His Life and Legacy Royal Academy Until 13 April Admission £9
Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, known as Palladio, lived and worked in the Veneto, that region around Venice which includes Verona, Vicenza and Padua. His greatest work was the creation of the Georgian style which is the backdrop to any decent Jane Austen film or mini-series. Palladio did not live to see that particular fruit of his work, but he was probably content to have designed some of the greatest buildings of Renaissance Italy and to have published The Four Books on Architecture, ten years before his death in 1580. The current exhibition at the Royal Academy, itself Palladi-anized by Lord Burlington, marks the five hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Architectural exhibitions always spawn articles about how difficult it is to exhibit the work of an architect. There are good reasons for this. It is hard to exhibit the work of an architect when it comprises finished buildings. And critics are often frustrated that their passion for architecture cannot be exhibited in the same way as paintings or sculpture, so they vent their frustration in a couple of hundred words of good, honest hackwork about how it is not possible to put on an architecture exhibition.
But it is wrongheaded to come to the Royal Academy thinking we are going to see an exhibition about the architecture of Palladio. What we have is an exhibition of the marginalia and preparatory stuffs of a great architect. It’s rather like going to the Beethoven house – you don’t go there to hear a concert.
So, taking the exhibition simply as an exhibition, what do we get? The finest art on display is probably El Greco’s portrait of Palladio, and if you’re feeling cheap you can see that from outside without paying the price of a ticket. The other works of art include some routine views of Palladio’s work in situ, commissioned by Consul Smith from Canaletto and graciously lent by Her Majesty. There’s a Veronese which includes a partial view of Palladio’s great Villa Barbaro and an excellent sketch of Inigo Jones by Van Dyck, Inigo Jones being one of Palladio’s greatest fans and the man who more than any other brought his style to England.
The nearest the exhibition can get to the spatial in Palladio’s work is through models. The ones on show were made for the Vicenza-based centre for the study of Palladio’s work. They are finely crafted and combine well with the pictures of the actual buildings as they are today. Models and photos show us where the original plans had to give way to cost constraints, as always happens on those ‘build your dream home’ reality shows. In the case of the churches, the architect’s intention is also subject to the twin tyrants of liturgical fashion and clerical aestheticism.
Finally, there are the working sketches by Palladio himself. These are beautifully drawn architect’s plans and, with patience on the part of the viewer, they can reveal some of the secrets of Palladio’s working method. The sketches are the stars of the show for their simple clarity and the way they show the beginning of a brilliant and practical style.
We don’t always associate Palladio with practicality because his buildings are so large and expensive, but he was very practical in the way he developed a basic formula of designs and spaces which could easily be applied to palaces, farm buildings, churches and even theatres, the famous Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza standing as an example of his immense creativity. Unfortunately, in the hands of lesser men his style all too easily became the Great British identikit Georgian or the pompous public architecture which Jefferson brought to the States.
There is another exhibition, rather halfheartedly hinted at by this current one at the Academy, on the huge influence Palladio has had on those who followed him – it would be a splendid exercise in taste to compare and contrast the master with his greatest followers and with the more numerous journeymen and amateurs.
This is a limited show, but if it makes you want to catch the Orient Express and run down to the Veneto it is probably a success. A cheaper option would be to watch Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni, recently remastered on DVD. This is set in some of Palladio’s greatest buildings, though not the churches, and gives a sense of how we might move in them and experience the volumes and proportions which Palladio so ably contrived. Quite properly Losey made Palladio’s finest house, La Rotonda, the home of Don Giovanni.
Today La Rotonda stands as a very large suburban villa, but when built it was a palace of intellectual and sensual delight, the ideal place for its monsignore owner to hold civilized parties. How many clergy and cultivated folk have envied Fr Paolo Almer-ico’s money and good sense which gave Palladio a free hand and the world a template for architectural sense and sensibility.
The £3.50 guide for students and teachers provides a handy introduction to Palladio’s life and work.
