Sunday, 30 November 2008


Byzantium, such a lovely word: conjures up pictures of a mystical east. We imagine the riches of Constantinople and a great empire. We’re reminded of the amazing architectural and artistic heritage of the period.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy in London reinforces all this. And, with a plethora of icons and other saintly images (and much gold leaf into the bargain), it’s likely to put you in a very Christmassy mood.

I guess, in the 5th century - aeons before TV and advertising - the gold leaf and images did a very good job. The murals and mosaics told particularly good stories pictorially speaking. And, by all accounts, they convinced worshippers that there were riches awaiting them in heaven.

Icons and illuminated manuscripts had one up on these, in my estimation, because they could be carried around. The former were to worship visually, the second possibly read whilst waiting for the next camel train. Either way, they sure beat a glossy magazine and a grubby paperback. But, of course, you don’t have to be so rich to afford these modern day messages. But then nor do they inspire us to higher things, only more consumerism.

One of the most interesting conclusions that emerge form the exhibition is that there are only so many ways that specific religious events can be portrayed in an icon. It seems that the images of Christ, Mary and the Angel had to adhere to classic poses carried down over the centuries. Whether 5th century or 14th century icons, they had to stick to the story.

It’s an interesting fact that the figures in an icon were not meant to depict real people: they were flat, two dimensional, to be prayed in front of. They were meant to be inspirational. I loved the beauty of the icons but my Best Beloved, who thoroughly enjoyed the historical content of the show, found himself iconed-out by the end.

Although, to be fair, the show is not all icons: there is jewellery too, and household items and relics on display as well. One of them, the Antioch Chalice, was rediscovered 100 years ago. Since then it’s inspired several art forms: books and films based on searches for the Holy Grail. But, contrary to speculation, the chalice couldn’t have been the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper as it actually dates from about 500AD. There you are, that just goes to show what advertising and a bit of hype can do.

It’s also obvious from the exhibits that Constantinople (Istanbul to us) was an amazing city. It was called the second Rome, but one halfway between the eastern and western cultures of the day. Their religion was neither Muslim nor Catholic, whilst the architecture drew on both. Think of vast square spaces, enormous domes and rich decoration.

Overall, you get the impression by the end of your visit that the Byzantines were a cosmopolitan lot. You have until 22 March to be dazzled and see for yourself.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The curse of agricultural sprays

It’s all in the news: the ugly face of pesticides and herbicides. At last, farmers are being asked to watch where they spray all that stuff they say they need to make their crops grow. Maybe they do – some of it anyway – but not over all of us, please.

Last week a brave and determined young woman convinced the courts that the excess spray from a neighbouring farm has seriously damaged her health. It should be quite possible before spraying for farmers to give at least 24 (or preferably 48) hours notice that they are about to spray their crops in ones vicinity. At the moment, inconsiderate farmers are spraying next to homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and parks without any notice.

The droplets are carried in the air and inhaled by all and sundry in the vicinity. Not to mention what it does to our gardens and wild life: it kills stuff off. Fortunately there are farmers who do care about their neighbours and wild life in general. They've reduced intensive farming methods and take care with their spraying whilst those who are organic, only spray with vegetable based products.

And many farmers who wish to increase wildlife on their land (possibly, in part, because they realise the un-sung benefit of it) have re-laid and maintain their mixed hedges. These allow wildlife to move from area to area and forage in safety. Other ‘wild life corridors’ are the uncultivated strips of land alongside field boundaries. Such bio-diverse habitats as these allow insects, birds and small mammals to thrive.

Farmers have been helped to encourage wildlife (whilst reducing food mountains) with ‘set- aside’. This was a EU policy that paid landowners to leave some fields fallow which allowed wild life to flourish on it. Unfortunately, the policy of set-aside has now come to an end and, with it, large areas of wildlife’s little larders and safe accommodation.

So it’s down to us gardeners as never before. Many of us already feed the birds in an effort to keep up their numbers whilst having the pleasure of watching them. And we fill our gardens with plants rich in seeds and berries, nuts and fruit.

But it’s the ‘wild’ side of gardening we need to embrace. Forget neat, embrace natural. Not so easy on a small plot, I grant, but even a tiny corner with a clump of nettles and brambles and the odd rotting log will do wonders for the wild life population. And benefit you too.

Many of our most beautiful butterflies need nettles to breed and ‘weeds’ such as comfrey encourage the bees. Finches will welcome the seeds left on the spent heads of perennials whilst larger birds appreciate fallen nuts and ivy leaves that harbour insects. Small mammals, like dormice, will welcome the blackberries that fruit on wild brambles and hedgehogs will be thankful for a cosy home under a blanket of leaves or a pile of old logs.

And if you want to spray your garden with a good natural feed then those clumps of nettles and leafy comfrey plants will come in handy. The leaves of both are compost activators: add them to your heaps and your compost will rot down much faster. Add the leaves of either to a large water butt and, a few months later, you’ll have the most nutrient rich liquid feed or spray that your plants could ask for. Now that’s what I call a friendly spray.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo

It’s not often that one goes to the theatre and runs out of superlatives to describe a play. This is what happened to me last week. Our book group went to see War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, which is on at the National Theatre, and we were blown away by the production.

Michael Morpurgo wrote the book, War Horse, for children and adults. He had wanted to write about the madness and carnage of the First World War (1914-1918) and the part that horses had played in it. And the sad fate that became most of the horses in France and Flanders.

The story is told through the eyes of a horse, Joey, who is reared on a Devon farm by a young farm lad, Albert. His father sells the horse to the army and Joey is shipped out to Belgium. There he plays his part in the war as a British cavalry horse that is captured by the Germans and used to pull guns and ambulances.

Albert joins up to find Joey but it seems that both he and Joey will meet a sticky end. However, in the style of all good fairytales, the baddies get their come uppence and everything comes right in the end. We had a group of eleven year olds in front of us and they were transfixed but the eighteen years old behind us (who fidgeted more!) were just as complimentary in their appreciation of the play.

The acting doesn’t stand out particularly but the adaptation and direction of the piece is excellent and the design of the set is absolutely stunning. The story moves very quickly from one scene to another and the devices used (lighting, videos, revolving stage, rolling or rising constructions) are brilliant. It is a visual treat that will hold the interest of not only children but theatre phobics too.

The horses are life size puppets made of jointed wire and steel made by the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African company of marionette makers. This makes sense to me because wire work animals and models are quite an art in Africa. The large puppets are manipulated internally and externally and the nuances, movements and character that the puppeteers manage to imbue them with during the performance is very clever. Their movements are so lifelike, subtle and moving that it is quite enthralling.

A war artist sketches during some of the scenes and moving images are projected on to the backdrop that are reminiscent us of the work of the First World War artists such as Paul Nash. Poems and songs in the play remind us of the First World War poets too. My blog of 11 November 2007 covered the poetry and prose relating to the war: if you like Vera Brittain, AE Houseman etc then just go to the archive for 2007 on your right to read the blog about them. War Horse was particularly moving for us as it was so close to Remembrance Day.

Morpurgo has written over 100 stories, most of them for children, several of which have been made into films. I haven't read any of them but I shall also now read his novel, A Wide Wide Sea. This book is also aimed at children and adults, the story inspired by the fate of the children shipped out to Australia after the Second World War, and the neglect and abuse some of them suffered. The novel is very well thought of and I shall read it as soon as I have the time. But first I shall read War Horse: the play was a real inspiration. We need to be reminded that war ravages not only countries and cultures but every living thing.