Saturday, 31 May 2014

parks and cherwell, morris dancing, stanford george harrington photos online, icarus, chapters 7-8



















Lovely walk to the east of North Oxford this morning instead of my customary west side one. (Working at the Taylor today.)

Every time I stroll through the Parks along the Cherwell, it amazes me that they are in the middle of the city - see photos above.

And I've been walking them for a long while. As an undergraduate in my first year at Keble, they were where I burnt round, mind spinning, desperately trying to make sense of Joyce and Beckett - amongst others.

Spent the first half of this week's bank holiday working in Oxford before heading home to Bampton and the Morris dancing. The dancers kept going despite the rain and it turned out to be one of the most memorable years. Lots of people out and a great atmosphere. A mini beer festival at the Horseshoe too and roast pork rolls outside the butcher's, Patrick Strainge.

This morning, I received the link to an amazing collection of photographs of Argentina and Bolivia from 1921-26 that Stanford have just put online: George Harrington photograph albums and papers.

And now, here is the final extract from my novella, a work in progress, provisionally entitled Icarus. The first extract was posted the Saturday before last and the second a week ago. You can find a brief summary of what the novella is about in the introduction to the first extract, together with an explanation of why surnames are represented by their initial letters only on this blog.


VII
‘Pete, mate!’

Peter turns. A silver flash explodes in his face.

‘Lovely. A bit more cheerful, though. Try and look natural.’

Peter smiles. There is another flash.

Rich lets his camera dangle from his neck and puts out his hand. ‘Good to see you, mate.’

Peter eyes Rich up and down. Not even the pretence of an evening suit – lightweight leather jacket, white shirt open at the collar, an ineffectual boot-lace tie.

Rich pinches the sleeve of his jacket. ‘The gear of the official photographer – comfy and practical, lots of zip-pockets.’

‘All mod cons.’

‘Anyway, dress suits are on the way out. You’ll come across some right looking geezers later on. Here, still on the Contax and chest-of-drawers Gandolfi?’

Peter nods politely.

‘You ought to splash out on one of these old son. You’ll cut the mustard with the big boys, not to mention the modules – after the session.’ Rich winks at him.

Peter glances at the Canon 7. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve read about them, but really they don’t have much that the Contax hasn’t got.’

‘Come off it. This’s got a light meter coupled to the shutter speed for starters. Look at the film advance – it speeds up the process. Designed to fit your hand. You just forget about the camera and concentrate on the subject. Right?’

Peter smiles. ‘We’ll have to agree to differ.’

‘What?’ says Rich and rolls his eyes heavenwards.

‘Speed’s all very well, but photography’s an art form, practiced by professionals. It’s the person that matt—’

Rich turns and focuses on a young actress who poses, smiling confidently at the camera, then cries, ‘Richy, darling, come and meet Ronny, he’s just dying to meet you.’

‘Good to see you, mate,’ Rich calls to Peter. ‘Maybe catch you later.’

That wink again. That man. For years I struggled to be accepted as a society portrait photographer – to be considered worthy of this kind of function. Now anybody with a cheeky smile and a box brownie is in on the act.

Peter is beginning to feel like an anachronism. His attention to detail is still appreciated, though, surely?

He searches for a friendly face. The marble-columned hall is full of young people he doesn’t recognise. He is afraid to launch himself into conversation with strangers tonight. It’s sometimes like that, he tells himself. There’s only one thing for it – he must fortify himself with whisky.

--

As he enters the drawing-room he is hailed by his host’s father the Earl of C. Long, wolfish face, grey hair oiled back, green eyes. The earl strides towards him.

‘Good of you to come, Peter. I’m glad I’ve caught you.’

‘Oh?’

‘But first-off – you haven’t got a drink in your hand.’

Peter smiles warmly despite his flagging confidence. Even so, as he follows the earl, he is distracted by unwelcome thoughts.

A year ago everything that the earl represented – the people, the houses – and the very fact that he moved in this circle, was a whirling, inspirational joy. In moments of reverie he imagined he was emulating artists from previous centuries. He could have been Sir Joshua Reynolds calling on the Parkers at Saltram. Last spring such dreams were possible. Now, he cannot allow himself to have them. He is getting old. Perhaps Samantha was right, after all. To retire to the country, to farm sheep, to marry and raise a family... He would never see the likes of the Earl of C again, perhaps, but he might have more chance of happiness.

--

The earl hands him a large whisky.

‘Thanks. Just what I could do with.’

‘Your very good health.’

‘Cheers.’

‘Now, I want to speak to you about something. Let’s go to the long gallery – there are one or two things I wish to show you.’

‘How intriguing.’

‘I’ll explain all.’

As they cross the room, the earl looks about him. ‘Party seems a bit flat, don’t you think?’

‘A bit.’

‘Don’t know what’s the matter with everyone. Perfect evening for it.’ He touches Peter’s arm. ‘Better off with the ancestors.’

He opens a door in the panelling and they slip away from the guests. At the top of the plain winding stair they reach a narrow landing with two doors leading off. They take the left hand one and emerge into the gallery. Peter turns and for a few moments cannot see the door in the pattern of the green wallpaper.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ says the earl. ‘God knows why they wanted these secret stairs – probably for getting rid of the mistress!’ He nudges Peter with his elbow.

They begin to walk slowly down the long empty space in between the rows of paintings.

‘The point is,’ says the earl, ‘I want to commission you to do a couple of portraits of Gwen and me.’

Peter smiles. Perhaps there is something of the fantasy remaining. He turns to his patron and nods. In his mind he takes off his tricorn hat and bows with a flourish.

‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Nonsense. As you know, I’ve admired your work for some time. It’s painterly – completely different to the new lot. Horses for courses, though.’

‘Indeed.’