BRITISH MUSEUM ONLINE CATALOGUE OF PRINTS AND DRAWINGS
London is not the centre of the universe, but it is the best place in the country for prints. This is because members of the general public may apply to the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum to see one of finest collections of prints ever assembled. And now access is even easier via the internet. The Museum’s complete catalogue of prints and drawings can be visited via
This makes the collection one of the most easily accessed in the world, much easier than the Louvre or the Vienna Kunsthistoriches. In time we can expect other collections to catch up, but the British Museums web catalogue is good news for today because of the extent of the collection, and because the size and shape of prints and drawings often works particularly well on a computer.
This worldwide access to a major collection fits in with the Museums renewed sense of purpose. Indeed, for the first time in many years the British Museum is making its purpose known to the general public – as the mission statement has it, it is a ‘museum of the world, for the world.’ And in Sir Neil MacGregor the Museum has a Director who is perhaps the one Scotsman other than Chris Hoy who is unanimously revered by the worlds Press. Under ‘Saint Neil’ (as he has been affectionately known since his days in charge of the National Gallery, where his popular ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition was one of the few major publicly sponsored events in recent times to promote, albeit indirectly, the Christian faith), the idea that the Museum be the ‘memory of mankind’ has taken life in an ad fontes return to the Enlightenment vision of its founder, Sir Hans Sloane.
Today once again the collection is presented as a place where we and all mankind can compare and contrast civilizations for our entertainment and the overcoming of blind prejudice – and all for the price of a ticket to Bloomsbury Furthermore, MacGregor has undergirded this vision with a museum diplomacy which reaches out a hand of friendship to regimes which are often understandably suspicious of Western cultural ‘imperialism’; the current Babylon exhibition with artefacts from Iran is just one of the fruits of that diplomacy.
But what of the new online catalogue itself? As we would expect, it is fast. To reach it just type in ‘british museum’ and then click on the ‘Research’ tab. Don’t be distracted by the promise of other catalogues – the Russian Icon one is truly tempting, though proves the point about the suitability of prints for web reproduction. Go rather to ‘Search the collection database.’ This brings you to the main catalogue site. And this, like any academic catalogue, does take a little bit of getting used to, not because of technical quirks, but because of how items are categorized. There is a standard and an advanced search facility and a button to tick to ensure you only see images of pictures rather than catalogue entries of what has not yet been photographed. In theory if you have the museum number of the item you want you can find it directly, though I didn’t have much luck there.
The advanced search allows you to look up items by category and it is worth experimenting with what those categories can include. If you want to find Rembrandt prints, the easiest way is to type in ‘Rembrandt’ and ‘print’, but it helps to know whether you want a picture in dry point or woodblock, simply because there are so many items to look at. Don’t let that put anybody off – the catalogue is straightforward to use. And with a little imagination not only can you view the complete oeuvre of Diirer or Rembrandt, you can look at what prints were being made across the whole world in 1510, or images of Christ in late seventeenth-century France, or whatever takes your fancy.
Then, and most importantly, there is the quality of the reproductions. I compared Hiroshige’s ‘Takashi Beach, Izumi Province’ in its web version and in the original, currently on display in the Japan Gallery. And the comparison is excellent. The colours are very faithful and have that fresh, saturated quality of good condition nineteenth-century Japanese prints. Definition was sharp, with the lettering and the watered silk effect in some of the colours faithfully reproduced. A random sample of other prints gave a similar result, though clarity at the edges in some cases was poor.
The publicity for the site suggests that the quality of the reproductions is so good as to be equal to seeing the original. That is hype since the physicality of the original – its thingness – is lost on a screen. Nevertheless, as a study aid for anyone doing GCSE Art or above, or as a way to become familiar with an artists printed oeuvre, or as a stimulus for the curious, the site is a magnificent resource. The less high-minded will also find many and varied desktop backgrounds and illustrations for parish news-sheets.
OF THE FOREIGN WOMAN
IN PROVERBS 1-9
A study of the origin and development of a biblical motif Nancy Nam Hoon Tan Walter de Gruyter, 240pp, hbk 978 3 11 020063 8, €68
A thoroughly worthwhile book, and a welcome addition to the literature. Back in the 1980s, feminism came up with a whole range of new I questions to put before the — Scriptures, and these were treated with originality, panache and the excitement of the new. After a while, the energy waned, and these womanly topics became subservient to the hermeneutic of suspicion and other deadening orthodoxies. Perhaps now the pendulum is swinging back to proper scholarship: certainly this work is an excellent example of such a trend.
