“I Was Hitler’s room-mate”. A haunting new novel examines complicity with evil


Days before his suicide, Hitler examines an architect’s model of his home city of Linz, rebuilt as a Nazi cultural capital

THE TRISTAN CHORD by Glenn Skwerer

“I was Hitler’s room mate.” It sounds like a nasty B-movie, doesn’t it? But for six months in Vienna in 1908, a young man called August Kubizek actually was. In fact, he had known Hitler for a couple of years by then. They had met as teenagers in the opera queue in Linz, their hometown, and become inseprable companions. Kubizek was under no illusions about his friend’s hang-ups – his endless, self-centred monologues about music, architecture and the potential of the arts to purify degenerate mankind, his almost complete inability to sustain normal relationships, his refusal to take part in any social activity that would expose his obsessions to a healthy scrutiny. He had seen Hitler’s devotion to his mother, and terrible grief at her death. As a frustrated musician himself, he could empathise with his friend’s discontents, his longing to transform the world. After Hitler persuaded his parents to allow him to try his luck at the Conservatoire in Vienna,  he was emotionally bound to him in a way he would never quite be able to define or explain.

Almost 40 years later, Kubizek found himself interred by American occupying forces, regularly pumped for information on his troubling past as the Hitlerjungenfreund (friend of the Führer’s youth). Eventually they released him and he wrote a book about it. This is the basis of Glenn Skwerer’s haunting novel.

Skwerer is up-front about his fictionalisation of Kubizek’s narrative. He gives him a different name, Eugen Reczek, and invents a relationship between Reczek and the cultured Jewish mother of one of his music students, which eventually drives Hitler out of his life. But never, quite, out of his dreams. That’s the most disturbing thing about the book. Not the exposure of the horrors of the concentration camps, Adolf’s disgusting obsessions and personal habits, or even that the two young men hooked up in the first place. Most of that is on record. There will be people who find it difficult to cope with the scene where Hitler, the devoted son, tenderly places ice on his dying mother’s tongue, when she is too sick to drink liquids. They won’t like to think of him having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as Skwerer points out in an Afterword, to make Hitler into a monster isn’t honest or wise. He was human. Deal with it.

It’s the quietly devastating final section of this book that really lingers in the mind. Reczek becomes a provincial official of the kind Hitler despised, his musical career derailed by the First World War. He hides away the watercolours that Hitler once painted for him and never mentions their friendship to his wife. Yet the allure remains. When Hitler becomes Chancellor, they resume contact. Unprompted, Hitler writes a huge cheque for the musical education of Reczek’s three sons.  He invites Reczek to Bayreauth to hear their adored Wagner as it should be performed, and Reczek is transfixed. His ecstatic love of the operas remains undimmed. And what of his love – if such it can be called – for the Führer himself?

The Americans chip away at his defences. Reczek tells them he was never political by nature. He only became a Nazi when it seemed rude not to. He secretly finds his interrogators a little vulgar, unable to appreciate the transformative power of great Germanic art. He suspects, at least until very late in the day, that reports of the death camps are Allied propaganda. Yes, Hitler was a bit weird. He made him very uncomfortable at times. But, you know,  Austrians greeted the Anschlüss with open arms. Well, except for the Jews of course. It was a pity about the Jews…

The payoff from all this is that by now we have identified with Reczek through his long first-person account. Who hasn’t known someone at uni who got into some weird stuff? Who became downright creepy? When do you raise the alarm? It’s not as if they all go on to murder six million people. Most of them grow out of it. Okay, his friend was a little odd. Well, very odd at times. But, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the old days. It wasn’t a nice place. How was he to know?

By now we’ve come to regard Reczek as a reliable narrator. We want to believe he’s okay, just a bit misguided. But at what point do we no longer trust him? When he lets the Nazi top brass fete him and offer him a job? When he never mentions his Jewish assistant’s disappearance? When he goes to Bayreauth and has the best week of his life? When he finds out that none of the family of his boyhood mistress survived the death camps? And that’s what makes the ending of the story so unsettling. Does he accept the truth, or simply make the necessary accommodation with reality?

And that is the tricky bit. For evil to triumph, good men must do nothing. What makes a good man? We may even be one of them ourselves. Faced with Hitler as a room-mate, when would we raise the alarm? And what if no-one listened?

Stephen Fry explains Wagner’s revolutionary “Tristan Chord” – video

The Tristan Chord is available now from Unbound for £24.00, or from Amazon for £12.50


What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.


Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X


How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)




The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

Scottish independence rally on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Picture by BBC)

I don’t like bullies, whether they are having a go at the kid in the playground or whole countries. And that’s why I find myself torn between a head that says “No” and a heart that says “Yes” when it comes to the #indyref

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In theory it’s none of my business. I”m English and I won’t be able to vote. But in fact, whatever the outcome, every person living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up in a different world on Friday morning. We’ve seen all the major party leaders of Westminster wheedling, threatening and emoting like a violent husband sobbing at the front door as his wife gets in the car and puts her foot down. I still love you. I’ll give you anything. You’re just having a little tantrum, darling. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I know that if the Yes vote prevails my first reaction will be euphoria, closely followed by fear and dismay. Euphoria because at last we’ve seen that progressive politics can galvanise a whole country into saying, “There’s got to be another way.” Anyone who’s left a violent, controlling partner will know that sometimes an insecure and frightening future is preferable to a life where your soul and spirit is crushed, where you are continually infantalized. Some of the rhetoric of the anti-independence campaign this week has been deeply offensive. Normally liberal papers who would shrink from making sweeping generalisations about other enthnic or cultural groups have branded Scotland spoilt and bratty, a cosseted baby that needs to grow up. Look at the real problems in the world, they say – migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, IS on a killing rampage.

I don’t buy it. Every bully presents the victim as someone incapable of making mature decisions. It’s part of the psychology of control. You could just as well argue that Scotland has seen the great neoliberal, don’t give a damn for anybody, money is everything, society in action, and said a resounding, “No thanks. There has to be a better way.” It’s outrageous that a resourceful and dignified people who have contributed so much to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in their time, whose capital was the cradle of Enlightenment philosophy and who gave us many of the most important medical and scientific advances that have shaped the modern world, should be dismissed because they’ve become too uppity to toe the line. Nobody is perfect, and there are venial, dishonest and self-seeking characters on both sides, but who the hell are we to lecture them about that? Take the mote out of your own eye first, Westminster.

Devo-max will solve nothing. If money follows rhetoric, which is by no means certain, it will send a message to the other regions of the UK that shout loud enough and you’ll magically get enough money to keep your poor from dying in the streets, let your sick die with dignity and give your young people hope. What’s not to like about that? Can anyone seriously imagine the North East, one of the most deprived regions of England, meekly accepting austerity when they see money being showered on communities just a few miles further north?

So where does that leave us all? Thinking outside the box, whether we like it or not. The old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the major parties squabble over the shrinking middle ground, disillusioned voters will vote for somebody – even UKIP – that offers the hope of fresh thinking. For all our sakes, I pray that the fresh thinking comes from a progressive, socially responsible and outward looking place before it’s too late and the Galloways and Farages have inherited the earth.

The best idea I’ve heard all week comes from Graham Stringer – while the crumbling Palace of Westminster is being renovated, a project that cannot be put off much longer – move the whole rabble of them up here to Manchester. Why does the legislature have to be in London anyway – hundreds of miles away from these Scots that Cameron professes to love so much? Let them come up here, out of their gilded bubble, for a while. See how they like having to do a responsible job after a three-hour daily commute. At least they’ll have the BBC on their doorstep.

You can’t have it both ways. Either we’re all in this together, or we ain’t. If we’re together, then the North of England is as good a place as anywhere to base the corridors of power. And if we aren’t, then away you go, Scotland, and good luck to you.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W B Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)


Gutenburg’s Apprentice, by Alex Christie

Publicity material
Publicity material

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.

The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.

How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.

At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.

One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.

How a giant water lily made the modern world

“The Flower of Empire” by Tatiana Holway, now (appropriately) available at Amazon.co.uk

One of the pleasures of being an Amazon Vine reviewer is that you occasionally stumble upon absolute gems that you would otherwise have missed. I’ve just finished one, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who enjoys reading about horticulture and the Victorian period.

In 1837, as he struggled upriver in Britain’s only South American colony, severely underfunded by his sponsors the British Geographical Society, the young German explorer Robert Schomburgk found his way blocked by a remarkable plant. A water lily, its leaves several metres across and armed with lethally sharp spines, but adorned with exquisite pale pink, fragrant flowers, clogged the river ahead of him. Since Schomburgk was moonlighting as a plant-hunter to supplement his meagre stipend, he spotted a good thing when he saw it, managed to obtain a specimen and painted this “vegetable wonder.” Then he got on with the job, blissfully unaware that the specimen he’d sent to the coast and the accompanying illustration would create a sensation back home.

