Milan, 25 February 2018

Yesterday was a day of political excitement in Milan. With the elections only a week away, things are hotting up. There was a large gathering in Piazza Duomo of the Lega, a much smaller gathering of left-wingers in Largo La Foppa, and an even smaller gathering of anarchists of various stripes somewhere else. Below, I show a picture of the leftwing gathering in Largo La Foppa.

The police barred their way as the marchers tried to leave Largo La Foppa, the temperature was mounting, and at some point the police charged – or maybe the marchers charged, or pushed forward. Anyway, the police started wielding their batons, while the marchers protected themselves, somewhat bizzarely, with inflatable boats – taken to remind the world of the plight of the refugees, according to the newspapers, but it seems to me also an excellent way of protecting oneself from the police batons.

At the same time, the police shot off a couple of canisters of tear gas, that white smoke one sees behind the marchers.

Meanwhile, my wife and I were sitting down having tea and cannoncini (a puff pastry stuffed with vanilla cream) under those large white umbrellas one can see to the left in this last photo. We were there quite by chance, being on our way to see Daniel Day-Lewis in his last film, “The Phantom Thread”. We were early and those large umbrellas belong to a good pastry shop, so we decided to treat ourselves. We made our way round what seemed to us quite a small crowd (the papers talk of 1,500 but in my opinion it was no more than 200), got our tea and canoncini, and sat down. It was fun to watch all the flag waving going on in front of us and reminisce about our youth. Suddenly, the noise levels rose, there were sounds of shots, and two little smoking canisters landed almost at our feet. My wife, a veteran of Milan’s 1968 riots, leaped up in alarm and urged me to move. But I saw no need for panic, I thought they were crackers thrown by some of the marchers. I rapidly changed my mind when I breathed in the smoke. It immediately caught you terribly in the throat and made your eyes burn and weep. This was tear gas, for God’s sake!! I grabbed my cup of tea and the remainder of my cannoncino and shouted to my wife to move. Together with other customers, we blundered into the pastry shop and stood there gasping and wheezing and coughing. According to my wife, who had had a whiff or two of tear gas in her youth, technology has improved in the last fifty years; she didn’t remember it catching you so strongly in the throat. I wouldn’t know, this was my first exposure to the stuff. Eventually, we were shepherded out to a back yard, from which we exited into a side street and made our escape to the cinema.

All this excitement has led me to reminisce about marches and protests in the arts. The most well-known painting on the topic of marches must be Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s “The Fourth Estate”, which gives the working man a wonderful dignity

while “Liberty Guiding the People”, by Eugène Delacroix, must be the most famous painting on the topic of insurrections, in this case the insurrections of 1848.

Once the October Revolution rolled around, revolution and the working class became respectable subjects of art. Staying with marches, where I started this post, we have, for example, “The Bolshevik”, by Boris Kustodiev.

And, of course, we have the start of that wonderful art form, the propaganda poster, where marches of the proletariat were a popular subject. Here we have a Soviet propaganda poster.

The Chinese picked up on the art form with a vengeance. They made some great paintings, which I mentioned in an earlier post about a new museum we visited in Shanghai, but their propaganda art was fantastic. Here’s one with the Chinese people walking towards a bright future.

The caption declares: “Smash the imperialist war conspiracy, forge ahead courageously to build our peaceful and happy life!” Change that to “the 1%” and we have a message for our times …

I have to say, though, I always preferred the type of Chinese propaganda poster which has smiling, muscular workers:

The North Koreans were still making these type of poster when I made an official visit there with my wife in 2009. We asked if they could give us a copy of one of these posters, but the best they could come up with was one urging people to wash their hands to reduce the spread of illnesses…

The Mexican muralists also painted some great revolutionary art, especially Diego Rivera. We have here his “Uprising”

and this is his “Distribution of Arms”

I posted photos of some of his other revolutionary murals earlier, after our last visit to Mexico.

Wonderful stuff. But who paints it anymore? Revolution is out of fashion, at least for the moment.

Ah well … In the meantime, we will be passing through Largo La Foppa again today, to go and see another film. That gives my wife the opportunity to have another cannoncino; while I saved mine, hers got lost in the confusion of running away from the tear gas.


March in Milan:
Quarto Stato: By Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo – Associazione Pellizza da Volpedo, Public Domain,
Liberté Guidant le Peuple:
Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik:
Soviet propaganda poster:
Chinese propaganda poster:
Chinese propaganda poster2:
Diego Rivera, the Uprising:
Diego Rivera Distribution of Arms: http://


Sori, 14th February 2018

Once, after I’d made a speech in Bangkok about how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, with multiple environmental disasters awaiting us, I was asked by the MC (who clearly had no idea what to say to me) what I most missed in Thailand. The seasons, I replied: winter, spring, summer, autumn. It was indeed one of the few things I missed in Bangkok from my European heritage; I always felt that South-East Asia was seasonal monotony. It was either hot or hotter, with rain added from time to time.