The majestic opening essay of the book of Proverbs (early post-exilic in composition) offers us the female figure of Wisdom in all her attractive and beguiling personae. In contrast to her, we find the still more tempting figure of… That’s the point. Who is this woman? The N.RS ^translates 7.5, for example, as ‘that they may keep you from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words,’ and yet admits in the notes that the terms in the Hebrew are strange woman and ‘foreign woman!
What if the Hebrew was meant literally? Tan argues that the writer was warning clearly and specifically against foreign, i.e. non-Jewish women, in much the same way that Ezra was doing at the same time. It is not, in other words, a generalized text heavy with patriarchal loathing of women, but a specific concern of a particular period, patriarchal perhaps but real enough. This is not a particularly original thesis, but the thoroughness of the argument is convincing.
What it suggests is that, at least for this key text, the Wisdom literature is not a separate and timeless genre, unconnected to the historical and prophetic books: it is as much caught up with the social and political concerns as were the other types of Old Testament writing. If I had doubts about some of the details of her thesis, I have certainly been persuaded by this argument, of the socio-political engagement of the genre.
The integrity of the post-exilic community, slowly re-establishing itself within the Persian Empire, was of central importance: the dispersal of property to foreigners or the introduction of alien religious practices were as keenly felt by this Wisdom writer as it had been by the Deuteronomic writers who condemned Solomon for his foreign wives.
Having described the problem and the person, Tan turns to Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, as the archetype of this dangerous foreigner. What a woman! Original subject of Psalm 45, now used for Marian feasts, arch-persecutor of the prophets, and now prime example of the destroyer of the settled, stable, pious, moral society. Some lady! But note well: in all the invective, she was never accused of adultery; there was a moral integrity to this most hated of women.
Intimidatingly thorough (for the lay reader), this book proved to be a warm and sympathetic study, with an unexpected sensitivity for an emerging community. But if the foreign woman was not ‘really’ an adulterer, where did the idea come from? Tan never mentions that early and shockingly-chauvinist (but savagely witty) proverb [30.20] ‘This is the way of an adulteress: she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says, T have done nothing wrong’.’
Edited by Calvin Kendall
Liverpool University, 370pp, pbk 978 184631 088 1, £18.50
Another welcome addition to the most valuable ‘Translation Texts for Historians’ series from the Liverpool University Press. This is the first English translation of the Venerable Bede’s verse by verse commentary on the first book of the Bible. This is an important text. It is at times a little rushed (Kendall gives a convincing suggestion as to the cause) and there are several passages quoted direct from Augustine; nevertheless there is much that shines with Bede’s biblical genius.
Genesis is, for Bede, a work of science, for in it we can read the essential principles and laws of the created order. This is the foundation document of God’s revelation of his creation. For this reason, we cannot expect to find the experimental empiricism of what we now understand as the essence of science, but the careful observation, the accumulation of evidence, the painstaking search for order, and the resolution of apparent anomalies and contradictions, all these are here to an unexpected degree.
We belittle our forebears at our peril. It is true that Bede has a vision of the world that is teleological (with a purpose and a goal) and this he receives from revelation; and so he lacks the richness of experimental testing and hypothesizing, which we now regard as the sine qua non of all science. But his careful observation, his close reading of the text, and above all his meticulous mathematical analysis means that this is a genuine scientific work. His capacity to extract the underlying order and transform it into mathematical language is the foundation of that European thought that, centuries later, became the science we now know.
There is something almost archaeological in this biblical commentary from the year 720. His description of time, in his discussion of the third ‘day’ of creation, is breath-taking. This comes from a distant, almost alien culture, and yet it blazes with glorious insights. We need imagination to make the dry shards speak, but they do speak! There is nothing as powerful as in his scientific masterwork, The Reckoning of Time, but the passing acknowledgement of the various problems in the context of these well-known texts adds a great deal to an understanding ofhis broader work.
