Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Wallace Collection, Arms and Armour

Just a couple of minutes walk from my work’s London offices is the Wallace collection. One of the things I love about London is that a gallery of this significance can end up little known amongst Londoners and tourists. London is teeming with galleries and museums, it’s a hotbed of culture and learning. This is why it’s my favourite city in the world.

I wasn’t aware of it until I started walking past it, on my walks two and from work. Marylebone with it’s quirky shops and great pubs is a wonderful part of our capital and the Wallace collection, in the relative quiet of Manchester Square is a little serene part of it. Like most museums and galleries in London, it’s free, which is brilliant of course.

Although it houses sculpture, ceramics, furniture and paintings; including work by Frans Hals “Laughing Cavalier”, Rubens, Gainsborough, as well as a number of Venice paintings by Canaletto, what I enjoy most about the exhibition space is the Arms and Armour, especially the Oriental gallery, these exotic curved swords, tulwars, scimitars, katanas. Some of them seem very top heavy, with the blade getting progressively wider towards the point, then tapering to a deadly sharpness at the tip. It makes me wonder how they could possibly be wielded.

I always had it in my head that a good sword should be able to balance on the hilt, so the weight was equally distributed between the handle and blade respectively. I think I heard it in something like Time Team, where a modern smith shows us how a sword was made Mediaeval style. Of course this would have been in the European tradition. I may have made that up of course, but it seems sensible. Having a top heavy sword would be difficult to swing and recover, you’d need exceptionally strong wrists (ahem), otherwise you’d have to use it more like an axe, where you are relying on strength of swing and impact to keep the initiative as opposed to a flurry of accurate attacks from a more balanced blade. Anyway, I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about… so I’ll shut up and share a pic of a cool display of eastern weaponry.

And a suit of armour. Indian I believe. Some helmets had a little fine and light chainmail veil. Probably not for any defensive reason, but merely to hide the face of your assailant. Is fighting someone faceless more sinister? Or is it so the attacker can hide his own fear, to not give the game away that he is utterly terrified?

Quick geek observation : This armour looks a little like one of the Ring Wraiths duds in Lord of the Rings (the movie)

A samurai sword, a katana, displayed in the traditional style, to honour it. The inscription says the scabbard is 19th century, but the blade itself (recently) repolished is from the early 15th centure, of the Mihara school, Bingo province, South West Japan.

Samurai sword steel can be folded around 200 times in the making of the blade. I always thought it was because it somehow made it sharper, but it seems it was because the steel was full of impurities and the incessant and continued folding removed those impurities and porous qualities, making it immensely strong. Seeing something of this age always makes me think of its story, how many souls had it stolen? Who owned it? From century to century? What they were like?

And the workmanship can sometimes be of incredible quality. Some weapons were of course ceremonial, but others I’m sure were owned by powerful men, to draw blood, to maim and kill. You can imagine how in ages past, beautiful swords and weapons could be thought of as imbued with magical powers.

Another interesting aspect of the museum is you can look into the history and composition of every piece of weaponry, no matter how small. There are catalogues along the walls which you can reference. I picked a dagger at random to demonstrate, this dagger in isolation is course beautiful, but in terms of the collection itself, it is a relatively unremarkable item.

So… this savage but beautiful dagger for instance is Moghul Indian 17th century (ref 1384 in pic), with a jade, gold and agate hilt. The scabbard however is Turkish from the 19th century, the original scabbard seemingly lost. Note how even though the scabbard was made approximately 200 years after the dagger itself, whoever owned it commissioned that they should use the same white jade designs on the scabbard, to make it in keeping with the hilt. This was clearly a treasured item, worked and reworked, repaired and passed down. Perhaps it was a war trophy, from a defeated foe? An Ottoman general’s booty? Once again, I’m making it all up, so I’ll shut up. But it does make you think, every item in the collection has a story. Was the Ottoman general himself defeated, hence his dagger ended up auctioned and displayed in London?

As well as the Oriental and Eastern galleries, there are European arms and armour, equally savage. This fine fellow stands tall and imposing in one of the rooms, I felt sorry for the horses, I’m sure they had no concept of the aesthetic coolness of their armour. Poor beasts! In the cabinet behind him, you can see some evil looking polearms.

A monstrous gargoyle mask, used as a visor on a european helmet. Totally shit inducing. (I’ll get the reference next time I pop in, for now make do with “totally shit inducing” – which I’m sure is not the description in the catalogue)

And a beautiful mace head, I believe forged in Milan. Look at that work, it would almost be a privilege to have your bonce stoved in by it. *clump!* “Thank you sir!” *falls over*

Anyway, I’m digressing into farcical nonsense, can’t wait to go back, apparently (because I’m a numpty and didn’t realise there was a lower ground floor) there is another gallery of further Eastern arms and armour in the basement. This is a temporary exhibition and it’s only on until 26th March 2012, so get your skates on if you want to look at curvy swords and daggers and imagine yourself as a powerful sultan, draped in silks and fine ladies whilst whimsically sipping tea and writing poetry as your eunuch Oud player plucks out another classic ditty in your court.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Russian Pizza

I don’t remember my dreams, not usually. But when I do, they are usually utterly warped and insane, i.e befitting of my character.

Let me regale you with one particularly vivid one. It’s about 20 years old now and I feel I must capture it for posterity, else it may be lost forever.

