And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 28. september 2011

Musidora, the Bather

As I have probably mentioned a number of times, the City of York takes great pride in its sundry sons and daughters. Among these various known, half-known and unknown prodigies we find the painter William Etty (1787-1849), famous for nudes and controversies and currently honoured with a grand exhibition at York Art Gallery. I was alerted to this event by a friend of mine from Constantine House and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time exploring Etty's artwork. In a later blogpost I hope to return to the subject of Etty's art, but since I'm currently either too busy or too tired to compile a blogpost of sufficient length I shall leave you, for now, with an appetiser.

I was struck by much of Etty's work for several reasons, reasons I aim to come back to later. However, one of the pictures that really stuck with me for a long time afterwards was his brilliant painting Musidora, or the Bather, a painting met with general applause by art critics because Musidora, unlike some of Etty's other subjects or characters, did not display any lustful or inviting looks. When I saw the painting I noted that not only does not Musidora appear frivolous in any way, she looks indeed very anxious, fearing something she does not see but clearly apprehends, clutching a nearby branch in suspended terror. There is something genuinely ugly about the composition which makes a voyeur of the viewer, captivating him or her with colours and arrangement, drawing them all into the artwork to become those whom Musidora dreads. When you realise this you will feel sorry for the girl, you will feel guilty and perhaps a bit dirty too, but you cannot look away. Whether or not this was intentional on account of William Etty I can't decide, obviously, but considering how critics would condemn his figures for being too intemperate, too flamboyant this painting tricks the moralist into appreciating his or her own voyeurism and in that manner become the lustful peeper. The set-up is reminiscent of a painting by Etty called Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Minsters, as She Goes to Bed, a work castigated by the critics for its display of sexuality, only that in the case of Musidora the critics become Gyges, dazzled voyeurs of a woman belonging to another man, committing hypocrisy as they praise the painting and her trepidation.

In the days following Musidora remained in my head and in the end I wrote a poem hoping to convey how I imagine contemporaries of Etty must have stood before the canvas and delighting in her anxiety. The picture below is taken from the Museum Syndicate.


After William Etty

She halts, as by a shadow startled;
She looks around, but in the wrong direction,
Bewildered, naked, halting her descent
With just enough timidity to be accepted.

They gaze at her, some with a fierce invective
Stopped only by her face half turned away.
Her posture speaks of fear and their appraisal
Is founded on that fear. They lean and sway

To catch her angles better, that the light
Might in the end reveal what has been hidden
But only vaguely so. They nod and smile
While hoping secretly she will detect them.
- September 10-26 2011

torsdag 22. september 2011

A Companion to Owls

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.
- The Book of Job, 30:29

The oule eek, that of dethe the bode bringeth
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer

An owl plunges to its tryst
- Three Baroque Meditations, Geoffrey Hill

If you have ever stood face to face with a wild animal and met its gaze, neither of you flinching, each scanning the other with a primal curiosity until you have seen your own face mirrored in its pupil, you will know what this blogpost is all about.

Since this summer Owl Adventures, a local falconry company, has offered people the opportunity to have their picture taken with a bird of prey. Having learned this from a friend and former flatmate in York, I was determined to grasp the opportunity with both hands since I have a well-nurtured fascination for falconry, partly owing to growing up in rural Norway where birds of prey are frequently seen, partly owing to my love for things Medieval.

In the Middle Ages falconry, or hawking, was a popular pastime for European nobility and royalty. The sport was introduced to England by the Normans and its importance throughout Europe can be attested from a wide variety of sources. For instance in Regesta Norvegica, a collection of Medieval correspondence, we learn that King Henry III of England expressed his gratitude to King Håkon IV Håkonsson of Norway for his gifts of birds of prey. Falcons and hawks from Norway and Iceland were considered the best in Europe and were naturally highly sought after.

A man taking his fascination of falconry to a level of his own was Friedrich II, Holy Roman Emperor and a contemporary of the aforementioned kings. He wrote De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, an almost proto-empirical treatise on the art of falconry, and, as a friend pointed out after her trip to Neustadt, German, he is frequently depicted in the company of birds of prey. I also suspect that this feature of Friedrich II has been a key source of inspiration to Erik Fosnes Hansen's wonderful novel Falketårnet, the Falcon Tower which is set during his reign.

A companion to owls. And eagles.

During my time as a student in York I came across the nobility's preoccupation with falconry several times in the course of a module on Middle English romances, for instance in Sir Degrevant where the following lines occur:

He wold be upp or the day
To honte and to revay.