And to read his description of the earth as a sphere – this from eighth century Tyneside, on the very edge of the known world, at a time when the early Muslim invasions threatened to swallow up the relics of the old Roman empire – gives an altogether different perspective on what we more usually consider as the Dark Ages.
And then there is his moral theme – of exile and pilgrimage. This foundation text of the world presents us the complete and ordered vision of the first Sabbath, but it also presents with story after story of the dispersal of men and women across the earth. From Babel to Abraham to the birth of Isaac and the sending away of Ishmael and his mother (where he ends his commentary) we are presented with this picture of our life here on earth, as one of no abiding city. This, suggests Bede, is where we are, and civilization (the city) is threatened. But in the Church, and especially in its monastic form, we find the context in which we can walk towards the final rest in heaven.
BUT IS IT REAL?
Answering ten common objections
to the Christian faith
IVP, 136pp, pbk
978 1844743018, £6.99
Sometimes you wonder if those who answer supposedly common objections to Christianity have their finger on the pulse of our detractors. Some apologetic work could be dismissed for answering questions no one is asking. Few Christian apologists are bold enough to take on secularist presuppositions head on, though a few have crossed swords recently with Richard Dawkins in print and open debate.
This latest production under the IVP banner rattles swords around secularism but rather falls short of an onslaught upon it. It is nevertheless helpful in providing several lines to assist Christians in answering for the rationality of their belief.
Amy Orr-Ewing of Zacharias Trust is well known in New Wine circles and married to a Peckham parish priest. There is amusing reference to a local gang dropping guns for knives as a naive expression of Christian faith! The book comes from rich pastoral experience and from an Evangelicalism that knows God for real and labours to invite readers into that saving knowledge. Key words throughout the book are relational and experiential, set under the title But is it real? A major theme is how so much of the argument for Christ is lost by the hypocrisy of Christians. Bertrand Russell is said to have been put off by their bleak moralism. Gandhi contrasted Christ with his followers. Voltaire cited the intolerance of Christians as inconsistent with the theory of Christianity. Amy Orr-Ewing naturally puts the other side, noting how Freud himself lamented the failure of the psychoanalysis he had expected to change the world. Antony Flews book There is a God represents the eloquent testimony of a former atheist.
A description by Richard Dawkins of God as petty and megalomaniacal, among another fourteen negative epithets is engaged with, though Dawkins makes clear this is the way he sees God in the Old Testament and admits Christ tempers this. Dismissing a God that is your own misconstruction looks mischievous but is only natural, especially if believers project him so. Dawkins perhaps requires a fuller answer than this book gives to his case against God.
But is it real? is a good marshalling of quotations and authorities from right across the church, including Thomas Aquinas’ defence of hell as an infinite punishment proportional to an infinite God. It centres on the defence of the resurrection which, once accepted, provides a wholly new understanding of the way things are. The book starts by comparing religions, pointing to Buddhist flight from a personal God and Muslim reserve about the experience of God. These comparisons serve to highlight what is seen as desirable and distinctive about the God and Father of Jesus who is both relational and to be intimately experienced.
RECENT HISTORY BOOKS
There has been a splurge of good history books published recently, so much so that it is difficult to keep up despite a rigorous regime of reading. Fortunately, the books noticed here have given immense pleasure.
Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin [Viking, £10.99] was published a couple of years ago (and inexcusably missed by this reviewer) but has come back into prominence because it was chosen by President Obama almost as a template for his Cabinet construction. It is a good choice. President Obama has an eloquence that is reminiscent of Lincoln, as well as Martin Luther King, and time will tell if he reaches a similar political and historical eminence.
Lincoln is an immensely attractive figure. He has been the subject of much hagiographical writing but has survived that and remains engaging in his psychological complexity and political compromises. He came to the presidency at the most dangerous of times for the continuation of the Union after a divisive convention and splits and bad blood spilling into the political arena. He sought to avert the impending Civil War and did so, in part, by bringing into his administration some ofhis rivals on the campaign trail, some of whom had been highly disobliging about him, not only politically but personally. He showed the same degree of magnanimity as he would have shown to the defeated Southern Confederacy had he lived.