Victoria Amazonica on display at Kew Gardens, England

The specimen was a stinking mess when it reached England, but an accident of timing meant that a young Victoria was about to ascend to the throne. In a culture obsessed with flowers, and almost as potty about the British Empire, it seemed like a “no-brainer” to name this amazing flower after her. This involved a bit of botanical slight-of-hand, particularly when a couple of cheeky Continentals rudely claimed they’d already catalogued the specimen. It was unthinkable to call it Victoria Amazonica – the Amazon women were bare-breasted savage huntresses, for Heaven’s sake. After some wrangling about the Latin and who had the right to the publicity (the Botanical Society, or the Geographical Society who’d paid for the trip but expressly warned Schomburgk against excessive plant-hunting?) , the compromise title Victoria Regia was, more or less, accepted.

"Victoria regia – Opening Flower" Ch...
“Victoria regia – Opening Flower” Chromolithograph from Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) Victoria regia; or Illustrations of the Royal Water-lily . . . London: Reeve and Benham, 1851 The gigantic water lily from South America, now Victoria amazonica. Chromolithograph, hand-coloured (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Royal assent followed and the race was on to get a specimen to England and persuade it to flower. This was not a trivial task and involved much cutting-edge technology in the glasshouse trade (pardon the pun). The main contenders in the race were the Duke of Devonshire, whose deep pockets funded England’s vastest indoor gardens, the Royal Gardens at Kew, struggling to make a comeback after decades of neglect, and the Duke of Northumberland’s botanical collection (which ultimately became the Royal Horticultural Society). Tatiana Holway pulls off the remarkable feat of making this story so gripping that you might well find yourself staying up too late to see the lily’s first bloom before you go to bed.

But it didn’t stop there. Victoria Regia (or possibly Regina) and the technology invented to make her  bloom did much to shape that crowning showcase of the British Empire, the Great Exhibition. In less skilled hands than Holway’s, these final chapters would be anti-climactic after the race to get a lily flower to the Palace. And indeed, they do feel a little hectic and rushed at times.

But it’s all about chains of connection. Via the Crystal Palace, argues Tatiana, the Amazonian Water Lily shaped our modern world. A startling claim, but reading about the frenzied lead up to the Great Exhibition, the fear of terrorist threat, of crowds of the wrong sort of people making trouble, of vast structures collapsing and the country running out of money, not to mention what on earth to do with the huge building after the party was over, have more than a little of the flavour of London 2012 about them. Spin, PR, ostentatious, overwhelming and occasionally meaningless spectacle and huge events precariously balanced between triumph and farce, are indeed a part of our modern world. And according to Tatiana Holway, the Millennium Dome, the Crystal Palace and every overblown shopping mall can be directly linked to the discovery of a “vegetable wonder” in British Guiana almost 180 years ago.

Quilting Tales

From “Blankets” Graphic Novel by Craig Thompson

I’ve always been fascinated by patchwork quilts. I’ve never made one, mainly because I’ve been unable to make friends with a sewing machine. Knitting, stitching, no problem, but put me in front of a machine and I’ll spend hours struggling with spools and tension and broken needles.

But that doesn’t stop me appreciating the patience and the love that goes into quilting, and what it says about a relationship when you offer your work up to someone else. The scraps of material tell stories, first about where they came from and secondly about how you arrange them and present them. Thirdly, a layer of meaning is added by the way the recipient values and uses the quilt.

Quilts are beautiful in their own right – humble scraps of material transformed by a thrifty alchemy into works of art. One of the most moving examples I ever encountered was in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. It was made for an inspirational guide leader by her troop, from the scraps they could salvage in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. Quilts have been used in political activism, or offered as dowries in marriage. Different countries have developed strikingly different styles – some based on applique, others on tessellating pieces into intricate repeating patterns. In days gone by, sometimes yet another level of meaning was added by the paper templates used to cut the shapes. Love letters, for example, might find their way into the quilt that covered a marriage bed, or remain as a folorn reminder of a future wished for but unattainable.

