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  • Touching the past (1)


    They say that the sense of smell is the most evocative: the brain is so wired that the connection between memory and odour is the most direct. The smell of a certain floor polish instantly takes me back to school days, when a big polishing machine with soft spinning disks was always swung over the wooden floors at the end of the day.

    This Christmas it was the sense of touch that connected me to the past. Reading The Cottage Smallholder's post about making your own butter I decided to try to make some for the brandy butter. Soured cream 'churned' in a food processor suddenly 'breaks' into little pieces of butter. Wash it in iced water, place on a cold marble slab. Pat into shape. A rhythm soon develops, the pat slapped this way and that, residual buttermilk flowing out - the movements reassuring, not learned, but somehow bred in the bone - instinctive and natural. My mother helped for a while and remembered that the last time she had made butter pats was 70 years before, at her grandmother's at Fengate, long since bulldozed for the Peterborough ringroad.

    The mill house at Fengate was already rubble the first time I saw my Great Uncle Joe Hinkins. We children glimpsed the demolition site by peering through a high fence. We were told how Joe and his 12 siblings had been brought up in a beautiful, ancient, rambling house there. The old windmill had burnt down in a notorious fire in 1919. Joe now lived in Chestnut House next door, where we were fascinated by the gorgeous peacocks wandering round the yard. His father dealt in horses, and famously once filled his bowler hat with gold sovereigns after a particularly successful day's trading on Peterborough market. Young Joe kept the horse and cart outside the pub while his father drank the profits. When he grew up Joe was a sworn tee-totaller.

    When it was his turn to continue the family business, Joe kept on a few cows and the dairy where a rat infected with Weil's disease killed another great uncle. As Peterborough spread closer, Joe sold some of the fields to the football club but leased them back for grazing. He still went to horse fairs, and kept an interest in several race horses. Several times he took us racing. But given that progress could not be denied, Joe dealt in secondhand cars, building up a successful business on the site of the old farmyard.

    Everyone knew him as the kindest of men, given to spontaneous acts of generosity. Once, quite without warning, a harmonium turned up at our house. Joe thought we might like it. The story goes that when he became ill, one relative called a lawyer, not a doctor and talked the old man into changing his will solely in his favour. Aged just 66, Joe died soon after, in June 1977. The local gypsies, to whom he had been so generous, turned out in their finest clothes, standing silently all along the way from Chestnut House to the funeral. 

    Buy Windmills of Northamptonshire at Amazon 


  • Will a crash take the rise out of the shard?

    20f3af879592059032b302166511e102.jpgGiven John Prescott MP's unlikely reputation as a lothario, it seems right that he be remembered for giving permision for London's most thrusting new erection - Renzo Piano's 'shard of glass' at London Bridge. Piano describes it as "a vertical town for about 7,000 people" based on "London's heritage of masts and towers".

    And since economic ruin is aparently just around the corner what are the chances that financially it doesn't quite rise to the occasion? If it doesn't all go quite according to plan it's apparently the Qatari governement that will get their fingers burnt.

    Building a tower taller than everyone else's is not an especially female obsession. Skyscrapers are the phallocratic bullies on the block: they shout down their neighbours, and as Piano says, have a reputation for "arrogance and mysteriousness". He hopes the shard and a matching 'baby shard' nearby will be lively, open spaces, available for the public's pleasure 24 hours a day.

    An article in Building Magazine describes the construction of this new 310m high, 88-storey skyscraper, with some excellent animations. The developers promise surgical operations in Guy's Hospital next door will not be disturbed by the £350m work, and that the trains will still run (almost) on time at London Bridge station. Piano's racy design includes a hotel, the inevitable offices and a viewing platform near the top. If you put the Gherkin on top of St Paul's, the shard will still be 21m taller.

    Outside Europe they do it bigger. In Dubai they are putting up a tower which will have a spire that will reach 818m, with the 164th floor 194m below. There's even a dam in Tajikstan which at 300m is almost as high as the shard will be.

    A pity that all the materials for Prescott's needle will travel by road, even with a major rail terminal next door. If it all goes to plan we should be enjoying the view by June 2011.

    See Skyscraper News for the latest on London's tallest buildings.