All these rivals, William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bate, Edwin Stanton, who thought themselves a cut above the tall, stooping backs-woodsman born in a log cabin, and others, came to like him and There has been a splurge of good history books published recently, so much so that it is difficult to keep up despite a rigorous
to respect him, so much so that Seward and he became firm friends and Seward was horrendously wounded in the concerted assassination attempt, and Stanton stood at Lincoln’s deathbed and at the last breath gave the first eulogy, ‘Now he belongs to the ages’, as tears flowed down his face, tears which he continued to shed daily for some considerable time afterwards.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has written the best kind of narrative history. She has a good story to tell and tells it with verve, panache and insight. It is a familiar story and although she provides no new evidence, she makes it consistently interesting, fresh and illuminating. Her judgements are clear and consistent, firm and fair. Lincoln was no secular saint but a politician of consummate skill, possessed of a powerful intellect, and his achievement is all the more remarkable given a natural degree of melancholy, if not a markedly depressive streak, and a high degree of tragedy in his private life.
To coincide with the apotheosis of President Obama, the BBC has been broadcasting a lively and reputable history of America that is a first-rate survey stretching over ninety episodes: only radio has that nerve nowadays. America, Empire of Liberty: a New History by David Reynolds [Allen Lane/Penguin Press, £30] is the book of the series, but it is much more than that. It is a magnificent achievement. Inevitably in such a broad sweep, there will be omissions or some aspects will not receive the fulsome treatment that some experts might wish. But as an introduction to the history of this young (a fact not to be forgotten) and polymorphous society, it is difficult to think how it could be bettered.
One of the strands that Dr Reynolds brings out with clarity is the role of religion in American life. The Republic was forged in the Age of the Enlightenment and those who signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the Constitution were products of that ghastly philosophical spasm. Sceptical of, or even disbelieving of orthodox religion, they were at pains to create a separation of Church and State. This they achieved in the formal statutes of the Republic, but they did not succeed in integrating it with the ethos imported by the first settlers who were, by and large, dissident Nonconformists and Protestants who had sought to escape from the fetters of institutional religion of I the Old World. This Evangelical heritage has run through American society and the I body politic and America I has seen a series of religious I revivals that have impressed themselves on politics. Much of America’s emphasis on individual rights, the I sense that the American I dream is within the grasp I of everyman, the value of individual responsibility, ” springs from that religious heritage. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it gave a distinctly democratic and progressive aspect to American history. The Evangelical effect is rather different now. All this and more is to be found in this multi-layered and magnificently sweeping history.
Coming back to the Old World, specifically to Europe in the years 400 to 1000, we find that Penguin and Allen Lane have added another excellent volume to their ‘History of Europe’ series. The Inheritance of Rome: a History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham [Allen Lane/Penguin, £35] is as near an authoritative view of this period as we are likely to have. As historians are wont to say, this is not my period, a little early for me, so I approach it more as a general reader than an expert in the field. Without any loss of scholarly rigour, nor any diminution of context and historical debate, nor lack of opinion, this is an appealing and enjoyable book.
Shades of Gibbon cannot ever be completely banished but nor do they constrain. There is not the grand vision of increasing degeneracy that Gibbon provided but rather an accessible survey of a complicated political and cultural history with an integrity of its own. Within the broad themes there is ample opportunity taken for sharply etched portraits or pitch-perfect details that illustrate the wider picture. From Charlemagne to the Caliphate, from Rome to Baghdad, Wickham shows the transformations, changes, twists and turns of the continent’s history. As the
centres of power shifted and new polities evolved, as the forces of change and stability clashed, as they always did and do, we can appreciate the details of the drama without losing a sense of direction.
If the heart sinks at the thought of yet another book on the Civil War (or Wars, as this book’s title rightly and delicately reminds us), The English Civil Wars 1640-1660 by Blair Worden [Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £12.99] should be reassuring. It is short, a mere 192 pages. Yet it is by far the best summary of this much-rehearsed period that I have read (and I am back on my territory). We are in the hands of one of the acknowledged experts of the period, whose writings have always been impressively vivid and cogent.
