Saturday 29 August 2020

Rob Roy Country

I was delighted to visit the Loch Lomond and the sublime landscape above Aberfoyle, having read Rob Roy during the lockdown. The weather was cool but sunny with some good cloud shadow. The heather on the hills was of a hue so heavenly as to be almost unbelievable.

Light as Air

Gallery-going nowadays can be a strain. Warders have been made into martinets: you must walk in this direction, wait here, move on, never linger. Some appear resentful you should wish to indulge in anything as frivolous as art. In the Palace of Holyroodhouse I asked a question about a painting of George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Who was the man kneeling before the king? The kilted attendant performed a pantomime first of not hearing - I had to repeat - then of appearing not to recognise my words as English. I said again: 'Do you know who is presenting a gift to the king?'

'I do.'

'Well, who is it?!'

Eventually, sulky, and with unaccountable emphasis: 'The Duke of Hamilton.'

Wilkie, Entrance of George IV at Holyroodhouse
(Scott stands, at ground level, second from the left.)

The palace is picturesque, laid out and furnished in decadent Carolean style. Beside the house rises the wildness of Arthur's Seat.

The art, like much in royal palaces, is hit and miss. Some, such as a whole hall's worth of hastily painted pictures of every Scottish monarch, including the legendary (they've all been given Charles II's nose), is poor. As always, sooner or later one finds a Cranach, this one an Adoration of the Magi:

I liked this Lely of Catherine of Braganza:

My afternoon was similarly mixed: hounded by warders round the few spaces deemed safe in the Scottish National Gallery. Much is missing. I noted this Cranach, an Allegory of Melancholy...

...enjoyed seeing this James Drummond of the Porteous Riots, a real event and scene in The Heart of Midlothian...

...and marvelled at this Tiepolo sketch of Antony and Cleopatra - just because it's Tiepolo. I sense quite a few Brookner personages would have been drawn to this marvellous light-as-air picture, not just Blanche Vernon.

Thursday 27 August 2020

To Abbotsford

I can now add Abbotsford House, Tweedbank, in the Scottish Borders, to a small list of writers' homes I've visited. (A list that comprises, for those interested, Hardy's Max Gate and birthplace, Dickens's houses in Portsmouth and Doughty Street, James's Lamb House, any number of Goethe-Häuser in Germany, and of course a certain block of flats in Elm Park Gardens, London, the only trip that included a meeting with the author in question.)

Abbotsford isn't easy to access without a car. I do drive, but never on holiday. I wished I had my car with me today: rain sheeted down as I trudged along a deserted A-road through countryside cultivated but rugged. Abbotsford is a genteel fake baronial nineteenth-century castle in sight of the rushing Tweed. Scott built it from novel proceeds, but he didn't enjoy the finished article for long and his last years were ruined by ill-health and debt.

Abbotsford House

View of the Tweed

Back of the house

Books in Scott's study

Scott's desk and chair


Scott died on a camp-bed
in the bay window.

Death mask

The Scott Monument

It is unmissable but oddly neglected. I don't just mean the last-century smog-discolouring, but also the lack of interest from passers-by. I felt rather self-conscious taking my photos. It is possible to go up the monument but not at present. On upper levels stand blackened statues of, no doubt, Dandie Dinmont, Effie Deans, Ivanhoe - but you can't make them out.

Wednesday 26 August 2020


How near the past is. Travelling by train from London to Edinburgh, I passed halts I'd previously only read of. Beyond Newcastle the land grew gradually wilder, mistier: forests, rocky descents, expanses of heath stretching into foggy distances, sudden glimpses of the grey sea. I was reading Scott at the time, appropriately. The Scottish Borders is his world as much as the Highlands, probably more so.

Always I come back to Virginia Woolf's assessment of a scene in The Antiquary:

...all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.

In Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel, Scott tells, early on, of the disappearance of a small child. It is a distressing episode. Later, much later, when the child, now a man, is restored, the scene is overwhelmingly affecting - because it is so long earned, and because Scott makes it human and stays on just the right side of sentimental. The following is a spoiler. Let it be a taster:

‘There,’ said the Colonel, ‘I can assure Mr. Brown of his identity; and add, what his modesty may have forgotten, that he was distinguished as a young man of talent and spirit.’

‘So much the better, my dear sir,’ said Mr. Pleydell; ‘but that is to general character. Mr. Brown must tell us where he was born.’

 ‘In Scotland, I believe, but the place uncertain.’

 ‘Where educated?’

 ‘In Holland, certainly.’

 ‘Do you remember nothing of your early life before you left Scotland?’

