The Price of Monet

I really fancy the new Monet exhibition at the National Gallery. When I was last there, an assistant told me that there were going to be seventy five paintings on display, which is quite a lot of Monet. As are the ticket prices, currently being listed as £22 for non-members over the weekend (It’s cheaper during the week, but not much) although members (typically) go free. Clearly, the Gallery intend to make a bit of money out of it, given how popular Monet is.

Once I’d recovered from the shock, I reflected on how I would feel when tickets go on sale for the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate next year – that will be another popular one, I expect. I know I baulked at paying £10 for Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, but (a) I don’t really like Georgia O’Keeffe very much and (b) I detest the Tate Modern. I don’t like Tate Britain much either – it’s very badly organised – but the exhibition spaces are wonderful. Besides which, I would happily pay twice that amount to see Van Gogh’s British paintings.

People are saying that one thing which has to be remembered with this Monet exhibition is the number of paintings being made available – and that many of them have never been seen together. This was the same argument used by the Royal Academy when they had a room full of his Water Lilies – four of which took up entire walls. It really was overwhelming to see, but easily justified the entrance fee, which I think was about £20, and that was over ten years ago.

I suppose the question isn’t really whether £22 is a lot of money to see seventy five Monets, but whether I like Monet enough to pay £22 to see seventy five of them. I’m not sure I do. He’s not Van Gogh, after all.

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A Modern Oliver Twist

Now here’s a scary thought. Take a classic of Victorian literature and without changing the plot substantially, rewrite it in a modern setting. Can’t be done? Unfortunately, the only thing missing from a revamp of Oliver Twist would be the workhouse, and I’m not convinced we’re far away from its return. Pretty much everything else, including the criminal gangs and the magistrates’ courts, haven’t substantially changed. For a book that’s almost 190 years old, I think that’s pretty shocking.

Anyway, following this thought, here’s how it would go. A young pregnant woman, living on the streets, gives birth in hospital but dies in childbirth. The child is placed into foster care initially, and then into a children’s home where he runs away after being abused by the carers. He falls in with a gang of young boys who all share a squat with an older “mentor”, who fences what they steal. Their near neighbours are a prostitute and her partner, a violent burglar. Oliver is arrested for a petty theft he did not commit and is about to be convicted when the prosecution allows that new evidence has come to light indicating that he is innocent. Oliver briefly escapes the gang and lives with philanthropic Mr Brownlow, only to be kidnapped and returned to his former life of crime. However Nancy feels sorry for the boy, who is treated more cruelly than before, and arranges with Mr Brownlow to have Oliver legally returned to live with him., but Sikes discovers the ploy and murders her. Oliver flees, returns to Mr Brownlow only to discover that Brownlow is, in fact, his maternal grandfather and who arranges to adopt him.

That took me slightly less than ten minutes (it only took me that long because I forgot Mr Brownlow’s name and I had to look it up) and, as you can see, I’ve barely tweaked the plot at all. Isn’t it appalling that in two hundred years, such a story could still be told – and be believable? I don’t have solutions to such deep-seated problems, but it strikes me that in all that time, very little has been done to alleviate them. Indeed, the only real difference between the London of Oliver Twist and the London of now is the lack of a workhouse – but instead, we have food banks and charity shops. It’s not really good enough, is it?

Social Media As A Means To Inadequacy

I’ve been unfriended on Facebook again. It happens periodically and often for reasons I never find out, but given that I don’t have a great many friends to start with, I notice. I don’t let it bother me though; there are always reasons and frankly, I don’t let social media govern my life anymore.

I think I read somewhere that the average person has 300 friends on Facebook and roughly 200 followers on Twitter. I believe figures are similar for Instagram and Tumblr, but as I’ve never used those, I can’t comment. I recently deleted my Twitter account (and don’t miss it) but at its maximum I had 50 followers. On Facebook, I have 45 friends and at least two thirds of those are people I’m related to. Followers come, followers go; some block, some just never follow back; some keep turning up like bad pennies no matter how many times you hit the “ignore” button. And if you don’t have many followers, like me, it’s very easy to read things into this that simply aren’t there.

For example, I was recently unfollowed by someone I’d always considered quite a good friend. We’d met in real life, and knew each other really well. I’ve no idea why she’s chosen to unfriend me, but I’m certain there are reasons behind it which will become clear in the fullness of time. It would be very easy to view this as a personal slight, but I don’t. It may just be that I don’t view social media as that important any more. It’s a method I use to keep in touch with people on a regular basis that is cheaper than the phone, quicker than a letter and often more entertaining when animal photos are involved.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring one’s popularity by the number of “likes” or “retweets” one gets on social media; but that’s not a true measure of popularity at all. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself, and it’s been a cause of great pain and upset in the past. It’s really important to remember that there is more to life than social media. In fact, there’s an entire world that doesn’t involve a computer screen. Revolutionary I know, but I’ll share one nugget of wisdom with you – since I’ve stopped measuring my life by social media, I feel a whole lot less inadequate.

