Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The family still live here

Being offered a lottery ticket in the middle of your visit might seem closer to Ryanair than to the National Trust, but last Sunday when I visited a National Trust property (Melford Hall, Suffolk) I was invited by one of the charming volunteers to buy a Trust lottery ticket.  Perhaps the NT is indeed moving in the direction of the relentless marketing that so disfigured Ryanair. After you have been asked to become an annual member three times by separate volunteers when entering one property, then invited to pay more via Gift Aid and told that purchase of a guidebook will aid the National Trust, you begin - certainly I began - to think that the marketing is intrusive.

Unfortunately, such an approach is today commonplace with National Trust properties. Equally, I expect at least one of the volunteers to tell me proudly when I visit any stately home owned by the Trust that the family still lives there - despite the fact that the Trust has owned this particular property for more than 50 years, which suggests the family who formerly owned the property are not just tenants.  When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a very enthusiastic woman who told me immediately the classic statement,  that  the family still lives here. In fact, when all the visitors have gone home, the family comes out and uses these main rooms (which sounded rather creepy).

No, all of this was unsurprising. What was new was the content and the tone of the guidebook, Fortune, Fate and Family.  Since it was published as recently as 2012, I expected it to follow the current style in guidebooks, for example the English Heritage guide to Thorpe Hall in Northamptonshire, you would expect an increased emphasis on social history, on individual life stories. 

But in this case, the Melford guidebook has abandoned any description of the house at all. It’s not a guidebook in any accepted sense, simply a collection of life stories around various individuals involved in the house. If you already know the history, it makes sense. If you don't, you have to piece the story together from other sources.

There are guides available in the house. You can pick up for free a colour guide to each room, and to the paintings. These guides contain excellent information, none of which is found in the guidebook you pay for. 

The guide begins with the smiling Hyde Parker family, who welcome us to what "has always been a family home"  (they carefully don't say they no longer own it, but they look for all the world as if they do own it. Indeed, in every room of the house, there are small family photographs, placed alongside, in front of, and around the paintings and other decorations. It certainly gives the impression that they own the house.

Perhaps I am unusual, but I don't visit old houses to celebrate the aristocrats who used to live there. And I certainly don't visit houses to be given a rosy view of history from the guidebook. Here is the guidebook authors' interpretation of the Dissolution of the Monasteries:
John Reeve, the last abbot of St Edmonsbury ... came from a wealthy Long Melford family and during his tenure of office he enhanced the manor buildings considerably. He was forced to surrender the abbey and all its possessions to Henry VIII in 1539. Although granted a substantial pension, he died a broken man in 1540.
Let us remember that Melford Hall was simply the abbot's hunting lodge. His main property was up the road in Bury St Edmunds, and I don't suppose he was living in poverty in his main residence. 

Here are some excerpts from the guidebook for the 20th century, where the tone becomes increasingly celebratory:

1913 saw great celebrations at Melford Hall to mark the coming-of-age of the heir, William Hyde Parker ... to many it must have seemed that a new and happy chapter was beginning.  ...   [After World War 2] they renovated with creativity and commitment ... Lady Hyde Parker's distinctive taste for interior design ... she applied her tastes with brilliant results, producing a sense of Scandinavian light and transparency ... In the 1980s the Hyde Parker children planted acorns from the park to replicate the lines of the original medieval avenues.

And the final paragraph deserves to be printed in full:

Everyone at Melford Hall is keen for you to see a house, not frozen in its past but one full of character and stories, which has survived centuries of strife and success, glory and grim determination.
Who wrote all this? The acknowledgements state proudly that "as the first volunteers invited to write a property book, we have drawn on the previous editions of guidebooks." So this is the new National Trust! We aren't really interested in the 17th-century needlework that is hidden in a corridor alongside the cafe and which is missed by 99% of the visitors. Instead, the important thing is that we bask in a wave of nostalgia for the families who used to own the house.

Melford Hall, like many other country estates, seemed largely unaltered by the passing years, but the wind of change was blowing ... changing social attitudes meant that country estates were often regarded as antiquated.

