December 24, 2012

Within the vale of Annandale...

…a Scotsman searching for a little bit of home.

Set down in what was once a rugged landscape, Pasadena, California’s Church of the Angels is a little bit of home.  At Christmas, children’s faces light the way and angels come out of the woodwork.

At other times of the year the small Episcopalian Church of the Angels is a favorite spot for weddings, but on Christmas Eve even brides take a back seat to angels and children.  During the afternoon service the tiniest parish members, as solemn as the Magi, place toys under the Christmas tree for children at neighboring Hillside Home.  Then as if tutored by winged guides, they settle down to hear the story of the Christmas angels. 

The church has belonged to the angels ever since it was built in 1889, modeled after Holmbury St. Mary’s in Surrey, England.  It was the intensely personal vision of Frances Campbell-Johnston, who constructed the church in memory of her Scots husband on their California ranch.

So remote was the spot she chose, high above the twisting Arroyo Seco Canyon, that the rough roads seemed likely to discourage worshippers.  But Mrs. Campbell-Johnston, a woman of extraordinay resolve, was not to be dissuaded by mere earthly inconvenience.  She rounded up members herself and arrived daily to watch the stones for the 44-foot tower hoisted into place.  And in an inspired move, she had the building positioned facing west, contrary to tradition, so that the light of the setting sun would blaze through the stained glass window depicting the Angel of the Resurrection, above.

Since that day long ago, the city of Pasadena has grown up around the meadow where sheep once grazed and wild, pink chick-peas once blossomed.  But the church has always remained faithful to the cherubim.  The angels are part of the fabric of the building itself echoed in the shapes of the stonework and choir stalls as well as in the Gothic tracery of the windows.  Among the more striking representations is St. Michael the Archangel, who was carved from a 400-year-old oak tree and who supports the lectern.

Go and see if you can find angels in the architecture of the building.  I promise you before long you will discover them, especially on Christmas Eve.

December 18, 2012

So this is...


Signing off for a bit to enjoy some time off and celebrate. 
I wish you a wonderful holiday season, 
whether religious or secular, 
filled with laughter, friendship and the littlest bit of sparkle. 

December 15, 2012

Present Time.

It would seem to me that there are three categories of present givers: those who like giving presents to others, those who appreciate receiving, and those (not few in number) who prefer giving presents to themselves.

Incidentally, "presents" is so much a better sounding word than "gifts." And of course for the purposes of this post I am trying to think of famous instances of presents.

What about the pearl that Cleopatra dissolved in wine at the banquet with Antony?  There would not be much point in her melting down a present she had given to herself. Whatever its history, it is curious indeed that this same pearl was till lately, and may in fact still be, in possession of an English "noble family." If you are willing to believe it, that is to say.

An English speaking instance and as typical as the immortal words "Dr. Livingstone, I presume ?" -whoever but him could it possibly have been ?- I have transcribed and it reads as follows.  "August 26, 1878. Again this dear and blessed anniversary returns. When I came down to breakfast I gave Beatrice a mounted enamelled photograph of our dear mausoleum, and a silver belt of Montenegrin workmanship. After breakfast I gave my faithful Brown an oxidised silver biscuit-box and some onyx studs. He was greatly pleased with the former, and the tears came to his eyes, and he said 'it is too much.' God knows it is not too much for one so devoted and faithful."

This is that great letter writer Queen Victoria-one of the best in the English language-on the birthday of her beloved Prince Consort.  She was, also, Empress of India as well as the personification of half a century of history, alike in its dullnesses and in its greatness.

But I am thinking now that there is another category that of unwanted or unnecessary presents. "So and so, or so and so, will go on sending"; I am certain we all have had expe­rience of this.  Bloggers, and I like to remind myself I am one, are sent messages. What a nuisance it can be. For long months I was deluged with missives with a missionary basis, or, rather, bias. And once, out of a clear sky, I was asked to proceed immediately to a museum, at my own expense of course, and lecture to them how the medieval game of spillikins was played. They had been told, the message explained, that I was the only person who knew about this. Had I gone, which I didn't, it would have come under yet another heading, that of unwilling present giving.

Probably among the biggest present-givers was the Empress Catherine the Great and Louis XV. The brothers Orlov; Zoritch, in his hussar uniform of scarlet and silver, ablaze with diamond orders; Lanskoi; the brother Zubovi; and of course, Potemkin, all of them her erstwhile favourites, received in money alone from the hands of Catherine some 90,000,000 rubles, the equivalent of £15,000,000 in mid- Victorian England. The Empress Catherine was no giver of enamelled biscuit tins! If, on the other hand, the monastery of the Troitsa, outside Moscow, was the possessor of 106,000 serfs and their families, mostly derived from royal presents, but particularly from the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, the motive at least was different. It was not love but repentance, and dread of the world to come.