You’ve Seen the Film, Now Read the Dratted Book!

There’s another version of Murder on the Orient Express doing the rounds as I write this – it’s been out a while and if it’s not yet out on DVD it soon will be – and I’ve just got round to reading The Hound of the Baskervilles after having seen at least three different film versions. Although I’m fairly sure I’ve commented before (if not on here then on social media) about Hollywood seemingly running out of ideas and filming the same things over and over, I do wonder if it’s possible to enjoy a novel if you’ve only ever seen the films.

I’ve been quite lucky in one sense, because I had read both Hound of the Baskervilles and Murder on the Orient Express before I remember seeing the films (thanks to my gran being a classic crime lover) but as both of these have been filmed numerous times I expect that I am very much in the minority. When I did see the films, I saw what have become classic versions – Peter Cushing as Holmes and Peter Ustinov as Poirot – so again, I was very lucky. (I felt even luckier when I saw the Basil Rathbone version of Hound of the Baskervilles – he’s still my favourite Holmes).

Even now, if I find out that a novel is being filmed (or has been filmed) I try and read the book first. I’ve put off seeing films for years so that I can get the book read – I couldn’t watch A Passage to India for years because I did the book at A level and simply couldn’t face puzzling out what happened at the Malabar Caves. Great Expectations was another one it took me years to get round to, but that was because I wanted to throttle Pip every time he appeared on screen.

However, there is a glaring exception to this general rule of thumb, and that is John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps. I’ve now seen three different versions of this (Robert Donat, Kenneth Moore and Rupert Penry-Jones) and still haven’t got round to reading the book. I’m not sure now whether I want to; there are such differences between each of the movies that if it doesn’t appear in the book I will probably feel a bit let down – and the book isn’t the thickest.

So my question remains unanswered. If you’ve seen a film – especially one that’s a remake of an earlier version – can you enjoy the book afterwards?

Gothic but not Gothic – Again

A bit of a variation on this theme actually. When I previously wrote about Alias Grace, I considered it to be a novel that covered many Gothic themes but without being considered a Gothic novel. This time I’m swapping things around and looking at a novel which many consider to be Gothic but which I don’t believe is actually Gothic at all. That novel is Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is very easy to see why many people consider this to be a Gothic novel. It does have certain – shall we say – spooky elements; the bleak and desolate moors, a large spectral hound and a family curse. However, there are important elements missing which I think are quite crucial to a Gothic novel; these are the large house which itself plays a role in the plot, and a damsel in distress, which in turn necessitates a brave hero to defeat the villain.

In Conan Doyle’s hands, everything changes. Baskerville Hall, although mentioned and described, plays little role in the plot with most of the action taking place on or around the moors. There is no damsel in distress – the family curse affects Sir Henry Baskerville who, by modern standards, may be a bit of a drip was at the time probably quite an average young man and by no means considered sickly or pathetic. The hero of the piece is, of course, Holmes, but he is hardly a Gothic hero by any means.

I think it’s the moorland setting that allows it to be compared with (say) Wuthering Heights, which is a Gothic classic, or the “spectral” hound which definitely adds a spooky feel. Unfortunately, since Holmes is involved, there is a much less supernatural explanation to both the dog and the family curse, depleting any further Gothic element that the novel may have had.

Perhaps this is why, much as I love Holmes and much as I love Gothics, this doesn’t seem to fit right. It’s been part of my Gothic Book Group for a while, but unlike some of the other books we’ve looked at, I’ve really struggled to write about this one. It’s taken me some time to come to terms with the fact that actually, it’s not a Gothic at all – it’s just a very good book.

Mummies Are More Fun in Egypt

A pleasant afternoon was spent a while ago watching a classic Hammer horror film – The Mummy’s Shroud, made in 1967. To my mind, it’s testament of how times have changed; when it was made, it would have been at least a 15 certificate and certainly not shown on telly before the watershed. These days, it’s barely a PG and on the telly at one o’clock in the afternoon. The offspring, although not quite a teenager, deemed it to be completely not scary, and I have to agree.

One thing, though; in comparing The Mummy’s Shroud with its predecessor, The Mummy (which starred Christopher Lee but is essentially the same story if truth be told), keeping the action in Egypt was a smart move. For one thing, it makes the murder investigation seem a little more plausible. The bulk of the action is set in 1920, at a time when Egyptology was still very fashionable but before the great Egyptian craze that was sparked by Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun. It’s a fairly standard plot, yet another variation on the curse of the Pharaoh (i.e. death and destruction fall on all who desecrate the sacred tombs) but with the variation of the curse actually being embroidered on the late Pharaoh’s shroud.