Now that I’m back in Europe, I can enjoy the four seasons again. Right now, in a masochistic sort of way, I’m enjoying the tail-end of the winter season: ah, that cold north wind which causes you to pull your head and shoulders into your coat like a turtle into its shell … But here on the Ligurian coast, located in its own warm microclimate, we already have signs that spring is on its way! As we have been walking the hills, there have been signs all around us that Nature is getting ready to burst forth again, like in Botticelli’s Spring.

We have the mimosa trees, whose festival it will soon be

the almond trees, seen here on a walk in the Cinque Terre

the crocuses, in the shady underforest

a lone primrose, also spied on the sun-speckled forest floor

carpets of a yellow flower, to me unknown, bedecking the sides of the paths open to the sun

bushes of rosemary growing from out of the rocks

purple irises, not a flower I connect with early spring

a humble little mauve flower, growing at the foot of olive trees

even a bright yellow fungus, returning a dead log to the earth from whence it came.

Yes, nothing so lovely as the Earth bursting into life. No wonder the poets have often sung about spring! Here’s a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, entitled simply Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Happy Saint Valentine’s!


Boticelli’s Primavera:
All other pics: all ours


Sori, 10th February 2018

My wife and I were recently in Genoa. Since it was a rainy day, we had decided that our usual excursions along the coast were out, and had opted to visit a couple of exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. The Palazzo Ducale was recently the scene of much brou-ha-ha. It had hosted an exhibition of Modigliani’s paintings. Some Modigliani experts had claimed that half the paintings were fakes (apparently Modigliani is very easy to fake), the organizer retorted that all the paintings had certificates of authenticity emitted by various other experts and that very respectable institutions had already hosted the exhibition, the Carabinieri had nevertheless moved in and confiscated the whole exhibition and were pressing charges for fraud, the organizer in turn was suing person or persons unknown for making false claims … in a word, there was a right royal mess.

Luckily, the exhibitions we were visiting were not the subject of such polemics. One was an exhibition of works by Picasso from the Picasso Museum in Paris. Although interesting, I will not comment on it (although I should note in passing that Picasso has also been widely faked: organizers beware!). The other was an exhibition of works by Rubaldo Merello.

I will perfectly understand if readers have never heard of Merello. I had not heard of him either until we saw this exhibition advertised. He is, to be honest, a minor Italian painter and sculptor, and his story is quickly told. Born in 1872, he worked at the turn of the last century, dying in 1922 at the relatively young age of 50. He was a local son, learning his trade at Genoa’s Accademia Ligustica delle Belli Arti. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he tied his colours to the movement known as divisionismo, Italy’s answer to France’s pointillisme. For some reason which is not completely clear but which may have had to do with his paintings being rejected by the 1st Venice Biennale, he started isolating himself from the art world, eventually holing up, in 1906, in San Fruttuoso, a small fishing hamlet on the promontory of Monte di Portofino.

I have already written about San Fruttuoso in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating here that while charming San Fruttuoso is very remote. The only ways to reach it are by boat from Camogli, which even today can be impossible if the sea is too rough, or by foot up and around the mountain and then down a steep track to the shore – in Merello’s days either your own feet or mules’ feet. But Merello buried himself and his family here for eight years, despite many calls from his friends to return to civilization. He paid the price for his isolationism. In 1913, his younger son died of diphtheria because medical help couldn’t arrive quickly enough. His wife had a breakdown after her son’s death (poor woman, who can blame her after the hermit’s life her husband had imposed on her), and Merello himself was never quite the same. He moved the remaining family to Santa Margherita Ligure in 1914 and worked there, mostly on sculptures, until he died.

Because Merello chose to stay in San Fruttuoso, most of his paintings are of the hamlet and its surroundings. His paintings of the hamlet itself are interesting but no more than that.

It’s when Merello clambered up the mule track behind San Fruttuoso to be high up above the village that his paintings begin to grip me. There was one view in particular which he painted again and again, almost obsessively it would seem, a view of the small bay of San Fruttuoso from the Monte di Portofino, which I have been always fond of. It is a plunging view, from high up the mountain down to the lapis lazuli sea far below, seen through a screen of trees. It is a view much photographed.

Merello tried a number of colour combinations for the view, resulting in a fascinating array of paintings.

Even more striking, though, were his paintings still from high on the mountain but now focusing just on pines and the sea in the far distance.

He arrived finally at an almost abstract composition of pine against water.

If this last painting had fallen off the back of a truck, I would not have hesitated to keep it, on the basis of the morally dubious saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Out of a somewhat masochistic curiosity, I checked auction prices for Merello’s paintings. While many orders of magnitude below what you need in your bank account to buy a (real) Picasso, at around €40,000 a painting they are way out of my league. Well, I guess I’ll never have a Merello on my wall – unless it falls off the back of a truck.


Rubaldo Merello:
San Fruttuoso:
San Fruttuoso:
The bay of San Fruttuoso from above:
Other photos: my pics


Milan, 4 February 2018

A Gentle Reader of my recent post on the use of orange peel in coffee sent me a link to a post about some young fellow, a barista, who makes a coffee with vanilla and orange peel in a bar on Venice Beach. The post has a picture of the barista at work, which I include here.

My other Gentle Readers will note that the barista’s mustache ends have a certain curl to them. That curl is the subject of this piece.