Louis XV gave away tapestries and sets of Sevres porcelain, and we may be sure passed the order and thought no more about it.  Any more than Augustus the Strong whose presents were not Sevres but Meissen. In those days it was ambassadors and not only mistresses who were given dinner services. The full luxury of presentgiving was possible until 1914 from the Saint Petersburg workshop of Faberge.

And even in one's own family-where more so, indeed?-there are, and have been eccentrics. I had a great-uncle who gave pink champagne.  Why the champagne rose, I do not know; but my mother, just married and eighteen years old, was loaded - with pink champagne.

Ordinary mortals have to be content with presents from a shop. I remember Guerlain and the way they used to tie up parcels in pink paper; and trifles like their Extrait de potpourri de plantes marines!  This makes me think of other places where it is or was a delight to buy something.  

There is the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, founded in the time of the Medici Grand Dukes, where you can buy soap scented with orrisroot from the Florentine blue or grey iris, and many things besides.

And then I remember the New York shop of Caswell-Massey. Their mere catalogue was a delight to read, and they seemed to import things from all over the world. There, in reckless mood, I bought deliciously smelling soaps, and enjoyed it as much as looking in jewellers' windows in Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix.

But the town of towns for shopping is Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. In the paper fan shops one would like to buy up everything in sight, while the Kabukiya doll shop, and I am no infantilist, is something transcendental and extraordinary. There are, as well, the Thai silk shops in Bangkok; and I am told another marvellous silk shop in Benares.

There was Hadji Bekir, where they sold Turkish delight in Istanbul.

And there was the Juvenile and Theatrical warehouse in Hoxton, run by Mr. Pollock, a retired clown, where one bought "penny plain and tuppenny coloured" prints of actors of the time of Grimaldi and Edmund Kean. What a wonderful place that was!

And I end in thinking of the most exciting present I love to receive (and we could give easily to each other) and I do not hesitate, each other.

After a year of so many ghastly horrors, in which, I am sure, many of our friends and contemporaries were touched, let us have more present giving instead of...

December 13, 2012

At six leagues an hour the loudest noise you can hear is…

…the jingling of bells.

Don't you ever wish, when your car gets bogged down in the mud, or slithers across the surface of the snow, that you could simply put down a pair of skids and swish away?

In past centuries, when the snow made mountain passes impassable to ordinary carriages, everyone piled out of the cumbersome and useless wheeled coach and onto the sledge, to continue the journey over the Simplon or the St. Bernard Pass.

But sledging was not always the jingle-bells, oh-what-fun-it-is-to-ride-in-a-one-horse-open-sleigh affair of cosy mythology.

That blanket that kept your knees warm in the temperate climes of wintry Austria would be a laughable effort at protection against the hideous, probing cold of a Russian freeze-up. 

Sledging overland from Moscow to the Caucasus was, moreover, a very long and time-consuming business.  In Tolstoy's The Cossacks, the hero, Olenin, comfortably settles into his sledge, wrapped in furs protected from the cold.

As they pass out of Moscow his thoughts run on the friends he is leaving behind, his misspent youth, love. Then, as the staging posts he has been through begin to multiply, he starts to calculate the distance he has yet to travel, methods of paying off his debts. And then, days later, he passes the time in thinking of the places where he will stop to drink tea, where he will change sledges. Finally, his mind begins to dwell on the prospects afforded by the Caucasian women, among whom he is about to begin life. He hardly notices his surroundings until, in the warmth of southern Russia; he abandons his sledge for a Cossack cart.  Olenin's serf had to wait outside his master's Moscow club until the small hours of the morning before they could set off on their important journey.

A friend’s grandfather who was born in southern Russia, once had to journey with his mother from the town of Ordzhonikidze to visit his sister, living in Ismail, about twenty miles distant, as she was about to give birth to a child. He and his mother were to leave their home town at nine in the morning. At 9.30 they were sitting, freezing, on the open sledge, waiting for the driver. Fifteen minutes later, he had still not arrived. His great-grandmother dispatched her little son over the road to see what had become of the driver. At 10.15, still freezing, only now feeling a little stiff in the joints as the cold inexorably found its way under the blankets and inside their clothes, he returned to say that the driver had gone to bed appallingly drunk the night before, that he had been sleeping, dead to the world, but that he would certainly be over now within the next five minutes.

At twelve o'clock, the sledge set off for Ismail. Bells were jingling-that much at least can be said; but no one was smiling. Other sledges were passed, travelling in the opposite direction, and the drivers exchanged friendly abuse. The vodka was passed round, and passed round again. Most of the passengers dropped off to sleep in the cold. That is the best way to cover long distances they say.

