Monday, 29 September 2008

Railway nostalgia

Long railway journeys do have a certain romance to them. Now, another journey joins the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian and the Raj Heritage Train  - the Danube Express.

The Telegraph gives a glowing account of a voyage on this train. It sounds as if the worst extremes of nostalgic snobbery  on the one hand and designer fashion so sharp it will cut itself on the other have been avoided.

And this must be a fascinating journey for its Central European heritage. Decades of cold war - and fervent nationalism immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain - obscured the fact that the area shares a common  background.  (If in doubt, ask any Central European brewer where they buy their equipment from , and what language the manuals are in. Almost certainly German.)

But I have my doubts about whether I'd want to travel this one. First of all the price tag. Over a grand for what is basically a long weekend break? After all, I can get a ticket from Paris to Madrid for just 300 euros. That's not a luxury sleeper - I shared a compartment with five noisy hen party members on my way back to Paris - but the train gets you there just the same.

And secondly, the lack of flexibility. I really wouldn't want to be limited to a few hours in Prague - I'd want to stay a few days.  And while you can do that at the ends of this route, you can't do it in the middle.

I do rather wonder whether this emphasis on luxury trains is blinding us to the fact that railways were invented as a cheap and effective means of mass transport. Yes, I know it's a big world, and there's room for all sorts of transport in it - but you never see the Times or Telegraph talking about taking ordinary trains in India or Africa.

The one I'd want to take, definitely, is the iron train from Zouerat to Nouadhibou, in Mauritania. Not one for the timid - it's cramped, there's a fight to get on, there are no creature comforts, and there's a view of 'nothing', desert all around. (Though regular readers of this blog will know how much I like 'nothing'.)

Monday, 15 September 2008

Heretical Titian

I put in a day's work at the National Gallery this weekend, preparing a free Podtour of the early Italian masters. I finished that survey with an hour to go till I needed to catch my bus - so I played my little game of wandering around and just seeing what caught my eye.

First - Douanier Rousseau's marvellous jungle painting, 'Surprised!' I wonder who it is that is meant to be surprised - the tiger, caught in the vegetation, or ourselves? This is a wonderful painting that you don't appreciate from a small image, because it's full of movement. First of all, over the whole painting is a shimmer, created by diagonal stripes of darker and lighter shade, representing (I suppose) the tropical rain. Then, the  movement of the leaves, the grass, and the striking diagonals of grass and branches counterpointing each other.  And in the middle of this, the tiger, who seems to be going tiptoe on the very points of the grass, suspended in the air, clearly an impossibility.

(I  must have stared at this painting for five minutes. Then I noticed  there was a little painting of sunflowers quite near by.  And then I looked back at the tiger. No competition.)

Another couple of paintings in one of the Impressionist rooms by two artists I had never heard of; Gallen-Kallela and Alfred William Finch. They're both water subjects - a Finnish lake, and a set of breakwaters. They're stunning in the cold colours, the simplicity and austerity of the subjects. There's a Zen like spirituality here, concentration on the essences of things , a meditative feeling.

But the painting I really hadn't expected to love was Titian's Noli me tangere.  I have continually been amazed by Titians - they look like nothing in books; somehow, all the masterpiece exists in the brushwork, in the detail,  the actual incarnation of the idea in oil and varnish. And in an entire room of paintings by different artists, a Titian will often flash at you like a  beacon - it's so alive, so individual, so desirous of being seen.

So it was here. The painting that first attracted my eye was a portrait by Palma Vecchio -  a plump blond woman, just the kind Titian liked, falling out of her bodice, lit dramatically. But though it looked good from a distance, closer to, it seemed blowsy and flabby. Just along the wall, though, was this jewel-like Titian.

It's a stunning work. Slightly dark colours, as so often in Venetian painting, but tinged with turquoise and red, particularly the sky and the stunning velvet of the Magdalen's dress. (They look awfully muted in the jpeg.)

Then something that really doesn't come out in the photo - the incredible brushwork of Christ's loincloth. Here, Titian is at his most painterly; there is transparent material, there are jags of bright white paint creating thick, opaque highlights; there is a vortex of material caught up in  what should realistically be a knot, but is more of a whirlpool. And there is the contrast with the much more staid painting of the loop of mantle that Jesus holds up in between him and Mary Magdalen.

Now when you get these loops and folds in a loincloth on a Spanish Christ, it's usually on the hip. Not here; it's focused on the groin. And then you have a diagonal, starting with Mary's arm, through the two knots. To my heretical mind, Titian has included an overtly sexual meaning in this painting.

Then look at the two trees. One tall tree -  but brown, dark, falling; and behind Magdalen is a wonderful, flourishing bush of bright green. I could read quite a lot into that... if I cared to. Because what for me this painting is all about is not a spiritual meeting, but sexual invitation and refusal. Look at the Magdalen; unusually, though her hair is uncovered, she is quite primly dressed - the focus is all on the wonderful light folds of her chemise, not on a flash of cleavage.  But she takes the risk - she extends her hand forward.