The fact is, I have recently begun to notice that some of the men I pass in the street who happen to sport mustaches have begun to add a curl to them. I throw in here a picture or two which I found here and there on the internet.

This new fashion in facial hair is an example of that adage “what goes around comes around” (or maybe of that other adage “there’s nothing new under the sun”). Curled mustaches have certainly not been in fashion during my lifetime – Salvador Dalì’s weird mustache definitely being an example of yet another saying: the exception that proves the rule.

They don’t seem to have been in fashion in my parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime either. If men had mustaches at all in their time, they favoured pencil-thin mustaches à la Clark Gable

or trim mustaches favoured – at least in my mind – by military types

(although there was a sub-culture of daring RAF pilots during the War who chose to grow handlebar mustaches, luxuriant mustaches discretely curled at their ends).

The mustache-beard combination was also relatively rare: men went around bare-chinned for the most part. King George V seems to have bucked the prevalent trends, at least when he was young and still Prince, growing both a luxuriant beard and giving his mustache a slight curl.

By the time he was King and needed to emanate a certain gravitas his mustache was no longer curled.

Perhaps George was copying his elder brother, Albert Victor (who died young and so never reigned), who opted to give his mustaches a more foppish curl (but shunned the beard).

I’m guessing that curled mustaches were more of a continental phenomenon, and a southern (Catholic) continental phenomenon at that. I suspect that during most of the 20th Century Englishmen felt that it was only funny little foreigners who curled their mustache – one only has to read what Agatha Christie had to say about Poirot’s mustache to get a sense of the ordinary Englishman-on-the-street’s feelings about highly curled mustaches.

Indeed, in my great-grand parents’ time it seems that only southern continentals had curled mustaches. We have Napoleon III

and even more strikingly Vittorio-Emanuele II, first king of united Italy.

I have already written about how my French great-grandfather followed his Emperor’s fashions in hair and beard, only to change to a more Prussian style when Napoleon III got the shit beaten out of him by Bismarck, whose mustache was very much in the no-nonsense style.

A quick review of even earlier Movers and Shakers – Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and such like – suggests to me that apart from a few exceptions, mustaches, when grown, were not commonly curled until one gets back into the mid-17th Century, the era of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, when anyone who was anyone sported a curling mustache, accompanied not by a full beard but by a goatee. The best example of the style is Cardinal Richelieu.

The face of the king he served, King Louis XIII, was similarly festooned

although even in this he was overshadowed by his Minister: who associates Louis XIII with curled mustaches?

On the other side of the Pyrenees Philip IV similarly sported a curled mustache and goatee beard (which didn’t hide his protruding Hapsburg chin)

As did Charles I across the Channel.

Clearly, curled mustaches with goatees were in.

No European King prior to this generation seems to have curled his mustaches, but it must have been in fashion earlier. Here, for instance, from England’s Elizabethan era, we have that English vice-admiral (pirate might be a better word, or buccaneer if we want to be more romantic) Sir Francis Drake.

And here we have Sir Walter Raleigh, another swashbuckling fellow (and good poet).

In fact, all of those sailor-pirate-explorer types that Elizabeth favoured tended to have upward-curving mustaches:
Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Sir Richard Grenville

Sir John Hawkins

and his son, Sir Richard Hawkins.

I presume that equally dashing lads throughout Europe curled their mustaches. Was it a fashion started by men living on the edge of respectability, the wild ones in Good Society, the ones you loved to read about but would definitely not marry your daughter off to, a fashion which then crept into more respectable circles to be finally sported by Kings and Cardinals?

Of course, I have been revoltingly Eurocentric up to now in this piece. It is time to give space to other parts of the world where curled mustaches have made their mark. And here I’m thinking principally of the Indian subcontinent, which has given us examples of some magnificently curled mustaches. Currently, the Sikhs seem to be the ones carrying forward this tradition

but in the past well curled mustaches – and rich and full beards – were common in the Indian subcontinent.

Well, I end my historical tour of the curled mustache here. I can only look on men who curl their mustaches with envy. As I reported earlier, I’ve never grown a beard and if I did it would be a mangy thing. I grew a mustache once in my life and it was a raggedly sorry affair despite my best efforts. Well, that’s life: you live with the genes your parents gave you, and I didn’t get the gene for rich, thick, curlable mustaches. Hey ho.

Modern curled mustaches:
Modern curled mustaches:
Modern curled mustaches:
Modern curled mustaches:
Modern curled mustaches:
Modern curled mustaches:
Salvador Dali:
Clark Gable:
Military man with mustache:
RAF fighter pilot:
young King George V:
old King George V:
Prince Albert Victor:,_Duke_of_Clarence_and_Avondale
Hercule Poirot:
Napoleon III:
Vittorio-Emanuele II:
Cardinal Richelieu:
Louis XIII:
Charles I:
Philip IV:
Francis Drake:
Martin Frobisher:
Humphrey Gilbert:
Richard Grenville:
John Hawkins:
Richard Hawkins:
Indian Maharaja:
Indian Maharaja:
Bearded Sikh:
Bearded Sikh: