Thursday, 27 August 2009


There are no kitchens at Versailles.

English tours of palaces, castles and stately homes show visitors where the servants lived and worked. That's where most of us see ourselves. We know, logically, that we wouldn't be the ones in the fancy dresses. We'd have been taking orders, making things, clearing up after grand parties and making do on too little sleep.

But in Versailles, cooking was seen as messy and vulgar. Meals were transported from a huge building in the town to be reheated, tasted for poison and served. Even in Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's modest mansion in the park grounds, there was a room for reheating the meals. And in the farm and model village she created, there's a whole building dedicated to rechauffage - reheating.

The farm and village created for Marie Antoinette has a picturesque unreality, although there was a real farmer who has to provide eggs and milk for the queen's dairy. Everything is clean and fake. The houses, dovecote, mill and so on may seem miniature compared to the vastness of Versailles. Perhaps Marie Antoinette really believed that this was how peasants lived as she and her friends played at being poor but it's Disneyfication before Disney. Versailles left me marvelling at the remoteness of the French monarchy but the little fake village, constructed so prettily around a carp-filled lake, sickened me. I was also reminded of Poundbury.

There was a gift shop, of course, selling mementos, mostly of Marie Antoinette. And the real farm has become an animal sanctuary where sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and donkeys enjoyed plentiful feed, sunshine and admiring glances. Nearby, horses graze and a couple of farm carts - tumbrils - stand empty, ready for use.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Being Jupiter

Nothing prepared me for the gilded enormity of Versailles. I tried to imagine being in a mob storming the castle and could manage only incredulity at the excess. I've never seen a better argument for republicanism.

I don't understand the way of thinking that commissioned such an enormity nor the way the court understood itself. I thought Tale of Two Cities an exaggeration but now I realise it understated the reality.

There are notices at Versailles about the practices of the court. Every evening at 10 p.m. Louis XIV dined with his family. This was a public event and members of the court were privileged to watch. They didn't get to eat. The ladies perched on small stools and the gentlemen stood behind them as they watched the monarch and his family at dinner.

Going to bed and getting up were ceremonies too. There are gilded rails in front of the high four-poster beds and at the top corners of the bed - the structure must be fifteen feet high - are white fleur-de-lis made out of ostrich feathers. A few chairs stools are placed nearby, presumably for the attendance at court.

It's perhaps not remarkable that the chapel is a baroque riot or that there were strict rules based on orders of precedence about who could attend and where different levels of the nobility could sit.

But strangest of all are the paintings. Some are religious, with Jesus and his disciples in peasant dress. At a last supper, an extravagantly-dressed Mary Magdalen washes Jesus' feet. You wouldn't catch the royals in any such gestures of humility. Anne of Austria appears as Minerva, Louis XIV as Jupiter. One of Louis XV's toddler sons reclines as Cupid. Louis is everywhere: winning wars, making peace, implicitly compared with Alexander the Great, honoured by a winged Victory as he stays aloof from the battle. He even poses to show off his red shoes and his fine leg - he could sing and dance as well as making war.

The French royal family moved among paintings of themselves as divinities, usually in the Roman style. How they combined this with their public Christian faith, I don't know. But they seem to have seen themselves as more than heroes. In the oddest painting of all, Hercules, nude but for a carefully-placed drape, paints a portrait of Le Grand Condé on a lion-skin while assorted nymphs and divinities stand around.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

When the statue moves

There are a few moments in film, opera and drama that always move me to tears. In Casablanca it's the bit where the Nazis are singing round the piano and Victor Laszlo tells the band to play the "Marseillaise". As the customers in Rick's Bar stand to sing and drown out the Nazis, I feel the familiar lump in my throat.

Resistance moves me. So does reconciliation - often the moment when parent and child are reunited. When, at the end of The Railway Children, Roberta finally cries out "Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" once again I'm moved to tears. The same happens with the less well-known reunion between father and daughter in Shakespeare's Pericles when the father summons up the sea metaphors to express his joy at seeing his sea-born daughter Marina:

"Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness."

There's another kind of reconciliation that affects me at the end of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro when the Count asks the Countess for forgiveness and she, in the most heartbreakingly sweet music of the opera agrees. In the reality of the 18th century, she doesn't have much choice. Beaumarchais' third Figaro play, La Mere Coupable, takes a more cynical view of the characters while Mozart's own music in the final chorus seems to anticipate the greater cynicism of Cosi fan Tutte.

