An angel at home

I recently drove along tiny roads to Güstrow to see an angel. Güstrow itself is a charming, medieval, cobblestoned village. It has its own castle and cathedral, to be sure, but it’s still a village.

The angel I wanted to see was Barlach’s. Ernst Barlach was a German sculptor who went to the first world war as an infantry soldier and returned an ardent pacifist. This was reflected in all his subsequent work.

The angel was commissioned in 1926 to commemorate the victims of that war, for the cathedral in Güstrow, where he lived. As the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s work was labelled “degenerate art” — not heroic enough, not patriotic enough. The angel was removed from display and melted down. Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his angel had probably been made into bullets.


The angel at home

Barlach’s friends, however, made a secret, second cast of the angel which, after the end of the war, was hung in a church in Köln. In the 1950s, the people of Köln made another cast of the angel and gave it in a gesture of friendship to the people of Güstrow. The angel came home.

Last autumn, the parish of Güstrow allowed their angel to come to London for an exhibition at the British Museum. I spectacularly failed to see it, despite trying twice. Part of me wonders whether it’s because I really wanted to see the angel in her proper place, where Barlach intended she should be. I am glad I did. The life-size, bronze angel floats, horizontal, as if outside earth, outside time. Her eyes are closed. She knows grief and pain but she is also very peaceful. Barlach himself said that his sculptures were not “memorials” of war, but reflected the attitude we should take to war: Erinnerung und Schau. Recollection and reflection. For a short while, I had the privilege of sitting alone with the angel in her chapel in the late afternoon sun, to do my own recollecting and reflecting.

I met by chance the pastor of the cathedral, who heard my English and was interested to know why I was in Güstrow. I explained how I’d missed seeing the angel in London. He explained that the parish decision to let the angel come to London had not been unexamined. But in the end, he said, they felt that the work of the angel was reconciliation, and we still need reconciliation.

Oh yes, we do. I am glad to have met both the pastor and the angel. The pastor told me two things I wouldn’t have known. That the void left by the angel when she was away was a stark reminder for the congregation of when and why she had first been taken away. Also, that he insisted the British Museum take not only the angel, but the wrought metal circle over which she hovers; it was once around a baptismal font, and there is always hope in new life.

Indeed there is.

You can also listen to Neil McGregor’s podcast about the angel, recorded for the BBC to complement the British Museum exhibition that he curated.


Which or what coast of Coromandel?

The coast of Coromandel is, as you know, where the early pumpkins blow. It is where, in the middle of the woods, lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.

When I was a child, reading the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, the coast of Coromandel seemed as likely a place I would one day find myself in as the Emerald City, Narnia, or the back of the west wind. It was a magical place, known only to Jumblies and the occasional Owl or Pussycat. It was a place of pilgrimage for only a devoted few who would cherish the two old chairs and half a candle, the one old jug without a handle (all the worldly goods of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò).

When I realised, therefore, that the coast of Coromandel was actually accessible as a day trip from Auckland, and that I would be in Auckland, it was but a matter of moments before I was figuring out a way to get there.

The first problem was that I had one day in our schedule: Boxing Day. The second problem I had was that no-one seemed to want to take us to Coromandel on Boxing Day.

“Is that because of crazed hordes wanting to make a pilgrimage to see the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò?” enquired my son, one of the other party members.

“No,” I said. “The drivers all think a) there will be too much traffic because it is a National Holiday in New Zealand and b) because it is a National Holiday in New Zealand, all the shops will be shut so we won’t get any lunch.”

Magic makes magic, I have found. Of course we discovered someone willing (for slightly more than one shilling) to take us to the coast of Coromandel the day after Christmas Day. There wasn’t too much traffic. At least, not unless your idea of “too much traffic” is seeing an occasional car on the road ahead of you. Also, the shops were open. We had a very nice Feijoa and Pear sorbet on the way, thank you.

We walked down to Cathedral Cove, marvelling at the ferns, the rocks, the sun, the sea, the sky, the little heaps of stones on which might sit the Lady Jingly Jones and so forth. We were amazed that such a place could exist and be here and be so beautiful and so deserted and so turquoise on Boxing Day.


A real landscape that you may well think is fictional

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The Cape of Good Hope

One winter, the weather was unremittingly grey and grainy, a constant patter of damp over days and days. So, I decided to go south.

I decided to go because I could. Because there was no child, spouse or cat who needed tending right at that moment. Because deadlines allowed. Because it was grey and I had had enough of grey. And because I had like a million airmiles. Where better to look to the future than on The Cape of Good Hope? So that’s where I went.

Sign for Cape Point

Latitude 34 degrees south — and a bit breezy

I knew enough of the area’s history to know that the name is a little misleading. In fact, it is a triumph of marketing over experience. The first Portuguese sea-captain who went to try to find a way from Europe to India without going overland — Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 — got as far as this Cape when a mutinying crew and bad weather drove him home. He reported to his King, that, oh yes, it was perfectly possible to reach India once you had rounded The Cape of Storms.

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16 Cook Street: Unremarkable address; remarkable architecture

From the outside, 16 Cook Street is an unremarkable building perhaps. When I was growing up in Liverpool, its doors were shut: an ordinary shop-and-office block. You would never guess what’s inside. More genius by the architect Peter Ellis, in fact.