At length, after it had been dark for some time, a light was seen lying straight ahead. Passengers began to wake up and look forward to arriving in Ismail, where there would be a warm welcome and steaming borscht. It was after nine at night when the sledge eventually drew to a halt in the middle of the town. For those staying at the inn there was a long wait, as the luggage was unloaded and then as each person, swathed in furs, entered the inn to take off his coat and wraps. Meanwhile, only six hours late, the family was able to rush to the side of the sister, now delivered of a baby, unaided.    

In Lapland sledging was even harder-one drove one's own sledge, a narrow affair, only two feet wide, and pulled by a reindeer that often had a mind of its own. A well-schooled reindeer needed practically no driving at all: he knew the way better than his master. A young reindeer with an inexperienced driver, though, was a recipe for instant catastrophe; pull too hard on the reins and the beast would bolt to the other side of the plain for fear you wanted to make the sledge crash onto his hind legs. The best way to stop him would be to pull him sharply round and turn the sledge over. Halliday Sutherland, in his book Lapland Journey, describes how this happened to him the first time he took the reins of a reindeer. The guide, in the leading sledge, caught hold of Sutherland's reins, and both sledges overturned. The author says he was about to apologize when he noticed the guides pipe had not even fallen out of his mouth. Again, as in Russia, the best way to combat the cold was to fall asleep, letting the reindeer do the work.

Yet another method of taking a nap in a sledge was that of the sinister Klamm in Kafka's The Castle. It was a spacious, enclosed sledge, whose floor was strewn with furs and rugs. There was a desk for working at . . . but ordinary mortals were permitted to glimpse no more than that.

But if it is the effete one is looking for, the France of Marie-Antoinette with her rustic nymphs-and-shepherds yearning saw the apotheosis of the sledge as a thing of maximum beauty and minimum utility. She, and the wives of Louis XIV and XV, had sledges built for their winter amusement that are miracles of deft fantasy.

They owe more to the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen than to the needs of expecting sisters in Ismail. You'd be a fool to go to sleep in one of these, even if the temperature was at absolute zero. Any poacher in the royal parks, seeing these fire-spitting dragons, eagles and princesses seated in giant oyster shells looming up out of the snowy mists, must have thought himself amply rewarded for his temerity. Or perhaps thoughts of Nordic ancestors, to whom a sledge was not a toy, made him blow ruefully on his numb fingertips, reflecting on the sheer luxury of aristocratic folly.

This was no longer travel, it had become a Diaghilev ballet, a gigantic, fairy-tale extravaganza on snow, with the most elegant sets the craftsmen of eighteenth-century France could devise. These sledges never overturned-or, if they did, there were no pipes to stick in their passengers' mouths-and their horses never felt the tug of an inexperienced driver's hand. It was either apotheosis or total decadence.

But, whether a Christmas morning flight of fantasy or necessity drive you, next time the snow lies deep around the garage, harness the reindeer, the dogs, the pony, or the prancing white stallion to your sledge, it will be pleasant to reflect to yourself that the loudest noise you will be able to hear is ... the jingle of the bells.  Thoughts about polluting won't have to bother you at all.

December 08, 2012

a journey through the living room

I wish I could write.  I ought to be able to, because there has been such a succession of characters moving across the screen of my life.  But it is useless for me to attempt to do more with these characters than to tell about them as I saw them and to show what they meant to me.

What do you think of when someone says Switzerland? Cheese? Chocolate? Bankers perhaps? Chances are a  Rittmeister* wouldn’t be very high on your list. Anybody who looked for the odd or the exotic in life would have been thoroughly satisfied with the Rittmeister. 

He was a master of horses by profession and an artist by preference, and a rather remarkable fellow in every way.  To look at him, you would believe that he had stepped out of the past, like during the intermission of a play, and had just neglected to remove his make-up and change his costume.

The end to his military career came as sudden as the drop of the blade on the guillotine.  End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, end of emperor, end of country.

Switzerland had been home during my early school years, high above Lake Geneva and I became acquainted with the Rittmeister, and his horse Charodey, on one of my morning rides. We chatted and instantly liked one another (granddad had been of the same ilk, different emperor).  I was invited to afternoon tea. 

When I arrived the table was set and everything was ready for tea.  The Rittmeister had his own way to serve tea.  No dainty little teacups with saucers and sugar bowls.  He filled the tea glass directly from his silver samovar and drank.  Not as we did, he put a sugar cube between his teeth and drank the hot tea from the glass.  And I followed suit and enjoyed it.  He said; “One has to be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea.”

After we had finished he ask; “Now, Solnishka what would you like to do? “Let us take a journey through your living room (Reise durchs Wohnzimmer)”, I answered.

