillers and drama go.  From this week’s Radio Times:

The Loch; ITV 9 0’clock Sunday, July 9

It’s the penultimate episode and I’m still no wiser than I was at the start of this convoluted, baffling, messy thriller.  Just a tiny clue as to what might be going on in the little Scottish town would be most welcome.
Instead we get bluster, lumpen dialogue and a tone that veers alarmingly.  Is The Loch cosy crime, like Hamish Macbeth?  Or is it Reservoir Dogs in the Highlands?  Who knows.  The writing is all over the place and none of the characters convinces, notably that flipping maverick forensic psychologist.  “Go way, Blake,” a police chief yells at him.  Yes,  Blake.  GO AWAY.
It’s a great backdrop, but viewers cannot live by scenery alone.  Sometimes we need a plot.

Fearless: ITV 9 0’clock Monday, July 10

For some reason the Americans let campaigning human rights lawyer Emma into the US, though they wised up quickly and threw her into detention.  But not for long.  She’s back and she’s very annoyed.  Of course, she has uncovered a conspiracy at the highest levels of the British and US governments that reaches right back to the second Iraq War.  Blimey!
But Emma still wants a child and a stable boyfriend ….


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So – yes – swallows but no amazons (poetic licence – read ‘fat people’) (and very few pigeons either, for that matter).  I guess it goes with the territory.  Because despite the charming ministrations of mine hosts at The Heights, just outside Keswick – Barry serving up delicious local ales (the pale Loweswater Gold and the “smooth coppery” Skiddaw bitter from the Hesket Newmarket Brewery) and the agonies of decision each night over Van’s generously proportioned vegetarian platters (but always choosing chips – hey, we were on holiday) my weight remained the same on return as when we’d left.

Weather: we’ve had worse; four seasons in one day, and all that.  The man in the newsagent’s in Keswick said he’d lived in the Lake District 20 years and it had only rained twice – once for 12 years, and then for 8.  But in the main we stayed dry, if cold, mostly; got hailed upon briefly a couple of times, but come the worst downpour there was a church porch to hand (it’s a miracle!) and the right clothes can work wonders (or at least help a lot).

Sean, the leprechaun in the Sat Nav, tried to lead us almost down the garden path on our way to Coniston.  Picturesque though it may be, we knew we didn’t need a detour via Grasmere village – he was on to charge his batteries – but thought we’d give his way a go anyway until this helpful official sign (‘Do not follow Sat Nav‘) re-affirmed our faith in our own devices.  The photo is out of focus and looks a bit weird because it was taken from the top deck of the magic 555 bus (Keswick to Lancaster via Grasmere, Rydal, Ambleside, Windermere, Kendal – best bus ride in the UK?) later in the week.  Anyway:

  • street art in the subway in Keswick (unlikely though the existence of such an urban thoroughfare may sound).  Don’t know how official it is.
  • the brilliant little Ruskin Museum in Coniston: as well as beautifully presented local history, there’s a John Ruskin Gallery that was well worth spending time in (and I say that even though we’ve been to Brantwood, JR’s Lake District pad twice previously).  Ruskin is one of those forgotten Victorian visionary giants – he achieved and produced so much in art, literature and social thought – whose time surely must come again (and one of these days I’ll expand on this).
  • and a joy to discover in the Ruskin Gallery that along with much else John Ruskin had his own lithophone – a sort of xylophone for giants, the sound coming from local rocks being struck.  JR’s was a bit elementary, but there’s a quadruple-decker de luxe in the fascinating and wonderful old-style Keswick Museum (you can even have a play) with a surprising history that gives the notion of hard rock music a different dimension.  (For more on lithophones and their history – Royal Albert Hall concerts, international acclaim – check out here and here).
  • and while we’re on the music, another day we walked to the lovely neat little church that is St John’s in the Vale (in … St John’s in the Vale), there to find a well spring that, in its channel a few feet away from its grotto, makes – at least when we were there – the water equivalent of wind chimes.  Another little bit of Lakeland magic.
  • But back to Coniston.  I could be less interested in Donald Campbell’s spectacular demise in failing to break the world water speed record on the nearby lake (as late as 1968, I was surprised to discover) but the museum’s new Bluebird Wing is impressive in its breadth of coverage.  I didn’t know, for instance, that Donald’s dad Malcolm’s record-breaking cars – all called Blue Bird – took their name from an operatic fantasy of 1919 based on an earlier play by Maurice Maeterlinck called The Blue Bird, the sort of high culture/technological crossover rare these days.  And that Donald chose to call his vehicles the one worded Bluebird to proclaim he was his own man.
  • more Ruskin in Kendal’s very fine Abbot Hall Art Gallery, and a couple of George Romney’s best (well, two I recognised, which did indeed stand out).  Great little gallery.  The older stuff displayed in Georgian domestic splendour downstairs and, upstairs, when we were there, a celebration of the Gallery’s 50 years’ existence, showing favourites from its very decent collection of post-war and contemporary British art, nay painting.  Hung on walls – hurrah!
  • the Kendal Parish Church was a surprise, both in its size – five aisles – and some decent early twentieth century stained glass windows, my favourite being the rare use of greens in this one
  • and back up the hill, outside the impressive Brewery Arts Centre complex (every town should have one) this further refurbished warning of time’s winged chariot (not that there was much prospect of a Leyland lorry taking off from the brow of Shap, where it was originally proudly installed.