That "often regarded as" seems so condemning! Of course, we wouldn't see country estates as aintiquated at all! As good National Trust members, we will ignore the design, the furnishings, the architecture, and the pictures, and celebrate the continuance of the tradition. You can read it from the section headings in the guide: "Phoenix from the ashes ... Still writing the story ... Part of the village since time immemorial". That's how history should be written. The important thing is that the family still live here. 

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Things you didn't know about Nikolaus Pevsner

Stephen Games: Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art (2010)
Aug 2015

Games has an excellent idea - to fill in the bits we don't know about Pevsner. What was Pevsner's German background? How did he become a symbol of a very British attitude to English art? How much did he know about England (and English art) when he arrived in the UK in 1933?

But this idea is sadly flawed in its execution. It is noticeable (Games draws attention to it) that when he edited and introduced a volume of Pevsner radio broadcasts, he was lambasted in the UK press for implying that Pevsner was a Nazi. Now, I don't think that Games in this book suggest for a moment that Pevsner was a Nazi. But it is a matter of regret that Games does not stick to the basic rule of biography: don't invent, and don't guess.

It is easy enough to spot the guesses: the uses of the little words "would" and "must". For example, when Pevsner got married, in 1923, "it was by all accounts a strange ceremony".  By whose account? Well, Pevsner's new wife had a new step-mother, Margarete. It was felt by the Kurlbaum sisters that Margarete was glad to get Lola out of her house. "She wasn't a wicked woman or cruel step-mother", recalled Marianne Kockel, "but she had let's say, very little understanding of children."

Who were the Kurlbaum sisters? And who is Marianne Kockel? There are references at the back of the book, but these are people at several removes from Pevsner remembering events over 60 years earlier. Repeatedly, Games uses family members or friends to provide what is presented as corroboration for the author's opinion.

It gets worse. Games suggests the atmosphere was tense because Lola, Pevsner's wife, was pregnant. On what grounds? Their first baby was born 35 weeks later. Perhaps she was pregnant, perhaps she wasn't; but Games then goes on to make assumptions: "if Lola was pregnant, it was probably Margarete who made both families realize that a quick solution was needed." [ch9].

There are many other similar questionable inferences: start with a guess, and by the time you get to the inference, people may not have noticed the jump to a conclusion. Games admits he was not given access to Pevsner's diaries, and seems to have concluded that talking to any family members, descendants, friends, will serve. At the same time, he is quick to point out every time that Pevsner gets the slightest detail wrong.

Here is another example of what to me is rather questionable reasoning, this time from shortly after Pevsner had arrived in England. He had no job, no money, and was not equipped to teach anything about English art. At the time, his specialist topics were the Italian Mannerists and a thesis about 18th-century architecture in Leipzig. Hence he was dependent on English benefactors. On 23 November 1933, Games tells us he met Philip Florence, an academic at Birmingham University. But that very precise date is the only specific detail we are given. The rest of the paragraph is complete surmise:

When Florence and Pevsner met on 23 November 1933, they probably talked about Pevsner's wish to set up a course on German art history ... and Florence would have been interested in this because ... both being from overseas, they may also have exchanged impressions about what they regarded as England's peculiarities.  ... Florence's approach would have been statistical and economic, however, and since Pevsner wasn't a statistician or an economist, there didn't seem to be anything useful he could say."

After a paragraph of guesswork, Games then continues to draw his conclusion: "In spite of this impasse, Florence was obviously impressed by Pevsner."  How does he know?

The point is not that it makes much difference with the incidents above if Games is right or wrong - it's not really that important. But the more a biographer makes unwarranted references, the more I as a reader begin to question his conclusions about the things that are important. An author and reader have a relationship of trust. I trust the author, based on my limited knowledge of the subject, and when I see cases where the author's conclusions are dubious or uncertain. I begin to lose that trust. There are indeed things I don't know about Pevsner - but I start to become suspicious of many of the author's conclusions in this book.