These days, I am delighted to see, they keep the main door to 16 Cook Street open so you can go in. What’s more, they know they have a Peter Ellis building in plain sight and have put up fancy posters and all, advertising its heritage come-hither.

Notice at the top of the public stairs at 16 Cook Street

Come inside and see…

The star of this 1866 building is its spiral staircase, cantilevered out from the main building and covered with sheets of glass. It’s a typical Peter-Ellis moment of “let in the light”.  He did. “You want a staircase? I’ll build you one you never dreamed of.”

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Oriel Chambers with oriel windows

Oriel Chambers: A building ahead of its time

A short visit home allows me a short paean to Peter Ellis.

Peter Ellis is one of the unsung heroes of architecture. In the 1860s, he practically invented the techniques for building the skyscraper, all on his own, in Liverpool, and got no thanks for his endeavours. Instead, he got the opposite.

His first commissioned building was Oriel Chambers, in 1864, on Water Street. Oriel windows are a type of window that stands out from the main wall of the building, and Ellis used the technique copiously. As a way to let the most light into the most space in an already built-up area, his trick was brilliant. Pevsner called Oriel Chambers “one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe”.*

Not everyone agreed, however, and Ellis’s architectural career was probably blighted by unfavourable reviews. The edition of The Builder of 20 January 1866, for example, failed to note the brilliance of the design and described Oriel Chambers as a “vast abortion”. Ellis did get further commissions, but not many. His career is a sad branch on the architectural tree.

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The Miserable or The Cheese?

It’s a hard choice to make, flying back from Mumbai at 38,000 feet. I always love the flight home: the hard work is done, the deadline met, the deliverables delivered. All you have to do now is check what’s up with the in-flight entertainment, have a bite to eat, and try to get some sleep before bumping down at a chilly Heathrow the next morning. (No matter what season you land, Heathrow is always chilly if you’ve arrived from Mumbai.)

Menu from a flight which offers the choice of Miserable with Raspberry Coulis or Cheese

“Can I persuade you to try the Miserable, madam?”

I wish I could tell you I was brave enough to try the Miserable. I have no idea what it was supposed to be. Mousse? Meringue? Malpua? Or perhaps it really was an instant gateway to despair, a short-cut to anguish, pain, and unhappiness.  The sweet taste of the accompanying raspberry coulis might be the last moment you knew happiness on this earth (or a bit above it, in my case).

So, just in case, I chose the cheese.

Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy

The VDNKh (The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy) Park is one of the oddest parks I have visited. (The letters are pronounced something like “vedeenkha” and stand for vystavka dostizhenii narodnykh khozyastva.) We wandered into the park after the excitement of the Museum of Cosmonautics, looking for some fresh air, a cup of coffee, maybe. We found a strange mix of pavilions, some abandoned, a golden fountain that wasn’t working, and a monument to what seemed to be the electrification of the Soviet Union.

My children are growing up with no sense of the strange shadow that the Soviet Union cast over the twentieth century. A new country, magicked into being by a revolution, run by communists — for the people, by the people — the USSR intended to be a nation where equality was as natural as breathing. The economy was centrally planned, farms collectivised, and all the people would benefit. Just how wonderful life could be would be put on display here, in The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy. Proof that Utopia had arrived.

On a monumental scale — as everything Soviet — the park is larger than Monaco. Opened in the Stalin era, in 1939, VDNKh celebrated and glorified the achievements of the 15 republics of the union, with a pavilion dedicated to each republic and the major forms of industry. The golden central fountain had a sculpted merry maiden from each of the republics dressed in national costume and soaked in the rain from the central giant bundle of wheat.

Golden statues around a non-working fountain

The fountain of the friendship of nations

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The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

One of the high points of my life is my visit to The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. You can see real Sputniks, for heaven’s sake. Russian space dogs. Yuri Gagarin‘s school exercise books. Not everything is translated into English, but most of the important stuff is and the rest speaks for itself. Look! This is history!

Besides, there aren’t many other places in the world where you can walk inside a Mir spaceship.

The museum is on Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue), at the VDNKh metro station, and fairly unmissable as it lies beneath a colossal obelisk: The Monument to the Conquerors of the Cosmos.

A titanium space rocket

The Monument to the Conquerors of the Cosmos

This titanium structure immortalises a rocket ship straight out of a 1950s pulp-fiction magazine. Off the rocket zooms while, below, Lenin leads the proletariat over the new frontier, with a baby at the front of the queue. This is what we were dreaming, back then. Sputnik was the future: socialism in space.

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Moscow at a million miles an hour

What time is it? Dawn, looks like.

Where am I? The core of the Cold War.

Where am I actually supposed to be? At this precise point. This sleeping on a train malarkey is pretty good.

The driver from the hotel picked us up in the dawn hours after our overnight train journey from St Petersburg. The hotel had asked which coach we would be travelling in, and the driver knew exactly where on the Leningradskaya Station platform that coach would stop. He had positioned himself and a trolley with military precision within millimetres of the very door we opened onto the Moscow morning. I was impressed. He whisked away the suitcases, bundled them into a very sleek and shiny car, and proceeded to drive us through central Moscow at a speed approaching that of sound.

Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building: one of the seven Stalin skyscraper sisters

Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building: one of Stalin’s seven skyscraper sisters

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