22 November 2015

The Fallen Angel of Madrid

Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal'd the most High,
If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

Killing time a few years ago, whilst idly wandering about the city of Madrid, somewhat unexpectedly, I suddenly found myself feeling a certain sympathy for the Devil. 

Madrid is the perfect city for meandering around on foot. It is one of Europe’s foremost centres of the arts and culture, filled with literary and historical associations, a perfect place for contemplation. The labyrinthine paths of El Retiro lend themselves to just such a sense of natural reflection. On the several occasions I have previously visited Madrid the Retiro is somewhere I always go.

El Retiro, or to give it its full title – Parque del Buen Retiro, the ‘Park of Pleasant Retreat’ – is the largest green space within the Spanish Capital. It dates back to the 1500s, and has a long historical association with the Spanish Royal Household, but was first opened to the public in 1767 and finally passed into public ownership in 1868. It is filled with beautiful tall trees, shrubs and flower gardens, with many fountains, artificial lakes, sculptures, and some interesting architectural features, such as the monumental colonnade of the Monumento a Alfonso XII, and the wonderful Palacio de Cristal, or ‘Crystal Palace’ (said to have been modelled on the much larger one built in London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851). But for me the most interesting feature of the park is a curious bronze statue, set high upon a stone pedestal above a fountain – the Fuente del Ángel Caído, or the ‘Fountain of the Fallen Angel’. 

The statue is commonly purported to be the only publicly authorised depiction of Satan or Lucifer anywhere in the world. First created in plaster by the sculptor, Ricardo Bellver (pictured right), for the Spanish National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1878, in which it won First Medal, it was subsequently cast in bronze for the 1878 World Fair in Paris. The nearby Museo del Prado later donated the statue to the city, and so it was placed upon a stone plinth surmounting a fountain decorated with various bronze gargoyles each devouring various lizards and serpents, designed by Francisco Jareño. The sculpture of the diabolical winged figure reeling back, with struggling limbs wreathed in serpents, shouting angrily at the sky above, which bears a very strong resemblance to a depiction (c.1866) of the same theme by the artist Gustav Doré, is said to have been inspired by the passage describing Satan’s fall from Heaven in the first Canto of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (first published in 1667, with a final revised version appearing in 1674).


Milton’s Paradise Lost is a curious work. An epic poem written in blank verse, it describes how Satan, having been cast out of Heaven after a battle with God, travels on an arduous journey to the Garden of Eden on a quest to tempt Adam and Eve to defy God’s Will and eat from the Tree of Knowledge, thereby precipitating mankind’s fall from Grace and Satan’s own retreat into perdition. It is a heavy going poem in parts, but it is certainly a rewarding read, and it has given the English language some of it’s more memorable and quotable lines, such as: “All is not lost …” and “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” 

Milton was, of course, a prominent figure in the Puritan Revolution which briefly succeeded in making England a Republic under Oliver Cromwell when the Parliamentarian Forces won the English Civil War in 1651. Milton supported the regicide of King Charles I, and, as such, the sentiments so eloquently expressed in the poem by Satan against the hypocrisy and tyranny of God are often thought to reflect this republican stance – yet, Paradise Lost, by the very nature of its subject, poses a bit of an unfathomable and even somewhat dangerous conjecture; for how can a Puritan Christian using such a metaphor for monarchy not thereby also deny the infallible supremacy of God? ... It’s a point which literary scholars have debated strongly, alongside the conundrum as to whether or not Satan is, or should be thought of as the central ‘hero’ of the poem.

I confess, I certainly don’t know enough about the English Civil War, nor about Milton for that matter, to have a definite view on these contentious questions – but, having read Paradise Lost once, it has significantly hooked my intrigue, and as such it is definitely a work which I know I shall one day return to and read again. Certainly, my first reading of it was fairly beguiling and left me feeling puzzled. I knew Milton was a staunch Puritan and a supporter of republicanism, but reading the lines which speak so clearly against the tyranny of God I couldn’t help but reflect on his political proximity to Oliver Cromwell, England’s Lord Protector, “warts and all” – a different, but nonetheless de facto, kind of dictator. I suspect I may well be reading too much of my own half-informed suppositions back into his poem, but this metaphorical tangle did seem somewhat baffling.

