Tuesday, September 28, 2010


If you are anywhere near London, run, do not walk, to the V and A to see the Diaghilev exhibit. It is total immersion, without any of the sense of being overloaded that one often gets at exhibits. The colour, music, videos draw you ever more deeply in until, when you stand in front of the huge backdrop for "Firebird" extending up into the theatre-height ceiling where the flies would be, with Stravinsky's score penetrating you and impressionistic images and fluttering arms projected on the two trianguarly facing walls, you want to burst into bourrées, arabesques penchées and pirouettes. There's plenty of room; it's almost the size of a real stage. And maybe dancing in that space is what the V and A intends!

It's total ballet, from set design and execution, to Bakst's fabulous costumes and designs, to music education, to videos of the original Ballets Russes. The detail of the costumes is phenomenal, beading, lace—every appliqué sewn by hand. The conception and design, the weaving in of D. himself, his eccentric life and loves, his mad urges and personality, writings, contracts, even receipts for wigs. The fabulous creative explosion of the period is reflected, the old Russian nostalgia with the avant-guarde of Cocteau and Beardsley; the jazz age and the jaded late-1920s before it all fell apart. There is orientalism and impressionism; cubism and Picasso's huge front curtain of two women cavorting on the beach; you can almost hear P's ironic, if not vicious chuckle as you look at it. One is caught up in a living kaleidoscope of colour, fabric, motion, sound, painting, sculpture, mythology, legend. I was there for more than two hours and only left because my friend had to go home. I had no sense at all of the passage of time and want to go back for more, something that I almost never feel at an exhibit.

In the middle of it all I realised how much of an hommage to Diaghilev the films "The Red Shoes" and "Tales of Hoffmann" are. Massine, who tried to keep it all going, figures prominently in both, and while they don't reflect the essential Russian-ness of the original Ballets Russes, they have a similar sense of fantastic opulence, jewel colours, exoticism, larger-than-life figures—and beauty had not yet died.

At the end of the exhibit [which extends through a labyrinth of rooms, like going from one scene to another] near a video of the original Coq d'Or ballet, are several gowns designed by Yves St Laurent inspired by the Ballets Russes. They are breathtaking; I will spend more time with them when I return.

It is not too much to say that to participate in this exhibit is a religious experience. The Raphael cartoons and tapestries for the Sistine Chapel will just have to wait!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wars and Rumours of Wars

A last glimpse of summer today as the temperature warms to the mid-seventies (25 C) and we are lulled into thinking the big band of storms that's pouring rain over all of the NW part of the Isles won't reach us, followed by plummeting temperatures. Oblivious to the coming wet, we sit outside to drink our coffees, not needing to pretend we are in Paris, thanks to the lovely view of the Radcliffe Camera, All Souls, and Brasenose.

The pope's visit has dropped from sight despite the best efforts of some to keep religion as a subject alive. There was one post-mortem TV show on BBC Two that had two RCs including the Archbishop of Westminster and an equally smooth-talking croney, vs two very sharp Anglicans including McCulloch of 'History of Christianity' fame, moderated by Huw Edwards of the Six O'Clock news on BBC One. What struck me was not the arguments—we've heard them all before, including that the RCs won't allow discussion of certain topics—but the smooth talking doubletalk and issue-avoidance of the RCs on the one hand, in contrast to the incisiveness on the part of the Anglicans. It was disturbing to hear the torrent of non-language pouring out of the RC mouths in the most unctuous tones, sounding so much as though they were saying something when they absolutely were not. And then there were some blatant untruths, such as the clip of the young RC cleric who described how one sex abuser was promptly turned over to the police—"so there, how can you say that full information hasn't been given"—but what about the thousands of others who were covered up? At least the Belgian bishops, in the wake of the revelation that every single parish in Belgium had been affected by pedophilia, came out in today's papers openly challenging mandatory celibacy.

In the meantime Westminster Abbey, which seems to work overtime in the autumn, hosted the service for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. This to me was far more interesting, relevant and splendid than all the shifting and shuffling of the clergy, as excellent as the ecumenical service with Rowan and the Pope was with readings and hymns being very much to the point (if not pointed). The Battle of Britain service was done in the inimitable style of British civil religion, complete with fly-over by a Spitfire and a Hurricane (and, rather anti-climax, four Tornados). The TV programmes surrounding the event have been quite fascinating, telling those of us who didn't know, for example, that British planes were outnumbered 4-1 and the only reasons the UK isn't goose-stepping today are that the Brits had the advantage of radar and that Goering was an addict and had terrible judgment. One of the programmes was about the British pilots (and those of other nationalities) who often had to fly multiple sorties in one day, some of them going up with only 10 hours' training in a Spitfire. One of those still living said that survival was largely luck. Ditching in the Channel was sure death, and the reason Search and Rescue was founded. Tonight there is another programme, this one from the German point of view, and after that a hiatus until Remembrance Day in early November.