But the betrayal the Countess forgives is nothing to the forgiveness shown by Hermione at the end of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Hermione cannot regain all that her husband's cruelty took from her. She has lost her small son for ever and has spent sixteen years in isolation, uncertain whether the baby stolen from her has survived. Her husband's guilt and suffering may be clear but he's still far from perfect as his reaction to Perdita and Florizel's romance makes plain. Yet when he stands before what he believes to be the statue of his dead wife, the audience usually holds its breath, willing the miracle that will bring forgiveness and reconciliation. And so, after long stillness, music sounds, the statue moves and the living woman reunited with husband and daughter.

This ideal of forgiveness despite deep wrong runs through many of Shakespeare's plays. In Measure for Measure, the would-be nun Isabella believes her brother has been executed on the orders of Angelo and still, at the pleading of Angelo's new wife, kneels to beg for mercy on his behalf. At least in Measure for Measure, the audience knows that Isabella's brother is still alive - but there is very little to be said in Angelo's favour. The most Isabella can say on his behalf is that he used the law to kill her brother and that he failed in his intention to rape her. When I find myself in tears at this point, it is not because I feel much sympathy for Angelo, or even his new wife who is never quite convincing as a character.

What moves me to tears is the generosity of those who forgive, despite their pain. It's an impossible, even risky act. In Hermione's case, it seems to be brought about by love but Isabella acts on the appeal from a woman who has helped her, sustained by the belief that mercy is better than the fierce justice that kills.

Forgiveness seems a long way from the public mood at present. I went to a school that required me to attend church regularly so I absorbed the words of the General Confession from the Prayer Book: "We have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their fault, Restore thou them that are penitent ...." This may seem like too much abasement but at least it united members of the congregation in the understanding that they required forgiveness as much as anyone else.

I wouldn't claim that Christians have a good record in offering forgiveness - history shows that many Christians in power have been smug, punitive, violent, racist and vicious. But that sense of the value of forgiveness, which comes from passages in the Gospels rather than the actions of so-called Christians, may have been lost for good. The rhetoric of justice - which is even harder to achieve - seems to have replaced any sense of the beauty of mercy and reconciliation. For me, forgiveness deals with the reality of fallible human people who don't seem able to avoid hurting one another but who are still capable of great love.

Future generations may still be moved by the singing of the "Marseillaise" in
Casablanca. Resistance to wrong will still be necessary. Roberta's cry as she realises her father is free will still be potent because his release from prison is a matter of justice and his restoration to his family a vindication of their faith and love.

But what about the works where flawed and unworthy human beings are nonetheless loved and forgiven. Will future audiences have any sense of why those passages from Mozart and Shakespeare move me to tears?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

"single blessedness"

I was early for the train so I browsed among the leaflets and timetables. Special offers for train travellers attracted me, especially since the illustrations showed attractions in the southern Peak District that I hadn't visited for years, if at all.

I picked up the leaflet hopefully and began to read. One offer was free child admission with a full-paying adult. That sort of offer used to be helpful but not any more. Almost all the remaining offers were "2 for 1" admission charges. Only one offered a discount for the single traveller.

Once again, I find an assumption that everyone moves around in couples. It's not just the train companies that think this way. I've been browsing holiday websites - more in hope than with any confidence that I'll manage an exciting holiday next year. There are some good headline prices. I even thought, briefly, that I might manage the trip to Iceland I've been dreaming about since my schooldays. But the prices come with the usual footnote "Prices are based on two adults sharing a room."

I can see that single travellers cost hoteliers more than couples. But why can't holiday companies just say what the single room supplement is? Too many ask single travellers to phone in - suggesting that singleness is a bizarre state - while some holidays, offering plenty of space for couples, say that nothing is available as soon as I enter information about my solitary state. Prices rocket out of my range when I confirm that I need a room of my own - and I'm not broke.

Why can't companies cater for single people? There's nothing wrong with travelling alone - lots of people do it. Solitude has advantages although it requires some toughness and self-reliance. Almost everyone is single at some point. Single people like holidays and days out just as much as couples.
In some cases - for example when people are newly widowed - this attitude must be intensely hurtful.

Why make us feel like oddities or burdens?