And Christ, for all his nakedness and exposure, is refusing, doubly guarded behind the folds of white fabric. But it's the openness, the invitation, that Titian seems to sympathise with. And while his Christ is shadowed, the Magdalen is lit, is luminous.

You might agree or disagree with this reading. But one thing is sure; there's always more going on in one of Titian's paintings than meets the eye. And there's always more than you will see in a photographic image, however good.


I was in London at the weekend, and decided instead of doing anything purposeful on Saturday, just to walk out along the Thames and see how far we could get. (Canada Water was the answer to that; we did about seven miles, I think.)

And for a bit of it, in Rotherhithe, we went down the steps to the mud and shingle of the foreshore. The air was still, and thick with sandflies.  The sun  baking hot, that English summer we've been waiting for since April...

It's a mucky place. But it's a place for finding unexpected things. No Roman brooches or Anglo-Saxon swords, though the hope is always there (just as you always feel that only a transparent wrinkle in the timelines separates you from actually winning the lottery rather than getting two numbers nearly right...)  So here are our 'finds' - a rich gathering of detritus from centuries of London.

  • Several pieces of 'churchwarden's pipes', mainly from the stem. Bleached white clay.

  • Two supermarket trollies, each one different; one square and spindly, the other rounded and fat.

  • Several pieces of blue and white china, perhaps from willow pattern plates. The glazes differ. Under some, the blue pattern has spread and blurred ; on others the design is still sharp.

  • Too many wheel rims to count.

  • A rib bone.

  • Some kind of animal tooth, turned black and fossil-like by time.

  • A white ceramic stopper from an old style ginger beer bottle, the steel wires that held it rusted fast into the sides.

  • Oyster shells.  More oyster shells. Still more oyster shells.  And a single mussel shell, both halves still held together by the mussel's membraneous hinge.

  • Broken glass - some ancient (the top of an old perfume bottle) and some, from its sharp edges, probably last night's trash.

  • The stem of a dark blue wineglass.

  • The stem of a glass,  in greenish glass, etched and rounded by the water till it looked like something by Henry Moore, and you could only dimly realise its ancient function.

  • Heaps of bricks and other building materials.

  • Old chains.  No boat has anchored here for years and yet the chains still strew the foreshore.

It was an intriguing walk. And I'm glad we took the south bank. Looking across to the Isle of Dogs, we saw capitalism gone mad  - huge glassy blocks, armoured against the outside world. But on the south side of the river, more of the old warehouses and pumphouses have survived; there's a feeling of low-rise friendliness, a feeling that if you go down one of those side streets, you'll find yourself in a perfect Victorian dock.

On our way, we visited the Market Porter, a very fine pub in Southwark. Excellent ales, and friendly service, and FULL PINTS topped up for us without us having to ask.   So here is a blatant plug for this engaging little hostelry.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Maps old and new

I've just written a piece for in-flight magazine Velocity on the way digital mapping is affecting our view of the city. It's interesting - because we can now map in real time, so we can map flows, not just stasis.

That means we can now map, for instance, San Francisco's nightlife - where is everyone going? We can map the city as the sum of its citizens' movements, creating a picture like a long exposure photo of car light trails.

And it may mean  that maps are becoming more specialised. More useful if you are interested in a particular thing  - but perhaps less generally useful. That reflects some of the comments I've heard in media circles about how media are becoming more specialised,  more targeted, and there are fewer and fewer media providing a common agora and common content for everyone. Society is pulling apart, becoming fragmented, and we see that in digital maps as well as in the media.

There's an eloquent piece about maps in the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm not an apologist for ink-on-paper - I was one of the early web heads, on the internet in the days when Compuserve gave you email addresses like (I can still remember mine!), CSS hadn't been invented, and there were no graphics on web pages. But what's alarming is that although digital mapping can do so much, the real repositories of geographical knowledge (Ordnance Survey, the IGN in France) haven't made the transition to digital - and digital mappers aren't producing high quality. Googlemaps is great for navigating a housing estate - and rubbish at showing you trig points or contour lines.

John Flinn points out that the Ordnance Survey map is a repository not just of geographical information, but of history. Barns, village names, field boundaries, different types of woodland reflecting different styles of forestry development, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages. Read a good map and you'll find yourself travelling in time as well as space. (And I had one OS map that really was a Tardis. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, and once unfolded, I could never, ever get it folded back into its cardboard spine...)

I'd love to see some digital mappers incorporating this kind of historical information into their work. In fact, you could quite easily create something like one of my very favourite maps, a marvellous and very detailed map of Roman Britain . Even better, with digital, you could roll over from Roman to early medieval Britain and watch the changes in population distribution,  while seeing the continuity of many of the trade routes over time...