The Last RunawayI have read two very different books in the last week or two that develop this theme of quilting. The first, Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, “The Last Runaway” tells the story of a Quaker girl from mid 19th Century Dorset who decides to emigrate with her sister to America after a youthful love affair goes wrong and leaves her shamed and vulnerable at home. But things don’t go as planned, and when her sister dies she finds herself trapped in an unfamiliar country. Her position in the household of her planned brother-in-law, whose new partner sees her as a threat, becomes so untenable that she is forced into an unpromising marriage to a local man. Only her skill with a needle makes her feel valued in her new community.

Tracy Chevalier is very sensitive to the subtle but deep cultural differences between American and English social behaviour. Many of her observations ring true today. Honor, her quiet heroine, finds herself startled by the directness of American social interaction, slightly revolted by an excess of sugary and salty food and, most seriously of all, placed in a moral dilemma when she discovers runaway slaves sheltering on her husband’s property. I wasn’t aware that, in the years leading up to the American Civil War, there were severe penalties for people in the North who were caught harbouring slaves. The family that Honor has married into has already lost a home and a father under such circumstances, so despite their Quaker ideals they forbid Honor to get involved, an instruction she finds it impossible to obey.

Quilts feature throughout the book, as a symbol of what Honor feels she has lost, and the alienness of what she now has to adapt to. Twelve quilts are demanded of her as a dowry, and she is forced to write home and ask old friends to return the ones she has given them for this purpose, something she naturally finds deeply painful to do. Quilting parties are held, involving the entire community, for a couple about to marry. Honor finds the American custom of appliqued designs, rather than the painstaking English method, a symbol of all she finds alienating and superficial about her new neighbours until she gets to know them better. She struggles to relate to the black people she meets without causing offence on either side, and becomes involved with a tough but kind milliner and her “mean sonofabitch” slave-hunter brother, who is problematically attracted to Honor herself. The solution comes in a very American fashion that offers Honor and her new husband an opportunity to make a fresh beginning. That is, in itself, a solution that feels right  in a country that seems to be in a state of perpetual flux. Ohio is both a staging post on the Underground Railroad and a temporary stopover to those heading out West; very few people seem to stay there permanently, and the quilt, whether in a farmhouse or in a wagon, becomes an emblem of the search for a place to belong.

From “Blankets” by Craig Thompson

My second quilt book was equally American, but set in the more recent years of the 1990s. It’s a graphic novel, but very different from your usual celebration of Spandex and superpowers. An autobiographical account, it introduces us to Craig Thompson, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family from which he feels increasingly alienated. Blankets are a recurring theme in its pages – there’s the blanket he reluctantly shares with his younger brother, crammed into the bedroom of a poor, isolated rural home, the blanket of snow that covers the ground through the magical weeks of a stay with his first love, Raine, and the quilt that she makes for him as a token of that love. Word and image combine to create a rich tapestry of meaning, and many people will recognise Craig’s experiences of love and loss, his struggles with youthful obsessions and temptations, his conflicted feelings about sex and his sense of alienation. Raine becomes the focal point of many of these struggles and for a while she seems to offer him everything he could ever need, but she has problems with her own family to work out. This is a subtle, profound and very touching exploration of youth and first love, and there are no clear-cut winners and losers. The characters are so real that they leap of the page and it stays in the mind and the heart for a very long time. Ultimately, the quilt that Raine gives Craig comes to symbolise even more than their youthful infatuation; it resembles his own commitment to make his mark on the world, to leave something personal and authentic behind him: “How satisfying it is to make a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement, no matter how temporary.”


Nobody has done more to popularise the beauty of quilting in recent times than the immensely talented Kaffe Fassett. While in London last week, I went with a friend to the new Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey to see an exhibition of his work. Bermondsey nestles at the southern end of Tower Bridge, a warren of characterful terraced houses and winding streets that somehow manages to accommodate the recent arrival of The Shard into its atmosphere of general eclecticism. The exhibition covered all the aspects of Fassett’s creativity, including knitting and needlepoint, but it was the quilts that stood out for me. It was wonderful to get up close and appreciate the subtlety of the interlocking patterns and his masterful use of colour. Some of them seemed to leap into three-dimensional life when viewed from a distance, and to see the great man himself directing a quilting workshop was icing on an already-wonderful cake. It’s lovely to see these very personal and historical handicrafts enjoying an renaissance and we’re blessed to have a genius like Kaffe Fassett to add colour to our modern world.

Soane’s Museum – it’s bigger on the inside!

Sir John Soane's House
Sir John Soane’s House (Photo credit: roryrory)

One of the things I love about London is its wealth of small, relatively obscure museums. I’ve written previously about Dr Johnson’s house, and just a few streets away, tucked into a quiet terrace in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is the remarkable Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I was lucky enough to visit last weekend.

