22 December 2014

Joe Cocker

You Are So Beautiful......

What would you do if I sang out of tune?  

Cancer strikes again......

Sithee, Joe.

Whatever you say.  Whatever emotion boils then subsides there is nothing to do.  A certain finality has taken away the options.

Sheffield had its moments, but the Joe moments were long gone, already.....

Cry me a river, but then again....  Smile once more, turn thy wheel....

When we were young, Joe sang for us all.  His heart was strong.  The songs cut through our listlessness.  Get me a ticket for an aeroplane...  All the lonely days are gone.....

Here, there, and everywhere, the sounds were universal. Staggering onto, and off, stage, drug struck or not, sick or perhaps, he gave better than he got.  Songs charged with love.... not sick with emotion.  My life was uplifted.  Chris Stainton managed the keys.  But he has gone too.

Oh you're mine yes you're mine.....

Many rivers to cross....

And it's only my will, that keeps me alive.......

It's such a drag to be on your own.....

Yeah, it was going to happen.  Seventy incautious years and what do you expect?  We will just roll right out of here, when the night comes.....  But the reaper cuts deep, sometimes when unexpected. 

Thank you Joe for the songs, the performances.  Your life overshadowed mine, ours, and thank you for that.

I hope the future is as good as the past

I tried too hard to reach you
But you must be moving fast
All my hopes about the future
Will just live on
Into the past

12 December 2014

Rembrandt van Rijn

Self Portrait

Betsy Wieseman, Curator of Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery (until January 18th, 2015), says:

Rembrandt exhibition banner

Even three-and-a-half centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to astonish and amaze. His technical inventions, and his profound insight into human emotions, are as fresh and relevant today as they were in the 17th century.

The works in this exhibition are amazing. Rembrandt’s later years were turbulent and marked with controversy, but they also produced some of his most soulful, deeply moving and strikingly modern works.  

Laura Cumming, writing in The Observer on October 19th, said this: We see Rembrandt as the outstanding chronicler of the human face, daily altered by experience..... Tenderest of all is The Jewish Bride, the man and woman whose names are lost but whose love survives.  One sees them as distinct individuals, profoundly observed with their generous faces, but that loving gesture - his hand on her breast, hers gently covering it - seem to exceed portraiture so that the picture becomes a secular altarpiece, an inspiration to patience, humility and kindness.

The man's sleeve, with its heavy jewellery of impasto nubs catching the light is one of the most famous passages of painting in art and to see it here is to understand why people crossed Europe to witness the way Rembrandt turned paint into gold.....

He also turned paint into blood, and the two paintings here displayed of Lucretia, who killed herself in front of her father and husband after confessing that she had been raped by Tarquinius, are amongst the most emotionally disturbing I have ever seen.  The first, painted in 1664, shows her about to stab herself, her eyes red with tears, 

her left hand held up to hold back the watchers.  The second picture, painted two years later, shows her having withdrawn the dagger from her body.  

There is nothing like this bloodstain in all the countless martyrdoms of baroque painting.... wrote Simon Schama in The Guardian on October 17th;  nothing that pulses quietly and fatally out of an unseen wound. Rembrandt has even made the folds of Lucretia's shift hang forward on either side of the wound, while between them, in a saturated depression, as if rehearsing the site of her rape, the blood-soaked fabric clings wetly to her skin.

As Laura Cumming said, Rembrandt's imagination can get into the heart of any human life.  He paints the darkest deeds and the deepest emotions, the highest grace and the worst sorrow, and he finds mercy for all, including himself.

In 1999 the National Gallery held an exhibition entitled Rembrandt by Himself, which brought together over sixty of Rembrandt's at least seventy (possibly eighty) Self Portraits. This was my introduction to the artist, and seeing these works as a group, the paintings, etchings and drawings formed a unique composite portrait  created over a period of forty years.   