The history of King Charles I, the Interregnum and the Restoration of King Charles II is remarkably complicated. Clashing themes, complex personalities, individual stories of father pitched against son, dizzying religious divisions, demographic change, social and cultural movement, fluid alliances, national differences of temper and temperament mean that we are in a maze that needs some effort and concentration to negotiate.
In Professor Worden we have a sympathetic and steady guide. Within his short compass he does not shy away from the complexity nor reduce the differences to cliche, however much some may crave the certainties of a Ladybird history. To maintain his broad thrust in so few pages, there has been some loss of telling detail; there is little room for the pointillism of the historical picture, but what he gives us is so good that it should drive us back to other more detailed histories.
How marvellous it is that while the hereditary principle is so disdained in the House of Lords, it is alive and well in the House of Commons in that most nouveau of aristocratic of families, the Wedgewood-Benns. It is even more thriving in the literary world, and how good it is that the mere mention of a literary forebear clears the presses for another raid on the rainforests so that the latest pensees of the literary elite may find their way into hard covers, into the bookshops and onto our shelves.
Still pre-eminent are the now ageing, but still sprightly and active at the desk and typewriter (and even the computer screen), family of the Fakenhams of Fakenham. An eighteenth-century Irish creation, for political and literary services to whatever government of the day was in power, Digby Fakenham, an Irish literary adventurer, gained reputation, if not respectability, by his savage satires on whichever party was in opposition. To ‘silence his pen’, as he so aptly put it in his libidinous memoirs, both parties, in a rare degree of solidarity, gave him a peerage, one Irish and one Scottish. He was satisfied and withdrew from public and literary life to live near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, where he died full of years and decay as the old century passed away and the new dawned.
His present descendants still glitter with a literary lustre and can muster some three hundred publications between them, the titles of which escape me. The doyenne is the Lady Ambrosia Fakenham, married to the noted writer and broadcaster Sir Rasselas Johnstone. She secured her reputation with a series of intimate and scholarly biographies of the ninety-seven Ladies in Waiting of Queen Victoria. She found time for much literary journalism, published her diary annually in the Hampstead Literary Journal, marched against the bomb, for fox-hunting, against the Tories, for the miners, against the Tories (again), for Winnie Mandela, for public spending on the arts, particularly a subsidy for historical biography, and against the Tories. She founded the ‘But my dear, isn’t Mrs Thatcher just ghastly, and that Mr Major is just too too common for words Society’ at an elegant champagne and twiglets soiree where the room was awash with cashmere and slub silk skirts.
Lady Bulimia Fakenham writes from her home in the south of France and is the mistress of the bodice-ripper. The shelves of airport termini beg for mercy as another 600-page monster arrives. Breathless prose, more dashes than you could – er – shake a stick at, stories that have more exotic locations than there are in the world, and impossible gorgeous characters. She dictates some 3,000 words a day, for 365 days a year, and only allows herself 29 February every fourth year, as it happens to be her birthday, to rest from this Herculean endeavour for which she has received the Queen’s Award to Small Businesses for three successive years.
Whereas Lady Bulimia never leaves her French chateau, her younger sister, Lady Dementia Fakenham, is never at home. She is the restless travel writer par excellence. She makes Bruce Chatwin and Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux seem like slugabeds, such is her constant pursuit of experience from child-sacrifice in some far-flung jungle to taking tea with the Queen Mother at Clarence House – all is grist to her literary mill and by common consent the prose of Patrick Leigh-Fermor is gauche and scarcely literate in comparison with the bejewelled and chiselled aper-cus of Lady Dementia. Ah Tuscany, how lovely. Such a beautiful place. Such towns. Such villages. Such villas – some owned by my family’ and Ah the Sahara, how vast. Such sand. Such oases. Such tents – some owned by my Bedouin relations’ are some characteristic examples of her insight and her ability to conjure place and imprint it on the reader’s inner eye.