And we did, once a week, for four years.  For a wayfarer he had been.  Destiny had made him experienced in both travel and life and the rooms in his house reflected this.  There were exquisite furnishings, walls of books, and excellent paintings; both artists and places unknown to us, for the countries had vanished after WW I.  Towns that were everywhere and nowhere and a population of astonishing diversity.   The Rittmeister lived in a twilight world suspended between the formalities of the old nineteenth-century order that had shaped his early youth and the innovations and uncertainties of the 20th century. The haunted atmosphere of this world was beautifully displayed in these rooms.  I would much later encounter the sentiments again in the writings of Gregor v. Rezzori. 

The Rittmeister died in my senior year.  Nobody left to call me Solnishka.  But with time I learned to see myself through his eyes and realized that once loved, always loved.

Whenever I find myself in the “neighborhood” I visit his grave.  When I came at Christmas I found horse tracks in the snow leading me to it...

*Rittmeister (in the German language literally [Horse] riding master or Cavalry master).

December 04, 2012

“How'd you do? Oh, won't you try a sweet, candy meat good to eat.”

“Do not worry, I'll protect you
 Heroes never do expect you
To defend yourself.
With that awful fear I'll fill them.
With my soldiers I will kill them.
Lay them back on the shelf.”

Of all ballets, the one that nobody seems to take seriously is The Nutcracker. For many people, it's not even a ballet so much as a seasonal tic of the middle class-the thing that Mom takes the kids to in December, like the Christmas windows. And while some versions of The Nutcracker may deserve such treatment, all of them seem to get it.

The Russian original, of 1892, was kicked around by the critics. As for Balanchine's splendid version for the New York City Ballet, the dance critic Edwin Denby quoted a friend's saying, "I could see it every day, it's so deliciously boring." What makes it boring, according to this view, is the banality of its sentiments: that suffocatingly cozy household in act 1 and those damned candy dances in act 2. Then, too, the ballet is weak dramatically, what with no events occurring in the second half. As a dance work, it also has its problems, above all the meagerness of the ballerina role.

The Nutcracker must nevertheless be doing something right, for in spite of these flaws, it is unquestionably the most popular ballet in history, to the point where, for many troupes, it essentially finances the rest of the repertory. The ballet is performed by more than 200 companies in the United States, and in the average case, those four or five weeks of Nutcrackers at the end of the year supply one-third of the company's annual earned income. It's like an annuity. "If we put an ad in the newspaper in June for Nutcracker tickets, we'd sell out in a week," says a box-office manager. The ticket lines for New York City Ballet's Nutcracker are legendary. People come with box lunches and Russian novels, displaying rock-concert-scale devotion.

Dreams are only tears when you're lonely.

Of course, it's not the same ballet that's selling out from city to city. Unlike other ballet "classics," The Nutcracker comes down to us with almost none of its original choreography intact. In any given version, the dances are new and usually belong to that version alone. What Boston's Nutcracker will have in common with Cincinnati's and Houston's is only the great Tchaikovsky score and maybe, if the choreographers of these versions are all tradition minded, the original scenario, with little Clara and the nutcracker and the battle with the mice and the trip to Candyland.

But as you may have noticed, respect for tradition is on the decline; many choreographers have tried to liven up the old dust bag with new concepts, new interpretations. In the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, designed by the celebrated children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak, Candyland has been replaced by an Oriental seraglio. San Francisco's Nutcracker has a dancing bear; Tandy Beal's production in Santa Cruz had gymnasts and roller skaters.

But by far the most common Nutcracker interpolation is "another level of meaning," with special emphasis on the heroine's supposed sexual awakening. In Baryshnikov's version for American Ballet Theatre, act 2 is forthrightly, though delicately, presented as an erotic dream. ("Yes, I am a Freudian," Baryshnikov confessed.) In Nureyev's version, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet, the sex is laced with violence. The mice, for example, eat the little girls or, in the case of Clara, who is needed later, merely rip off her skirt.
These psychosexual thrillers are based on the widespread assumption that The Nutcracker is a ballet about growing up.

Don't believe it. If anything, The Nutcracker is about what the world is like before you grow up, and why you should not grow up.

As Balanchine put it, the ballet represents "the reality that Mother didn't believe."

It is about miracle and wonder, and how these intrude into everyday life particularly for children, who, according to the romantic beliefs of the nineteenth century, have better access to the sublime than adults do. In the world of The Nutcracker, adults are a bore; it is to children that visions are vouchsafed.

That's what Nutcracker is: a vision, a materialization of everything that is sweet and good heaven imagined by a nine-year-old. And that, I believe, is why people stand in line to see this ballet (at least in its pre-Freudian versions): because at Christmas they want some contact with heaven.

*Complete Story and Music with New Songs Based on the Original Music.  Written by Mel Mandel and Marvin Kahn Based on the Music of Tchaikovsky, transcribed by Ronnie Falca.  Performed by Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and the Sandpiper Chorus. Produced by Hudson Productions, Inc.