Self-Portrait of the artist on the edge of one of his drawings

It was an extraordinary glimpse of a world; of a life. One of a Leiden Miller's seven children, when Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born, Shakespeare was only 42, and it would be over a century before Samuel Johnson arrived; Caravaggio was alive and Titian had only been dead thirty years. When Rembrandt died in 1669, London was being recreated from the smoking ruins of the Great Fire, and plague was rife in the Netherlands.

The Self Portrait was a relatively new idea, largely because of developments in mirror technology. Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man in a Turban (1433) may have been the first self portrait on a panel. Rembrandt painted The Artist in His Studio on a wood panel in 1629, when he was only 23.  It is an intriguing picture, dominated by the back of an easel, and with more attention given to chipped and crumbling plaster on the wall than to his own face, where his eyes are like currants planted in the gingerbread face (Simon Schama). 

A great deal has been written about Rembrandt, and about his Self Portraits, and we know that it was customary to practise portraiture by studying expressions, and by dressing up and copying oneself - it saved time and money and all the hassle of employing models. But Rembrandt's visual chronicles of his own ageing and decay are not the result of economic stringency - though he knew enough of them by the end of his days.

For an artist, the eye is the most important organ. Rembrandt portrayed blindness (Homer, Tobit, Samson) and partial blindness (Claudius Civilis) but this would have been impossible without his vision. He also drew metaphorical blindness, as in his Satire on Art Criticism (1644) where the venomous critic has dropped his pair of glasses at his feet.

So it is reasonable to think that Rembrandt thought about ways of seeing.  He may not have ever seen a work by El Greco, who died in 1614, but he would have realised through his own work that artists see things differently from others - indeed, there is no surety that what anyone sees is exactly what another perceives.  The physical production of colour was an integral part of a painter's work, but as he also worked with pen and ink, chalk, washes, etching and dry point, he knew that creative art played with light and dark, as much as with green or red. And he also knew that in making a two-dimensional representation of something with three dimensions he was distorting reality.

So when he posed in front of his mirror, and stared at himself staring at himself, was he staring into his soul?  Or was he, through the trick of reflection, staring at the voyeur?  Was he examining himself?  Or was the outside onlooker his real subject?

We can see in his self portraits that he knew it was difficult to portray his own hands, as they were active in the production of the picture (and therefore often blurred, or hidden), and we know that the confusion of reflected left to right was taken into account,  What we don't know is what he was thinking, nor what he really saw.

Towards the end of his life he produced what some claim to be his masterpiece - the Kenwood Portrait. In this self portrait he stands before a wall on which we see two circles. One theory is that he is here representing the perfect circle, as drawn by Giotto to convince his pope that he was the finest artist.  It is a mark that only a human can make, and only a highly skilled human at that.

But the circles are also the cycle of life and death, and the never-ending nature of God.  They are also eyes, looking over Rembrandt's shoulder, looking at us.

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian on November 21st, 2013, asserted that His eyes contain  so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures.....

He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending - but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam.  Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity.  Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.

In reviewing the current exhibition at the National Gallery for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones also wrote that Rembrandt learned so much from his failures, his humiliations.  He learned that we are all equal......

And that is why Rembrandt looks us in the eye, perhaps with love.  Jenny Judge, also writing in The Guardian, this October, said that He wanted us to remember him -  as an artist, certainly, but also as a man; bereaved, lonely perhaps, but undeniably proud.  This is why Simon Schama calls him an everyman; in his face, so carefully detailed, we see countless other personae.  We look at him, as he looks at us, and we feel that we understand him.

As Laura Cumming explained, Rembrandt in the dying months, the last light in his eyes, still makes himself felt in the astonishing brushwork - distressed, perfunctory, thickening in skeins or wearing fine as skin, slow, pensive, or majestically resurgent, always rising to meet the human condition.....

The final paintings are monuments of truth. Dark and knotted images that close in on many faces..... From them we learn what it is to be alone, broken-hearted, stricken, contemplative, if we don't already know it.....


[photos taken on my eye-phone from the TV]

6 December 2014

RSPB Haweswater

Bird.  Watching.