  • Those unfashionable British


    An acquaintance (whose accent locates him in the mid-atlantic, but whose prejudices are decidedly continental) once said to me that 'nothing of world class is ever produced by British artists'.

    We were on the steps of the Royal Academy at the time. One collector who would certainly have disagreed was Paul Mellon (1907-99) the pick of whose Yale Center for British Art is on tour to the RA until January 27, 2008.

    Mellon got his money from his father, the third richest man in America, and his taste for British art from spending his earliest days in England. Christened in St George's Chapel, Windsor and educated at Cambridge, he bought his first major painting, Stubbs' 'Zebra' in 1960 for £20,000. So unfashionable was painting of Stubbs' era that it was sold in a bric à brac sale by Harrods.

    This astonishing portrait of 'the queen's she-ass' pictures it in a pool of golden light in a lush imagined forest. The creature, newly arrived at Queen Charlotte's menagerie from South Africa, has the look of a miraculous mythical beast. St Eustace might appear at any moment.

    Mellon's collecting was intuitive. He mistrusted art historical analysis and bought because a picture appealed, not because its narrative impressed. In a decade or so he assembled (and subsequently gave away) a collection that is a roll call of the greats of British art: Hilliard, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Blake, Wright of Derby, Landseer, Palmer, Zoffany and Dadd. All are magnificently represented in the RA show. In addition there are superb topographical artists like Paul Sandby, caricaturists like Rowlandson and names new to me like John 'Warwick' Smith (1749-1831), John Robert Cozens (1752-97) and William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) whose 'Donati's Comet' is a surreal night-time view almost reminiscent of Magritte.

    The star of the show is Turner's vast, dazzling 'Dort Packet Boat' (1818), described then as 'one of the most magnificent paintings ever exhibited'. Turner's mastery of light is triumphant.


    Two smaller Turners are almost as stunning. 'Staffa, Fingal's Cave' (1832) was completed the same year as Mendelssohn's work. A grubby little steamer pitches in a storm beneath the sunlit splendour of Staffa's cliffs.

    9255c8380c273896a9b87c0638d827f1.jpgIn his 'Eruption of Vesuvius', minute figures are panic-stricken on the shore, powerless against the great red fury of the volcano. 

    Constable's 'Hadleigh Castle' (1829) is another blockbuster. From not very close up at all the 6 foot wide painting disintegrates into fractured, glittering brushwork. Constable's angry grief at his wife's death is painfully visible.


    Mellon was not only a great collector of paintings – he was also one of the greatest book-collectors of the twentieth century. Works on show include Caxton's Canterbury Tales (perfect presswork, even at the very beginning of printing in England); the magnificent Kelmscott Press Works of Chaucer; and the only hand-coloured edition of Blake's gorgeous Jerusalem. In plate 99 an androgynous Jerusalem is clasped by Jehovah 'awaking into his bosom in the life of Immortality'.

    Save for Burne Jones' collaboration with Morris, Mellon avoided artists associated with high Victorian excess. There's no sickly sentimentality here. Mellon's intuition was razor sharp - they may be unfashionable, but these are works of superb quality and refinement, in huge contrast to the masochistic indulgence of the Baselitzes on show on the floor below.

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  • Shining in mid-winter

    6a1a040fe7a06fb91f6e8598d5b89e26.jpgThe unfashionable Cornish poet and playwright Charles Causley died in 2003. At an Advent service in Dorchester Abbey I heard what may be one of his greatest poems, 'I am the great sun':

    From a Normandy crucifix of 1632

    I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
    I am your husband, but you turn away.
    I am the captive, but you do not free me,
    I am the captain but you will not obey.
    I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
    I am the city where you will not stay.
    I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
    I am that God to whom you will not pray.
    I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
    I am your lover whom you will betray.
    I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
    I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
    I am your life, but if you will not name me,
    Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

    In this wonderfully simple devotional sonnet, Christ speaks from the cross, full of compassion for human inadequacy.

    An essay by Dana Gioia analyses Causley's powerful work. You can also hear Causley himself reading 'At the British war cemetery, Bayeux'. Poets' own voices often seem inadequate, but Causley brings his rythmic and incantatory lines to life.