Portrait-Of-Sir-John-Soane-1753-1837Born in 1753, Soane rose from humble beginnings as a bricklayer’s son to become the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and one of the leading cultural authorities of the late Georgian age (he died in the year of Victoria’s accession to the throne). As a young man, he had won a scholarship to Italy, where he spent two years studying Roman ruins, an experience that was to influence him profoundly throughout his professional career. He was beginning to make his way as an architect, and had married and started a family, when he came into a life-changing fortune, and he spent it on amassing a collection of antiquities which came to fill first one, then a second and finally a third terraced house.

Image from http://www.travellious.com

These three houses served several purposes. First, they were his family home, secondly they were a workplace for himself and a growing number of students of architecture, whose offices were there. But perhaps most importantly, he saw his collection as a highly didactic legacy, a place where future generations could experience what was best in the classical tradition, and use it to inspire their work.

This was the age of the Enlightenment, when people sincerely believed that mankind was ultimately perfectible, as long as people were exposed to high culture and dedicated to emulating and eventually surpassing the glories of the ancient world. It was also the age of wealthy people amassing huge collections of antiquities, with rather fewer of the moral scruples we have now about raiding others’ heritage. Soane’s house is a reminder that the British Museum itself developed from such endeavours, and in fact he proved to have rather deeper pockets than the BM on at least one remarkable occasion, when he paid £2000 for an Egyptian sarcophagus, now on display in his cellar.

He probably wasn’t an easy man; he was eccentric, opinionated, determined, and inclined at times to hold a grudge. He was devoted to his wife, but the four sons he had hoped would inherit his mantle were a disappointment to him. Two died in infancy, one in early adulthood, and the fourth was a gambler and a wastrel. Worse still, he attacked his father publicly and Soane never forgave him, not so much because it hurt his vanity as because he was convinced it led to the premature death of his beloved wife.

But out of Soane’s unsatisfactory family life comes our gain as a nation, because he left his home and its amazing contents to the public in perpetuity. Words, and even pictures, hardly do justice to this astonishing place, which draws gasps repeatedly from the parties touring around it, as they squeeze themselves into tiny corners and discover walls that open up to reveal two, and even three, layers of priceless paintings. Soane thought nothing of building a room with a gap between the walls and the ceiling and filling it with glass to get the light right, or installing a suspended dome and up to 100 mirrors in a modest breakfast room. He gleefully exploited every visual trick going to extend rooms beyond their original limits. He was so well-connected that Turner used to come along to his lectures and hold up pictures to illustrate important points – a sort of living Power Point presentation. And when he held a party to show off his new sarcophagus, it lasted three days and involved renting thousands of lamps to get the effect exactly right. Beneath the staid personage who designed the interior of the Bank of England lurked the soul of a showman.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m always intrigued when I find echoes of the iconic character of the Doctor in British culture. There’s something very English indeed about the magpie-like antiquarianism of the Time Lord’s wanderings and many of us have enjoyed imagining the vast halls of the TARDIS crammed with an eclectic collection of objects. Well, the very phrase “bigger on the inside” could have been invented for Soane’s house. So audacious and creative is his use of space that it really does feel at times as though he’s figured out a way to make multiple dimensions of space and time collapse in on themselves to cram everything into his astonishing home. You don’t have to venture far into the Soane Museum to lose all sense of direction as he challenges your perception of the apparently fixed realities of walls and ceilings. And you have to go there to appreciate it fully. There is no substitute.

It’s also worth planning ahead to join a tour. Ours lasted 90 minutes and the guide was enthusiastic, approachable and knowledgable, pointing out many things it would have been easy to miss and setting it all in context. But you could easily spend the rest of the day poking around and trying to absorb it, and I’m not sure you ever would. It’s a place to return to again and again, and it’s free (though there is a modest charge for the guided tour). For anyone interested in that fertile period of history as the Enlightenment gave way to the more sentimental excesses of Romanticism, Soane’s Museum is a must.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8354262/Sir-John-Soanes-Museum-the-museum-that-time-forgot.html (Note, the cloakroom and shop mentioned have now been added, but the private apartments on the upper floor as still not, as yet, restored.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/video/2011/sep/08/sir-john-soanes-museum Brief video (under 5 mins) that really captures the place’s atmosphere and its slightly creepy appeal