 ‘Very imperfectly; yet I have a strong idea, perhaps more deeply impressed upon me by subsequent hard usage, that I was during my childhood the object of much solicitude and affection. I have an indistinct remembrance of a good-looking man whom I used to call papa, and of a lady who was infirm in health, and who, I think, must have been my mother; but it is an imperfect and confused recollection. I remember too a tall, thin, kind-tempered man in black, who used to teach me my letters and walk out with me; and I think the very last time - ’

 Here the Dominie could contain no longer. While every succeeding word served to prove that the child of his benefactor stood before him, he had struggled with the utmost difficulty to suppress his emotions; but when the juvenile recollections of Bertram turned towards his tutor and his precepts he was compelled to give way to his feelings. He rose hastily from his chair, and with clasped hands, trembling limbs, and streaming eyes, called out aloud, ‘Harry Bertram! look at me; was I not the man?’

 ‘Yes!’ said Bertram, starting from his seat as if a sudden light had burst in upon his mind; ‘yes; that was my name! And that is the voice and the figure of my kind old master!’

 The Dominie threw himself into his arms, pressed him a thousand times to his bosom in convulsions of transport which shook his whole frame, sobbed hysterically, and at length, in the emphatic language of Scripture, lifted up his voice and wept aloud. Colonel Mannering had recourse to his handkerchief; Pleydell made wry faces, and wiped the glasses of his spectacles; and honest Dinmont, after two loud blubbering explosions, exclaimed, ‘Deil’s in the man! he’s garr’d me do that I haena done since my auld mither died.'

Sunday 23 August 2020

Masking and Unmasking

Will anyone ever get round to writing Anita Brookner's biography? It is less likely than it might have been once. The golden age of literary biography was in the last century. Simply, the economics of publishing probably wouldn't support a latter-day Bevis Hillier or Norman Sherry, whose multi-volume John Betjeman and Graham Greene lives respectively were the fruit of decades of work (Sherry was said to have visited every place Greene ever set foot in).

Then there are the lesser 'hack' biographies that often appear more quickly after an author's death. These are culled largely from material already in the public domain. Such a biographer might find so private and retiring figure as Anita Brookner a recalcitrant subject for such a job. She was a public figure, but only up to a point, and only really from her fifties onwards. Any more comprehensive life would entail a lot of research and a lot of interviews.

She herself gave few interviews and rarely appeared on the radio or TV. One gets a sense of her 'curating' her life as it happened. Such endeavours are doomed to fail, but can frustrate the unwary. But one of the incidents over which she had less control was her involvement in the Anthony Blunt affair. In short, her boss and mentor at the Courtauld Institute, former Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, and pillar of the Establishment, Sir Anthony Blunt was unmasked in 1979 as having worked as a Soviet agent. There was a media furore and Blunt was stripped of his honours. Brookner remained loyal, visiting him in his enforced retirement, and supplying him with art books from the Courtauld's library. It was only later in the 1980s, with the publication of the notorious Spycatcher book, that Brookner learned of how Blunt had used her in a small way in the 1960s to obtain information unwittingly from a minor person of interest. Brookner's horror when she realised the full personal extent of Blunt's treachery and double-dealing was immense. She expressed her wounded feelings in an excoriating Spectator article in 1987.

One cannot but think that such dismay must have informed, affected, confirmed a worldview already familiar within her developing fictional oeuvre. And yet how would others see the matter? How was the Blunt scandal seen at the time? Ungenerously, it would appear, if a recently collected poem by Sir John Betjeman is anything to go by (Harvest Bells: new and uncollected poems, 2019).

I've never found Betjeman altogether hilarious, though I confess a liking for his later persona, but that's because I like most things from the 60s, 70s and 80s, love that time and that world.

In 'Lines on the Unmasking of the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures' Betjeman is at his most jovial and sniggering:

Poor old Bluntie! So they got him,
'Mole Revealed' they say 'at last'.
On a bleak November morning,
What an echo from the past!...

Who'd have guessed it - 'Blunt a traitor'
And an homosexualist?...
... Now the nine-day wonder's over,
Back he goes to Maida Vale.
In his comfy little Rover,
Home to gin and ginger ale...

The volume's editor seeks in a note to explain the tone. Apparently Blunt made Betjeman feel he had wasted his talent in the pursuit of popularity; the poet felt, he wrote in a letter, 'trivial and shallow' beside his old acquaintance.

The Maida Vale detail is incorrect. In fact Blunt (no longer Sir Anthony) retired to a flat near the Courtauld: at the cocktail hour he would entertain old colleagues, Brookner among them (though she doubtless left early and didn't partake). Putney Vale Crematorium, a few years after 1979, was the scene of Blunt's funeral. If you type 'Anthony Blunt funeral' into a search engine you'll find photos of the affair, including one in which Anita Brookner is identifiable.