Me and one of my oldest and dearest friends Sal were on Wood Green high road. A new shop seemed to have sprung up, a restaurant of some kind, called “Russian Pizza”. We decided to try it out.

When we got in we witnessed a really bizarre scene. Ladies and gentlemen, seemingly from the Edwardian era were dining there. In fact the entire clientele of the restaurant was solely comprised of these old fashioned types. Men - in their waistcoats, top hats, monocles, pocket watches and formal coats. Women, with their whale bone skirts, tight at the waist, and frilly high collared blouses. Anyway, they were eating spaghetti, directly off the table, with their hands. They were troughing it like troopers, bits of tomato sauce were splatting all over the gaffe and it was dripping from their slobbery chops. The messy buggers.

We approached the greasy aproned proprietor at the far end of the restaurant, trying to avoid stray splashes of ferociously consumed pasta sauce along the way. We asked what was on the menu. As he stirred his huge cauldron he nonchalantly announced “you can have spaghetti like all these people or you can have Russian Pizza, but I warn you if you have Russian Pizza it will turn you into a werewolf”

And instantly I said “Yep! Russian Pizza for me!”. Now Sal was the voice of reason, he tried to talk me out of it in a shaggy from scooby doo voice all lily-ish and wavering. “Did you hear what he said? Don’t have Russian Pizza man, you’ll turn into a werewolf!”

But I ordered it anyway, after a few bites, I felt myself transform, my body break and realign itself, my muscles tightening and strengthening. I felt all powerful and yes, I was a werewolf. I was a machine built for speed and killing. I ran out of the shop (on all fours of course) and Wood Green had melted away, we weren’t in suburban north london, I was in a forest, at night, moonlight streaming through the leaves. I charged through the trees at lightning pace, barely avoiding them, weaving in and out. It felt incredible. Even better than the few times I was lucky to fly in my dreams (flying felt like swimming through treacle for me, nothing like superman).

I had the scent of something, I homed in and alone in a clearing was a sheep. I tore it to pieces and scoffed it. All went red. Then I woke up confused yet exhilarated.

I rang Sal the next day and told him about the dream, asked him what he thought it meant.. “What do you think it means Sal?” I said.

There was a moments silence, he contemplated an answer. And I’ll never forget what he said.

“It means you are a greedy fat bastard, as no one has lamb after eating pizza.”

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Pegsdon Hills

As a Londoner by birth and background, I have to say I would probably find it quite difficult to move back to London. I’m a country lad now. All wearing my waxed jacket, flat cap, monocle, plus fours, land rover and shooting serfs, whilst throttling quails with my bare hands and making blood offerings to angry harvest gods who look like the hairy bikers. (not really, I don’t own a gas guzzling land rover!)

One of my favourite places in my adopted home of Bedfordshire is Pegsdon Hills. On the edge of the Chilterns it gives rewarding views after an exerting walk up. We drove past the Hills today, so it inspired us both to write our Haiku’s (check today’s “A Haiku a day”) and I dug through the photos we took of the area over the last couple of summers and in the last Spring just gone (it is obvious these are not January skies in the photos!)

Pegsdon Hills were forged by glaciers in the last ice age and you can see it in the contours of the land. Hills have been shoved up as the edge of the glacier pushed southwards, the power of the cold and ice testing the limits of the temperate world.

It’s amazing to think the ice cap covered most of the UK back then. It feels magical standing up on the ridge and looking down into the valleys and onwards to the beautiful patchwork fields which define southern England. It’s easy to imagine a sheet of ice extending way out in front of you, like a Neolithic pioneer eking out a living skirting the boundaries of their territory.

The ridge at the top of the hills is an old trail, which can be traced all the way to the South-West, dating back to pre-historic times, so I’m sure they are probably some flint tools secreted away somewhere. I haven’t found any yet, but sometimes there is a little sharp glint in the chalky soil, I pick it up excitedly, but it isn’t a tool, just a flint chipped naturally. One day.

The wildlife and nature is incredible, buzzards and red kites circle. A parliament (what a cool collective noun – I had to look it up) of Rooks, murders of crows all lie on the sunny hill banks, floating up in the air like a black cloud when disturbed.

Lapwings nest in a protected field too, beautiful birds.

But the most fun thing we’ve seen is two stoats, playing. We were downwind of them, so they didn’t see or smell us, we stood completely still and watched them play for several minutes. I managed to get a short film, only one of them stars in this clip I’m afraid, it’s a shame as they were chasing each other and rolling around, having great fun. But it’s still a decent clip involving some impressive gymnastics.

And the sunsets. The first pic is a tree that stands alone and defiant on the top of the ridge. It’s bent in the wind, but it stands strong. We’re very fond of this tree.

You can see the same tree in this next photo…. if you follow the line of the fence post upwards, it hits a bushy tree on the skyline… well look right of that, there is a skinny little tree, in fact it doesn’t even look like a tree, it just looks like two tiny dots on top of each other… that’s the tree in the photo above!

Another sunset shot.

* – No serfs were harmed in the writing of this blog.

** – All of the photos (and the film) are mine, all mine and you should ask permission if you wish to reproduce, on pain of having me invoke a harvest god come round your house and beat seven shades of shit out of you with his threshing stick.