I am in Riggindale, above the head of Haweswater, in the Lake District National Park, Cumbria.  The light is fading fast and low clouds swathe the crags.  Somewhere up there a Golden Eagle sits, quietly minding his own business, possibly watching me, though his indifference may be as massive as the fells.

This unseen watcher is the last remaining Golden Eagle in England, and he has lived on these rocks since 2001.  A pair first nested here in 1969, probably attracted by the remoteness of the area and by a supply of deer, sheep and rabbits, and since then sixteen eaglets have fledged, reared by a changing combination of adult birds.  Until 2004 this male had the company of a mate, though they were unsuccessful in breeding.  Now he is middle-aged, and his springtime displays seem less enthusiastic, though perhaps hope springs eternal even in the aquiline mind.

It is rugged country, sculpted over 450 million years by ice and water from rocks of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group.  The Romans came here, using High Street, which reaches 2,500 feet above sea level, as a main thoroughfare between forts at Brougham (near Penrith) and Ambleside.  

Since then farmsteads grew up around the shore of an earlier Haweswater, which was divided into two smaller lakes by rubble brought down by the Measand Beck.  The communities of Mardale and Measand eventually had a church, the Dun Bull Inn and a school, and roads skirted either side of the valley.  

Then, after the First World War, a law was passed giving the Manchester Corporation the right to dam the valley to create a reservoir, and, after compulsory purchase orders and demolition of the existing buildings, construction of the barrage began in 1929.  The dam, completed in 1935, raised the water level by almost thirty metres and the reservoir, which, when full, is now over four miles long and half a mile wide, provides about a quarter of the needs of north-western England, supplying fresh water to some two million people.  

The catchment area for the reservoir now belongs to United Utilities PLC, which holds the freehold of sixteen agricultural tenancies that still exist in the vicinity, including Swindale and Naddle (Neat-dale) farms, currently leased to the RSPB. A further portion of these fells is common land, and the total area owned by United Utilities is approximately 10,000 hectares, which amounts to 4% of the Lake District National Park. 

In 1996, the RSPB was here to protect the eyrie during the nesting period and to engage with people who showed an interest. Now, working in partnership with United Utilities, and with the local communities, the RSPB aims to enhance biodiversity (the variety and variability of life on earth) and to improve raw water quality through the restoration of degraded upland habitats.  

The principle issue here is that in the last two hundred years the main land use has been sheep grazing.  Generations of local people have known relatively little else and so they have built up a reserve of associated skills and correspondingly inherited a conservative resistance to innovation or change. However, the situation is not straightforward: sheep farming is notoriously uneconomical and it is shored up by the Common Agricultural Policy, whose subsidies alone enable hill farmers to continue, although there is no guarantee that the next generation will carry on the tradition nor any security that the CAP will continue (what if the UK were to leave the EU?)

With this in mind, the RSPB has a vision for British uplands, which involves a reduced emphasis on intensive agriculture and an increased focus on delivering a range of public services, which will include improved water quality, richer wildlife habitats, preventing flooding and tackling climate change.

So the current mission of the RSPB at Haweswater is to develop a good practice model of sustainable upland management, and therefore it is working to partially reforest the area with native broadleaf woodland; to refine livestock management practice and to realise the landscape's eco-tourism potential. Overall, despite scepticism on the part of the Federation of Cumbrian Commoners and others, the RSPB fervently wishes to strengthen the resilience of the local economy through job creation and improvements in commerce.

What the RSPB would like to see here is one of the richest sites for biodiversity in the Lake District, with a secure environment for populations of ring ouzels, pied flycatchers, redstarts, red squirrels, mountain ringlet butterflies and whinchats, as well, perhaps, as golden eagles.....

Ideally the uplands will support a variety of habitats and plant communities, and watercourses will pursue natural and dynamic behaviours. Without damage to the environment tens of thousands of visitors will be able to enjoy the wild landscapes every year, and people will be able to understand the true value of the land.