I was quite pleased to come across this since it reminded me of one of the reasons why I am fascinated by falconry, namely its vocabulary. I often seek to expand my own vocabulary, imping it, as it were, with words from various disciplines, taking delight in the wide range of choices available. What brought my attention to the language of falconry a couple of years back was the use of terms from falconry found in the poetry of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, opening up a small but exciting world to me. Revay, for instance, designates the hunting of ducks and geese along riverbanks.

In other words it should come as no surprise that I was quite eager to seek out the birds of prey in York and finally one day I did. That day they had no falcons or hawks available, but instead they had a beautiful selection of owls and I decided to have my picture taken with each of them in turn.

A little owl of the species little owl.

First I was handed the little fellow above. He was small enough that I dared place him right in front of my face, so we stood for a brief while looking into each other's eyes and I could see myself mirrored in his pupil, my own face reflected in a puny orb as black as black can be, eye to eye with an animal who, although tamed, can never be anything but wild. As we stood there I felt a childish excitement about being this close to something primal and that moment of a brief aeon was in itself a consummation of all I had hoped for.

The ill-faste Owle, deaths dreadfull messengere
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

Unlike the inquisitive little owl the barn owl was quite sedate and tired having just pruned her feathers so she cared little for what took place around her. When she had been placed on my hawking glove the photographer stroked her little beak a couple of times to wake her up, although I felt it was somewhat unnecessary to bother her like that, poor thing. This was the first time I had ever seen a real-life barn owl since we don't have them at home and I have always been somewhat mystified by its strange face which is at once both beautiful and deformed. 
A male eagle owl. You can tell, they told me, from its lesser size.

The eagle owl was perhaps what I was looking most forward to become briefly acquainted with, partly because of its rather quaint majesty, partly because I have been somewhat dazzled by eagle owls since childhood. As the manager placed him on my glove I was told to hold steady lest he should interpret my wavering as a signal for him to return to his log since he expressed a certain impatience to have this thing over and done with. As he was about to settle on my hand he beat his wings somewhat and hit me in the face as he did, and I confess that it too gave me a certain sense of coming close to the wild animal perching behind its domesticated appearance.

All in all it was a great experience to come this close to owls, something I haven't been since my youngest sister and I came across two young tawny owls in an abandoned farm back home, and even then I didn't get to stare deep into its face in the same way. There is something hauntingly beautiful about owls, a appearance of senescence that makes us believe them to be sapient, mystical creatures and that, in turn, might be part of the reason why it is such a thrill to peer into an owl's eyes, looking for something you have lost in yourself, bound to fail in your quest to retrieve it.

In all the excitement I forgot to ask them to take the pictures with my own camera and consequently I got photographs rather than digital pictures. However, to give you an idea of how the sensation was, I have posted a few pictures of the photographs in question below. For the remainder of my travel I kept them safe in an edition of Geoffrey Hill's poetry collection Clavics bought in York, a volume, as you can see, featuring an owl on its cover and a sequence of poems as hauntingly captivating as an owl. 

 (...) but then face to face
1 Corinthians 13:12 

torsdag 15. september 2011

The Yorkshire Pantry

Sweet Nancy was so fancy,
To get into her pantry
Had to be the aristocracy
- Knocking at your back door, Deep Purple

Whereas Nancy appears to have been exceedingly snobbish in her selection of clientele, The Yorkshire Pantry pursues a completely different policy, ostracising no one from their charming and semi-rustic premises so perfectly fitting to its placement in the immediate vicinity of Bootham Bar. As the name so succinctly suggests The Yorkshire Pantry is a foodshop purveying local produce of various sorts, ranging from assorted condiments to teas and sweets, all orderly, yet not rigidly, arranged throughout a small, modest locale at High Petergate.

Small shops such as the Yorkshire Pantry is one of the many features I adore about the City of York, a feature that sustains the image of a city still firmly rooted in its past, a city of minor magnitude relishing in its own character and knowing that character to its fullest. In other words, these small shops are important to the cityscape, regardless of how unassumingly they find their places in it. 

I first noticed this shop during my time as a student in York and I immediately found it very pleasing in its design and selection. However, I did not frequent as much as I, in hindsight, would have liked to, basically because my scanty student meals did not require such fine produce or any large variety of condiments or preserves. I nonetheless took great delight in its exquisitely British atmosphere and the culturally and historically conservative ambiance. 