An example is a comment about Pevsner's thesis, The Architecture of the Baroque Period in Leipzig. This is accompanied by a long and leisurely discussion of meanings of the term "baroque", including pupils of Pevsner remembering what other people had said about the term (is this relevant?) Then we move to Pevsner's own definition. Pevsner was co-author of the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture (40 years later)This book actually has three authors, so it is incorrect to say it is Pevsner's book. But in any case, the definition Pevsner has in the Penguin dictionary of  the term baroque - if it is indeed by Pevsner - is a standard one. Games points out that the townhouses described by Pevsner do not have typical baroque features; they lack any kind of flourish. For his thesis, Pevsner was simply using the term "baroque" to mean a historical period - so why the preceding paragraph? That Games knows what the term "baroque" means? That Pevsner doesn't know what the term means? 

Given the questionable nature of some of the references, what should we do about material that has no citation? For example, when Pevsner (or "Nika", as Games likes to call him at this age) goes to the Leipzig Thomas School, "he felt overshadowed by his mother and the dynamic personalities that she brought into the home ... he also felt overawed by his older brother." How does Games know this? No citations are given for any of it.

So in all, a wonderful subject, which is handled in a rather questionable way. The mixture of assertion, inference and irrelevance (together with substantial sections at the start and end where Games complains about his critics) leaves me dissatisfied. I have now reached the end of the first volume of this very expansive biography - it took me ten minutes to find out from the book when Pevsner was born, in 1902. I will read the next volume with interest, but with caution. At this rate, I've got a good few hundred pages still to go before we answer any of the big questions. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Tristes Tropiques: the unintentional classic

 Those haunting jacket pictures! Pretty much every edition of the book (except the very first, below) has featured Levi-Strauss's own photographs of the peoples he encountered.  If ever there was a book that wore its heart on its sleeve, as it were, it is Tristes tropiques, the 1955 account by Claude Levi-Strauss of his ethnographic field trip to Brazil; the only major field work he ever completed.  Those photos capture the haunting, strange, sad pride of these vanishing (probably by now completely vanished) peoples. In fact, one of the groups he encountered was actually on their journey to join the modern world. Levi-Strauss persuaded them to turn round and to pretend to be primitive.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Gerald Brenan and the Face of Spain

Gerald Brenan is, as far as I know, in a unique position. Many commentators visited Spain during the Civil War and left accounts of the political and social situation. But Brenan went one further: he went back, after the War was over. He was living in Spain when the Civil War broke out. He left Spain in 1936, and then his book The Face of Spain, published 1950,  describes his return 13 years later, in 1949. He revisits his house, near Malaga, and meets his former housekeeper. As the author of two highly regarded books on Spain (The Spanish Labyrinth and The Literature of the Spanish People), he appears to have an unrivalled position for commenting on the political and social situation in Spain.

What emerges from his account is not just the sufferinf and poverty of Spain in 1949; it is the remarkable fact that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath seems to have been completely forgotten by subsequent generations outside Spain. I remember going on holiday to Ibiza when I was around 12 or 13. This will have been while Franco was still alive, and there was no mention of the means by which he had come to power, or the lack of democracy and free speech in Spain. Franco was just the face on the stamps; holiday making came first. The achievement of Spain, which Brenan points out very clearly, is that the country made everyone outside it forget what had happened.

Compared to more recent, more academic historians, such as Paul Preston or Helen Graham, Brenan has an admirable ability to talk to people and to capture their views. This gives an immediacy to the book that no academic account can match. Nonetheless, I’m not entirely happy with the book. Perhaps the most dated parts of the book are Brenan’s comments on art and literature. Perhaps these are minor points to quibble at, but for me they represent some rather questionable attitudes of his:

·         French is at the top of the cultural pecking order. Brenan writes about Spanish writers and describes them in terms of their nearest French equivalent: Perez Galdos as almost as good as Balzac, but (let’s be clear) not as good as Balzac.
·         Similarly, Spanish Baroque is compared with and found clearly inferior to the Italian Baroque: “Spanish Baroque has a power of stirring the emotions and putting the mind into a state of confused exaltation and astonishment that is not given by the more intellectual and classically rooted Baroque of Italy.” [p54] That word “confused” intrigues me – I don’t find Spanish Baroque any more or less confused than Italian Baroque, and certainly no less intellectual. I think such a comparison reveals more about Mr Brenan’s preconceptions than about his evaluation of specific artworks.
·         “Spanish cooking, it must be admitted, has no claims to compete with French… but an Englishman will find absolutely no cause for grumbling till he has been living in a Spanish hotel for at least a month.” I would be grumbling if I lived in any hotel for a month. 