The work here is varied, and, as a residential volunteer I am involved in the daily life of this complex undertaking. Fencing, or defencing, plays a large part in the activity at this time of year, so among other things we carry posts and rails up steep slopes to fabricate exclosures which will provide evidence as to the effects of grazing by sheep and deer. Juniper (juniperus communis), which is one of three native species of conifer in Britain, is being reintroduced in Cumbria, but hitherto its ability to recolonise where it used to thrive has been inhibited by traditional management of the uplands.

RSPB Haweswater is a vital nature conservation area within the Lake District National Park, and it contains three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, of which two are Special Areas of Conservation. One of these is Naddle Forest, which covers 70 hectares of broad-leaved, semi natural ancient woodland. Benefitting from very low levels of sulphur-dioxide in the atmosphere, this has stands of sessile oak and downy birch, together with rowan and ash trees, which protect exceptionally rich fern, bryophyte (mosses and liverworts) and lichen flora.  The woods also provide breeding territory for four trans-saharan migrant passerines - redstarts, tree pipits, pied flycatchers and wood warblers.

In the meantime, while not encountering eagles, we count seagulls.  The waters of the lake, deep and silent, with their prehistoric population of schelly (coregonus stigmaticus) seem to be a welcome haven for common gulls after their days of worm picking on the fields of the Eden Valley.  With a margin of error and a sprinkling of black-headed gulls tagging along for company, we (that is, Warden Dave counts) count 18,070 coming in to roost at dusk.  

Apparently the roost sometimes reaches thirty thousand. While trying hard to resist the temptation to anthropomorphise, I cannot help but imagine that the eagle, somewhere up on the Riggindale crags, feels lonely while these white van gulls (pace Emily Thornberry) enjoy a regular party....

However, birds do what they do, and my spirit is lifted by the sight of a windhover in the mists.  

Though I fail to catch them all on camera, I see a dipper on the Mardale beck:

Crows, and ravens, high above the reservoir at dusk:

Buzzards in Swindale:

And red squirrels, foxes and  rabbits on the hills and through the woods; tits of all kinds (great, blue, coal and long-tailed), chaffinches, dunnocks, nutchatch, sparrows, blackbirds and goldfinches in and out of the trees and bushes; and cormorants (not welcomed by the schelly supporters), goldeneye, mallard, tufted ducks, gooseanders and canada geese on the water....

Oh, and sheep.....

Though I do resist the direction to take the Old Corpse Road (the dead from Mardale were coffined and shipped by horse to Shap),

It is impossible to avoid the temptation to reflect on the natural world around you in this beautiful theatre of superficial peace.  

Snubbed by the eagle, I turn my lenses to the water, picking out details of the mirror of nature, teasing me with views that could be blown away at any moment:

Kaleidoscopes of natural colour, despite Wainwright's disdain for the water's edge.....

At both ends of the day, plays of water and light, vapour and haze, create spectacles that those, like me, who live in light polluted zones, don't normally get a chance to see.  Hope rises within me that those who work here for the better may one day be rewarded by concord with those who as yet do not comprehend......


One of my last tasks as a volunteer is to walk the length of the valley along the road, picking up litter. I suppose that over approximately five miles to be able to contain all the human detritus collected in one plastic sack is something to be applauded. But, then again, it is a dead end road; why would anyone take this remote carriageway if not to appreciate the wonders of the scenery and the natural world?

So how is it that my sack becomes filled with sweet wrappers, drink cans,  plastic bottles, cigarette packets, egg boxes, spent fireworks, contact lens containers, used condoms, and a lavender air freshener?  

I note that in a paper for her University written by volunteer Angela Raven (Creedy) in 2009, Nature Conservation on Haweswater Reserve, one of the main management objectives of the RSPB listed is to control invasive and dominant species.....

Somewhere on the crags there is an eagle.  Perhaps he is watching me.  Perhaps not.  

If he is, then quite possibly he is thinking to himself, what kind of invasive and dominant species is that?

I am in Riggindale.  The dark is gathering and wraithes of misty cloud wreathe the crags.  Somewhere an eagle may be watching me…..

The sound of Haweswater - The Mardale Beck