I will refrain from making British/American comparisons; but it was significant in yesterday's reporting of the handover from British to American troops in Afghanistan that the Americans weren't interested in what the British had to tell them. This seems the height of folly and an all-too-familiar exhibition of American arrogance. I remember, somewhat inaccurately, a cartoon from the early days of the Vietnam War of a GI coming across a French skeleton who pointed towards a sign that said "Dien Bien Phu" and a caption that indicated the Americans were about to repeat the French mistakes. By contrast, the Brits have continued a "hearts and minds" campaign even under the continual assault of the Taliban; a third of UK casualties have come from just this one area, many of them at the hard-won forward patrol bases the Americans are evidently going to abandon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Again apologies for the late post. I've now completed the third phase of transition, from wine country to high desert to Seattle to the UK. It's already autumn here, sun and showers sweeping in from the N. Atlantic. The soft yellow Cotswold stone of the ancient university buildings blazes with white light as the sun breaks through the dramatic backdrop of dark grey and black clouds.

The madness of Term hasn't started yet; it's not hard to find a seat in the library, and the streets can be navigated with relative ease. Merely walking into the Bodleian seems to trigger vital information: it's only my first full day and I've already been startled several times over—and no, I'm not going to reveal what it is until the paper is finished and delivered in July of next year!

The pope is here—yawn—I certainly agree with Stephen Fry and a number of other authors that he shouldn't have been accorded a state visit. He's here in part to beatify Cardinal Newman, which is a bit of a joke as in many Oxford circles he is remembered as being gay and of course there are no gay men among the Roman Catholic clergy! Doubtless the pope is also here to annoy Rowan, as well as outrage all those affected by the priest abuse scandal. One of the news programmes suggested last night that there are still a lot of clergy around who have served their jail time but have not been defrocked. It's also recently emerged that every single parish in Belgium has suffered from sexual predation by priests. One protestor says that religious have been complicit as well, holding down children while dreadful things were done to them.

While I was in Seattle the acting dean of the Episcopal church echoed many of her colleagues by saying in a pastoral letter that the churches are at a crossroads. The Diocese of Eastern Oregon is being dismantled and the parishes set adrift. There seem to be two blatant issues: entitlement and money. The clergy won't face that their sense of entitlement, their demands for huge compensation packages and their contempt for the laity are a large part of the problem (they seem to think that the reason the church exists is to support them); and the laity are finally being forced to face that the diocesan structure serves only the clergy. Oh yes, and there is the small additional problem that what passes for prayer seems to have become a commodity and many of the clergy don't seem to know what it might be even if they fell over it.

The formula is medieval: no money, no sacraments. And of course the clergy are too possessive to license people locally without forcing them to be ordained. Isn't it time we forgot about the structures and just took matters into our own hands? It doesn't cost anything to behold.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

An Evening Walk

While we are eating an early supper, the honeyed light shifts to apricot, drawing me outside into the remains of the late-summer day. The restless wind has stilled; the sage and rabbit brush bathe in the last warmth.

Outside the farm gate I turn towards the lowering sun on what passes for a road, packed adobe, ankle deep in dust in some places. It rulers east-west through rangeland as far as the eye can see, saluted by a regiment of old-fashioned telephone poles, favored perches for hawks and eagles.

The only sound is electricity in the transformers: it mimics the rush of water pouring through a large pipe underground. The static fades between them except for one stretch of chittering wires: I look for a flock of small birds before I realise my mistake.

As I walk into the sun my shadow becomes longer and thinner; by the time the ball of fire reaches the basin's rim, it has stretched to an impossible length.

In the distance cranes rasp as they settle into someone's alfalfa. They and the geese are gathering in their thousands for the long journey south, waiting for flying weather.

The fiery disk settles behind earth's edge and I turn back; darkness falls quickly in the high desert. I untie the light turquoise windbreaker from around my waist; it was too hot when I began my walk, now I pull it on against the chill.

While the western sky blazes, the eastern horizon is banded with rose. Underneath, earth's shadow rises, dark and darkening blue. Between the two extremes of fire and rose the sky seems almost colorless. Suddenly, silently, wave after wave of migrating ducks in V formation appear from the northwest heading southeast along the transparent pathway: small ducks, large ducks, some of them flying so low they are disrupted by the electric wires. It is almost impossible to see them coming, and as soon as they've flown by they vanish into nothingness.

I stop and turn: two families of coyotes are singing to one another, one southwest, one northwest. A jackrabbit crosses in front of me as I continue again towards the house; the last of the light reveals the myriad tracks of a wildlife crossing: cottontail and coyote, antelope and deer, bobcat and cougar.

Night is already seeping into the crannies as I reach the gate. I turn one last time to the west: the rimrock is utterly black, a jagged line limned with the faintest vermillion. Overhead, Venus welcomes the dark. One by one the cold fire of stars pierces the milky atmosphere. It is cold, but I am reluctant to go inside. Shivering, I put my hand to the screen door, promising myself a late-night sojourn under the star-slashed canopy.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Transition Stage 2

Gentle Readers,

I am in stage 2 of transition this week. Hope to post "An Evening Walk" before the end of the week. Thanks for your patience!