In any case, the attempt to define national characteristics is itself questionable. Behind all the above judgements is the idea that there is such a thing as the Spanish character, the Italians character, and so on. And just as not every “Englishman” would only be impatient after a month in a Spanish hotel, not every Spanish bus is fit for the scrap heap [p83].

Behind all this can be detected a certain early 20th-century British  aristocratic snobbishness, a feeling of cultural superiority. It’s as if Brenan says, yes, I have lived in Spain, but don’t worry, I understand you are an English reader and you will have your standards. I will tell you quite frankly where the Spanish are simply not up to scratch. That kind of attitude as displayed by Brenan has not worn well. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

World's most uncomfortable concert hall?

Last night I went to a concert in Cambridge. Great music, great musicians (two string quartets, joining forces to play the Mendelssohn Octet as the main piece), but what a venue! The concert took place in Trinity College Chapel - my candidate for the world's most uncomfortable and inconvenient concert hall.

I bought tickets for £20, unreserved, which seemed fine. When you arrive you realise all the £20 seats are in the choir stalls along the sides of the chapel. You get a great view of the people sitting the other side of the chapel, who are facing you. You can only see the musicians by turning your head 90 degrees. The chapel side seats I am describing formed the majority of seats in the building. There were some reserved seats at £25, that were are least facing the right direction.

Even that wouldn't be too bad, not even the wooden benches (no cushions), No, what made it a real challenge was that the musicians were on the same level as most of the audience. Without any kind of raised platform, it meant I could see half the face of one of the four performers. This must have been a problem even for the highest-priced seats.

I have the greatest respect for Trinity College and the chapel architecture (although it has to be said the chapel, dating from the 16th century, is no great architectural achievement - it's just a long box). But if the College chooses to use it as a concert venue, they should be obliged, you would think, to follow some elementary rules: that the audience  don't have to get a crick in the neck to see the performers, that there is adequate lighting from the chapel to the College exit, that there are adequate facilities (lengthy queues during the interval),

As I was leaving, I noticed that behind the Chapel screen, and without any view of the performers at all, were some more seats. These tickets cost £8 and provide no view whatever of the performance. Perhaps in the circumstances, they might have been better option: better to have no view than to feel the performers are somewhere nearby but not really to be seen properly. As we left, one of the staff was repeatedly calling to the audience "three steps down", because the lighting was so poor at the exit to the Chapel there was a real risk of breaking your neck.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Let's knock Stefan Zweig

A review of Zweig's Collected Stories in the TLS (February 2014) points out that Zweig's reputation has undergone a huge swing both during his lifetime up to the present day. Zweig was highly admired during his lifetime, but his reputation declined after his death in 1942.. Since the 1990s he has been widely reprinted.

Jonathan Keates will have none of this new reputation. He charitably does not condemn Zweig for his "fecundity", or that he was part of "that world of cultured internationalism that failed so significantly to rescue Europe after the First World War from totalitarianism" (are you listening, Stefan? It was your fault!).

But Keates dutifully points out that a recent number of critics have condemned Zweig, and since he can add to their condemnation the negative verdicts of contemporaries of Zweig's such as Thomas Mann, Karl Kraus and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, you would think there is no case left to answer.  Keates respectfully quotes Michael Hofmann claiming that Zweig was "platitudinous, logorrhoeic, smug, humourless and duplicitous".

Sadly, there is still more. Keates has complaints of his own. For Keates,

Zweig wished, it seems, to be the people he created but he never quite managed that. ... our feeling that [a character's] inner life has an intensity unattainable by his creator.... [Zweig's] inability to sit still and accept the value of reticence and understatement ... It is himself Zweig needs to convince, not just his readers."

After such comments, you could wonder why such an appalling writer and appalling man could ever darken the pages of the TLS.  While the torrents of condemnation swirl around Zweig's reprinted stories and biographies, can I just ask one question: Since when does a writer have to be the people he creates? Surely the intensity of the character is perhaps the achievement of the writer? Did Shakespeare have to be Othello?