The youngest of the family, now 68, is a denizen of the Harpo Club where he can be found at most hours of the day or night quaffing champagne and dining with the great and the good of modern culture. Lord Fulgentius Fakenham writes the Diary on the London Evening Bugle, where his prose pins celebrities like butterflies on a board for our closer observation. One random paragraph tells all there is to know: ‘The young, vibrant, lively, pop person the Hon. (although we don’t talk about that) Gervaise Smythsmyth-Smythe (aka Gerry Smith) is a lovely young, lively person making his name in the world of pop music. He bought me a lovely lunch of lobster at the Harpo Club. He tells me that grunge is here to stay. Groovy baby’ Not so aristocratic, but a cut above in the literary world, are the Mitten Girls (and boy), those great survivors of the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and now the Noughties. The Hon. Brun-hilde Mitten (‘Did you know the Fuhrer? Such a lovely man. He had a moustache you know. Such style. Wouldn’t harm an animal. Loved music, of course, so cultured. He could whistle the whole of ‘Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg’: they were five glorious hours. I remember them so well.’) writes elegant memoirs about the War and how she made the bunker so elegant. (‘Standards were so important to the Fuhrer. He had a moustache to die for. And so many did, of course. So brave.’) She toured the chat shows of the day immaculately coiffured, with her refined, high-pitched, precise, diamond-sharp voice recounting her anecdotes with finesse and always so tastefully tiptoeing through the minefields of memory. She had the rare ability of the supremely cultured and civilized to make Dachau sound like a stately manor house in the Cotswolds – ‘so like dear Swinebrook, our family seat don’t you know.’
The Hon. Fanny Mitten was a tougher nut. She loathed Brunhilde for her conservative outlook because she was herself drawn to a much freer, more liberated, more tolerant and more accepting form of governance. She was a founding Member of the Socialist Workers Revolutionary Trotsky-Leninist-Spartist-Nihilist anti Collective Cadre Freedom Party (SWRTL-SNACCFR as it was affectionately known) which she ran from her homes in Bel Air, Miami, Cap Ferrat and Cape Cod. Her great hero, to whom she devoted herself, was Josef Stalin. ‘Oh my dear, he had a moustache to die for.’ And she did.
The Hon. Dolly (known as Wally) Mitten wrote the most delightful children’s stories that made the Brothers Grimm seem like Noddy and Big Ears. She was a country girl and also wrote nature notes for several newspapers while she created a garden of great elegance in Dagenham.
The Hon. Wallace (sometimes Wally but usually known in the family as Dolly, not to be mistaken, as he often was, for Dolly, known as Wally) Mitten was a poet of some little talent who sought the Muse in the drinking clubs of Soho. He found many Muses but few were poets. He published two slim volumes before writer’s block struck him. He had been warned not to walk under the scaffolding outside his publishers.
The Hon. Kitten Mitten has enjoyed a reputation in journalism. She is particularly renowned for her interviews with leading literary figures to whom she is related. Occasionally she steps out into non-familial territory. She wrote a series of highly acclaimed profiles on the middle-class Roughs (pronounced Raws) family.
Unipod Rough, Duologue Rough, Trimetre Rough, Quatrain Rough, Pen-tachuch Rough, Sextet Rough, Octavian Rough, Oopssestet Rough, and the twins Nonet and Decimus Rough are all journalists on the Daily Telegram and write columns for The Onlooker. They have all written a novel about an eccentric childhood, all written a biography of an obscure Jesuit, all written a travel book about Patagonia, all written a play about eccentric parents and a libel action, all have written a history of the Rough family, all have written a biography of Ambrosia Fakenham, Bulimia Fakenham, Dementia Fakenham, Fulgentius Fakenham, Brunhilde Mitten, Fanny Mitten, Dolly (Wally) Mitten, Wallace (Wally or Dolly) Mitten, Kitten Mitten, Unipod Rough, Duologue Rough, Trimetre Rough, Quatrain Rough, Pen-tachuch Rough, Sextet Rough, Octavian Rough, Oopssestet Rough and the twins Nonet and Decimus Rough.
[Thurifer Hugh Monsell is away]