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I usually have at least a couple of books on the go (an old one for the bath – never a library book – that won’t react to steam by swelling up) so it came as something of a surprise to find mention of  ‘The eve of St Agnes’ in two not particularly related books within a single half hour.   Not exactly synchronicity but I shall probably be giving John Keats’ verses a spin soon.

I say not particularly related but the thought occurs that it would not be too outrageous to describe the events portrayed in Suzanne Fagence Cooper‘s ‘The model wife: the passionate lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais‘ (Duckworth Overlook, 2010) as a game of ‘human croquet’ – men women and children being hit (mostly metaphorically, or rather psychologically, it must be said) through hoops –  the rules of which, quoted from 1939’s ‘The home entertainer’ (published by Odhams) appear as an appendix to Kate Atkinson‘s second novel – called ‘Human croquet‘ (1997) – of which a lot more later.  With ‘The model wife‘ the reference to Keats’ poem is with regard to John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name, that indeed, adorns the dust jacket; in Kate Atkinson‘s book it’s a teenage girl’s fantasy, played admirably for laughs.

I read ‘The model wife‘ to try and get back on track with John Ruskin.  Ever since a visit to Brantwood, in the Lake District, the house to which a burnt-out Ruskin retired for the last twenty years of his life, I’ve meant to explore the major intellectual contribution he made to the arts and the labour and environmental movements.  As far as great Britons go, while still hugely relevant, he’s now something of a hidden, relatively unsung colossus, .  And a problematic one too, due mainly to his disastrous unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray, the subject of Ms Cooper’s book.  The ‘lives’ of the book’s sub-title are all Effie’s.  While still married to Ruskin she modelled for Millais, a prominent member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Ruskin had championed and was painted by; after what was then seen as major scandal she subsequently married the painter.

Ruskin is given a fair crack of the whip here; while obviously in no way blameless for the failure of the marriage, he is not unnecessarily vilified.  We said when we saw this picture, commissioned by his parents, hanging in the dining room at Brantwood, that in many ways the poor sod never stood a chance. During the marriage he retained his study and book collection at his parents’ house.  He continued to work there daily – and he was a workaholic – when he and his wife were not traveling.  Cooper suggests that for him a great fear of pregnancy and hence children being a distraction from the great work was a significant factor in the physical no-go area of their relationship.  (The myth of his horror at the first sight of  female pubic hair is mentioned but not given serious consideration).  Why, then, bother to  marry a woman considered such a beauty?  Who knows.  As becomes clear in ‘The model wife‘, Victorian middle class family life, courtship and married life were a very different experience to now.  Even married to Millais, Effie would appear to have spent a fair amount of time abroad  – in an era when continental travel was still no easy thing – and apart.

I can’t pin it down but I get the feeling that Suzanne Cooper wasn’t quite as taken with Effie, for all her social significance, as she’d hoped she would be.  She is disappointed, for example, by her distant treatment of her daughters.  Effie stays subject rather than heroine, tends to fade into the background at times despite the kinds of touches more appropriate in a novel than a serious biography.  I’m sure I am not alone in bilking at lines like:

“Mrs Gray could see the expression of pain above Effie’s eyebrows, a twitch that marred her daughters fine features.”


“Effie held her breath as her maid laced her corsets a little tighter.”

or, while she’s modelling for Millais

“It was raining again. Effie listened to the steady dripping outside as she sewed.”

– how do you know?   Though I have to admit I do, for all the confused logic on his part,  quite like,

“John made no attempt to hide his displeasure. He decided she was making herself miserable by playing melancholy tunes in a minor key.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I read the book, have learnt a lot from it.  I don’t think there’s any doubt Millais was a sell-out as far as the PRB went, settling, with Effie’s connivance, for wealth and high society, for lucrative traditional portraiture.  Indeed he got a baronetcy (Ruskin always refused honours); but I wanted to see a lot more of the paintings talked about but not shown in the book.  For what it’s worth – a bit like watching a production of ‘Carmen‘ where Carmen is not the most stunning woman on the stage – I can’t really see the beauty claimed for Effie, prefer the looks of her younger (and ultimately tragic) sister Sophy, and Suzanne Cooper thinks Millais probably felt the same way too.  If anything it’s mad Sophy’s sad tale, given a chapter of its own  – an early demise, anorexic, musically manic,  it is suggested a victim of her early modelling dazzle – that will stay with me.

As befits the big literary tease that is Kate Atkinson, I think I’ll actually leave discussion of the many delights of ‘Human croquet‘ for another post.

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