‘What I want is something old-fashioned and permanent. You see this fellow here.’

Peter reads from the brass plate, ‘Sir Richard Peacock.’

‘He married into the family in the eighteenth century. I like the way he looks, against this rather striking romantic background. What I have in mind is a pair of portraits in costume. I want them for this gallery. They’ll call me a reactionary but modern photographs just wouldn’t look right.’

‘No they wouldn’t.’

The earl lays his hand on Peter’s shoulder. ‘Think you can do it?’

As they discuss the project further, Peter is delighted. This is what he has been getting at all along. He has studied the great masters of portraiture – Reynolds, Lawrence, Kneller, Zoffany – and it is their sense of grandeur and style that he has tried to emulate. But in modern dress there isn’t scope to express such a vision. He is sure this commission will lead to a whole series of portraits that will divert fashion away from its temporary course.

Suddenly there are voices and the large white and gilt doors at the far end are flung open. Harry, the earl’s son, and Cecil P, a treasury minister, stride through.

At first they do not seem to realise anyone else is there but after a few moments Harry stops talking, looks up, and immediately bows his head.

‘Father. Peter.’

‘Evening, Harry,’ says the earl. He looks towards Cecil. ‘Mr P.’

‘My lord.’ Cecil nods, smiling broadly. As ever, his wide eyes appear hooded when he blinks. His dinner suit is a size too big for him but can’t disguise what a compact, athletically dynamic man he is. Not for the first time, Peter notices how his somewhat babyish face becomes egg-like at the crown.

As the men advance Peter hears the earl make a strange, ‘Huh,’ sound before asking, ‘And what have you two been plotting? The overthrow of the Prime Minister?’

‘Not the Prime Minister but we think it’s time the Chancellor went,’ says Harry.

‘Good God, the man’s only been in the job five minutes. What’s wrong with him?’

‘Trying to engineer a boom, importing massive quantities of raw materials, increasing the balance of payments deficit, drawing on reserves and borrowing from the IMF. That do you?’

‘And what is friend P going to do about it when he’s in Number Eleven?’

Unusually, Cecil hesitates before replying.

‘Don’t be shy, Cecil,’ says Harry. We’re all friends here.’ He turns to Peter and smiles.

‘Absolutely,’ says Peter. Is he imagining it or was that smile intended to call his loyalty into question? He feels as if his skin is tightening and his body is shrinking inside his clothes.

‘It’s really quite simple,’ says Cecil.

‘It always is,’ says the earl.

‘Under the Chancellor’s management, the economy is losing its equilibrium. To avoid disaster, he has two options – either devalue or reign back till there’s a balance of payments surplus that’ll cover the already substantial deficit.’

‘All clever stuff, I’m sure,’ says the earl. ‘But if it were that simple surely he’d already be doing what you’ve just said? Dammit, the man’s not a fool!’

‘Well—’

‘Strikes me that the best thing for party and country is continuity – there’s been too much chopping and changing recently. Better for everybody if the Treasury stood firm behind the Chancellor like loyal employees!’

‘With all respect, father, loyalty and continuity are fine when we’re seen as the natural party of government.’

‘Poppycock!’

‘Nowadays we have to use subversion and commando tactics. It’s a messy business.’

Before the earl can reply, there is the sound of excited voices moving up the main staircase, like a mob. A file of chanting men and women surges into the room. ‘Yippee, yippee, ya,ya. Yippee, yippee, ya,ya. Ya-ya, yaa, yaa. Ya-ya, yaa, yaa.’

‘What the devil?’ shouts the earl, but his voice is drowned by the revellers who weave their tipsy, winding and ox-bowing course through the long gallery, before disappearing unconcernedly the way they came. Before they finally vanish a lone figure disengages itself from column’s tail.

A tall, liquid female figure in long purple and pea-green batik dress, flowing towards them, arms raised above her head in a diamond. Rich dark brown eyes and swishing hair, pale peach skin and palest pink lips. Swaying rhythmically before them, each in turn, spellbinding with her movements and her stare until, with a lingering glance at Peter, she turns and skips from the room.

The earl is the first to speak. ‘Who in heaven’s name was that? Harry, you have some peculiar friends.’

The younger men look at the earl in quiet amazement as if his words are the ravings of a lunatic.

With a shake of his head he strides out of the room, saying, ‘I’m off to bed.’

Cecil turns to Peter and grins lasciviously. ‘Yes,’ he chortles, ‘who in heaven’s name was that?’


VIII
It is a colourless April day. Peter parks his sports car in front of a terrace of tall Victorian houses, climbs the steps of the end one and rings the bell.

The door opens almost immediately and before him stands the girl who danced in the long gallery. Her hair is shorter now and curls forward into blunt points either side of her face. She wears an orange cotton minidress. Her feet are bare.

‘Yes?’ Her voice is unexpectedly deep and a little husky. She looks at him and blinks.

‘R, Peter R. The photographer.’

The girl’s look is blank.

‘You are Cordelia D?’ He is bewitched by her beauty, by her innocence. She is like a child. He remembers being nudged by Cecil. Gutttersnipe!

‘Of course,’ the girl says. Suddenly she seems to remember something. ‘Instead of Rich.’

‘He’s ill.’

‘Poor Richy.’

‘On the mend.’

‘You’d better come in. Do you have—?’ She pauses, wide-eyed. ‘A camera?’

‘In the car. But I thought I’d introduce myself first. Have a look round – see where we can do the shoot.’

‘I suppose you know what you’re doing.’

‘I ought to be offended.’

She ignores the comment. ‘There’s the drawing-room. Or maybe you’d prefer outside. There’s a garden – though to be quite honest, I don’t know what it’s like. I simply haven’t seen it for ages.’

Peter closes the door and follows.

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