Modest and old-fashioned the Yorkshire Pantry offers a range of local foodstuffs, all neatly displayed with enough order to make it navigable but sufficient disorder to allow for exploration. To indulge in the travel narrator's confidence, I strongly recommend this shop to everyone with an interest in food and/or with a well-nurtured anglophilia. Not only does it offer a wide variety of items, it is also run by very cordial people who will not only treat you as a customer but as an acquaintaince in the very best English tradition. For residents the Yorkshire Pantry is a welcome addition to - or perhaps even a much needed change from - what Sainsbury's, Heron Food or any other supermarket has to offer. For visitors the shop will offer a calm oasis from the commotion of High Petergate and a pleasant window into an England many will purport to know, perhaps even intimately, but which only can be found in such small, old-fashioned shops as the Yorkshire Pantry.

 A minor selection from the Yorkshire Pantry: Yorkshire tea and sherbet fruit drops from Sheffield.

fredag 9. september 2011

The Dichotomy of Travel

He looked like one who has undergone a journey,
his face bitten by hunger or by sorrow.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh

(...) that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.
- Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

In general I remain quite skeptical about dichotomies, believing firmly in the intricacy of things, but from time to time I do concede that there are conflicting states found within the same experience that allow for dichotomies to appear. An example of this is to undertake a journey.

When I decided to return to my friends in York and after having arranged a number of important things, I frequently felt in the consequtive days an overwhelming feeling of expectation and joy, the true happiness, to paraphrase Jane Austen, and I was so eager to see my friends again that I ignored the dreadful complexity of my itinerary. It was only later, as the day of departure drew inexorably nearer, that I realised how silly some of my solutions were, and that most of them stemmed from laziness and naïveté on my part. In sum the trip I had lined up on my schedule was far longer than what I was forced to endure on my trip to England back in January. The difference, however, was that this time the duration was not due to mechanical problems but choices of my own, and this made is acceptable as I had time to let the gravity of the prospect sink fully in before I had to embark on the journey itself.

Some people have expressed that to travel is to live, to arrive is to die, emphasising the joy of being on the move, the joy of the suspended consummation. I for my part do not share this sentiment. To me travel is a transition, a limbo of incompletion, a state of suspension in which I achieve nothing beyond moving closer to the goal I seek. This sensation of comatose time came very strongly to me during my hours in Aberdeen since I arrived shortly after six and came to the train station just as things were closing down and the area was left to the night and its passengers. 


 The Granite City

 Aberdeen Station

What further enhanced this sensation of transience was the city itself. Aberdeen is one of the most depressing places I've ever passed through and as the bus drove through much of it on the way to the railway station I noticed shut down houses, a school and even a church, all granite grey and surrounded by kindred structures, truly earning the city its nickname: the granite city. I understood very well why most of the advertisements throughout the city revolved around how to get far away. After a two-hour wait or so the train finally departed the station and brought me south across the stretch of mossland called, in a Medieval colloquialism, the Scottish Sea, the area between Clyde and Forth once a natural border between England and Scotland.

The toughest part of the journey was no doubt the five-hour stay in Edinburgh for which I was not prepared beyond knowing that I was not prepared, and immediately upon arrival I started to walk about searching for somewhere to rest a couple of hours. However, despite the very bleak scenario I was actually very happy to see Edinburgh again, especially because the city's Victorian Medievalist architecture becomes all the more impressive and imposing in moonlight, but also because of the familiarity I felt when walking parts the royal mile again, recognising landmarks looming vaguely out of the darkness like something half-formed and ghostly. Fortunately I ended up at the Edinburgh backpacker hostel and was kindly allowed to loiter in their common room for four hours, a much needed rest that even allowed me half an hour sleep as I was assured by the kind lady in the reception that she would wake me at four, which she also did. 

  Edinburgh by night

So far I have pointed out the more miserable aspects of my journey, save the joy of seeing Edinburgh at night, but to keep in tune with the title I must note that despite the travail I was constantly alert to the fact that for each minute I was moving closer to York and the the long-awaited reunion with my friends there. This sensation became all the more pervasive as I finally departed from Edinburgh and was brought south into England.

From there on everything went rather swiftly and after having slept a little I beheld, through blurry eyes refusing to stay open, the sun rise above Northumbria in a bleak spectacle that was hauntingly beautiful. It was relatively unostentatious compared to the sunrises back in Norway, but its ghostly pallour seemed a fitting memento of past crimes and trespasses, in particular William's harrowing of the north. In not long I changed trains in Newcastle and was brought with utmost speed past the wonderful cathedral of Durham and the lovely parish church of Doncaster and into the well-known harbour of York Train Station.

Immediately I felt an immense delectation as I advanced through this well-known terrain, rejoicing in the fact that I had returned, that I had arrived, feeling that pleasure which allows one to forget the travails of travel and that makes all tribulations worthwhile. 

  The familiar Ouse