However, unlike the earlier movie, The Mummy’s Shroud is set in a town just outside of Cairo – near enough to the sea for boat passage to England to be available, but near enough the desert for lost tombs to be a feasible possibility and within searching distance. It’s also noticeable that at no point in the movie do pyramids feature (and I was careful to check the scenery as well) and there is a wonderful cosmopolitan atmosphere, a mix of Arabs and westerners mingling next to the relics in the museum. And I don’t just mean the cleaner.

I really think that keeping the action in Egypt is a great thing for this film; the inability of the characters to return to England (at the police’s insistence) adds to the sense of claustrophobia which is increased by the tomb and the villainous fortune teller. In places, it’s genuinely creepy but it’s soon mitigated by being really quite daft. It’s a great film, with a suitably villainous hero and a reasonably justifiable villain. It’s just a shame that the original story didn’t really merit the sequels it spawned.

Renoir – La Loge

Let’s get the formalities over with straight away. I loathe this picture. I really, really do not like it. I don’t think it has ever been on a chocolate box, but to me that’s where it belongs. It’s all misty edged and slightly sepia toned and would look really good with magnolia walls and chintz upholstery.

All that to one side – it’s a really interesting painting. The title translates as “The Theatre Box” and shows a glamorous young couple (modelled by the artist’s brother and a model named Nini Lopez)are seated in their box in the theatre, yet neither of them appear to be paying much attention to what’s happening onstage. The woman has lowered her opera glasses, all the better to be seen by onlooking admirers; and he has raised his opera glasses towards the interior of the theatre, obviously seeing who else is watching this play – or not, as the case may be.

In late 19th century Paris, the theatre was as much a place to see and be seen as it was a place to watch dramatic performances. It was a booming business, especially prior to the advent of cinema, and the increasing wealth of the middle classes meant that they could now mix in social arenas from which they were previously excluded. The theatre boxes and balcony seats were the preferred options for “stage door Johnnies”, young men keen to make the acquaintances of the actresses (shall we say). It was also a favourite of glamorous young women in their best dresses to show themselves off to their advantage as the female figure in this painting appears to be doing.

Bug Ugly!

Don’t panic – this isn’t anything like as large as it looks. The acorn weevil is tiny and can often only be seen under a microscope – which given how it looks, is probably no bad thing. Have you ever seen a more peculiar creature? It reminds me of nothing more than a medieval plague doctor.

At the end of the weevil’s beak are two tiny pincers which it uses to bore a hole into the side of a young acorn. It lays its eggs inside the kernel and as both the acorns and larvae grow, the larvae will eat their way out of the acorn leaving just a shell. Infested acorns are easily spotted by the tiny holes in the kernel. What with the weevils and the gall wasps, it’s amazing any intact acorns actually manage to become oak trees!

I must admit that when I first saw the acorn weevil, I was fascinated by the large round eyes and tiny little beige hairs covering its face. It looks like some kind of cute alien. It’s the angled antennae on the beak that fascinate me; that must be a unique feature. It’s not one I’ve seen before and I’m not entirely sure of their purpose – any resident entomologists out there who could explain it for me?

That said, acorn weevils are a pest and if you have an oak tree, it might be an idea to keep an eye on any fruits it produces as the grubs will hibernate underground before developing into adults and climbing into the trees to cause their havoc.

The Gall of the Oak

I love trees. That’s not really news if you know me, nor is it news that I am often finding little oak seedlings growing in my garden due to forgetful squirrels and jays. However, watching a recent documentary on the BBC led me to realise how little I actually knew about this wonderful plant. Out of a host of wonderful and amazing things, the oak gall must be one of the most fascinating.

Oak galls are formed when tiny wasps – the oak gall wasp, unsurprisingly – lays its egg in the female flower of an oak tree. As the flowers are what form the acorn, as they develop, instead of forming acorns the flowers turn into huge, strangely shaped growths from which the larvae of the wasp grow and finally hatch. It is not unusual to find a twig containing three or four acorns and at least one gall. The other acorns will be unaffected.

What I did find interesting is that there is more than one species of gall wasp, and each species creates a uniquely shaped gall. Some are round and quite plain, others have offshoots that look like tentacles. There are quite a few distinct species of gall wasp in Europe and America, so lots of galls to collect if you fancy an unusual hobby.

Oak galls were also used to make ink; and this ink proved to be incredibly important to historians. By crushing oak galls and combining them with iron sulphate and a binding agent, a dark blue-black ink is created which not only darkens over time but is quite permanent. From the earliest years of writing legal documents, this ink was used to create a permanent record and is still used today in the form of “registration ink” – this is what is used to write birth, marriage and death certificates.

It is striking how something that is a pest to a tree can actually produce something so useful and – when you explore the variety of oak galls – unusual. If I hadn’t watched this documentary, I would never have known just how varied and fascinating the product of the oak gall wasp could be.

A Mistranslated Title?

I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.

The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.

Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).

Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.

I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.

Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.