What little I know of Milton is actually gleaned from my readings about Andrew Marvell, the politician who is now best remembered as an exceptionally fine poet. The ‘Metaphysical Poets’, with whom Marvell is now grouped, along with the ‘Romantics’ are my most favourite schools, and I often re-read much of their work; hence why I perhaps feel an affinity for the Romantics’ interpretation of Milton’s epic over those of theologically inclined critics such as C.S. Lewis, who argued that there was no such conceptual conflict and that Milton’s conception of God could easily be disassociated from his views of Charles I (and what of Cromwell?), whereas William Blake espoused that: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.” … It is, as I'd agree, a much more tempting entertainment to let one’s self succumb to a certain Byronic sympathy for the Devil, after all!

Both Milton and Marvell survived the Restoration, with Marvell, it is said, succeeding in persuading the government of King Charles II not to execute Milton for his anti-monarchical writings and revolutionary activities. Marvell however remained ‘in opposition’ all his life to the corruption which he saw as rife within the Royal Court, penning anonymous works of eloquent satire upon the theme, the extreme sensitivity of which meant they could not appear in print under his name until well after his death.

I’d love to know more about how and why Ricardo Bellver chose Milton’s ‘Fall of Satan’ as his subject for the sculpture in Madrid’s Retiro. There may, of course, be nothing much to it ... But it was, and in many ways, it remains an original subject to depict; and, naturally, certain stories will always arise around such curiosities – for instance, it is said that purely by chance Jareño’s stone pedestal has unwittingly set Bellver’s statue at precisely 666 metres above sea-level. But if such monuments tend somewhat inevitably to accrue a DanBrown-esque tinge of ‘sub-mythification’, it doesn’t take too much over-interpretation to appreciate the curious fact that to this day a statue of Cromwell, that most contentious of English statesmen, still presides over Parliament Square in London, when you know that he is watched over by a craftily concealed ‘head’ of Charles I which is mounted over a sealed doorway of the nearby Church of St Margaret (see here). Even when immortality is perhaps gained in bronze, to be cast out of Heaven is to be an outcast for all eternity.

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.


Read about my search for Don Quixote in Madrid – Chasing Cervantes

11 November 2015

Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri - Tokyo

Tsukiji was dead. Contrary to all expectations, when we arrived there wasn’t a single soul to be seen. The place was deserted. Disconcertingly so. We wandered with a growing sense of trepidation, wondering what might have happened? … I’d previously read an article on Tsukiji in the National Geographic (November, 1995) which had said that Tsukiji – the largest and busiest fish market in Japan – never slept. In fact, the place had famously inverted day and night, with its employees sitting down to dinner and cold glasses of beer at the end of a ‘hard day’s night’, just as the rest of Tokyo was waking up and starting to think about breakfast.

Located south of Ginza, Tokyo’s Knightsbridge, on the edge of Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Central Wholesale Food Market, more popularly known as Tsukiji – meaning “reclaimed land” – dates back to the Edo Period when, following the disastrous Great Fire of Meireki (also known as the Furisode Fire) of 1657 which destroyed nearly 70% of the capital, much of the debris from the city was used to consolidate this area which was previously marshland. It then became a place occupied by the grand mansions and large gardens of the feudal elite, the daimyō lords of the outlying provinces, where they lived when they were visiting the Shogun’s capital, as they were periodically obliged to do. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 the area became a special residential district set aside for foreigners. The area changed its character once again after another natural disaster, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when the market relocated here from nearby Nihonbashi. The current market complex began operation in 1935, but, as it occupies an area of prime real estate close to the upmarket retail and business districts of Ginza and the Tokyo waterfront, over the years it’s often been proposed to relocate the market elsewhere, and, currently it looks very likely to do so in order to allow redevelopment ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.

From the lavish photos accompanying the National Geographic article which I’d read, I was expecting to see the water sloshed halls of the market teeming with battered white polystyrene boxes filled with glinting heaps of ice and a myriad array of fish with iridescent scales glittering under rows of electric lights, and the market’s distinctive electric carts flying about the place, weaving in and out of the aisles and deftly dodging collisions with oncoming forklift trucks and other delivery vehicles. The produce sold here is brought in from all regions of the Pacific and beyond – eels from the waters around Taiwan; salmon from the coastal waters off Chile; enormous tuna from the Southern or Antarctic Ocean south of Australia; as well as, sanma (秋刀魚) and hokke (ホッケ) two kinds of mackerel from the local waters around Japan (these are two of my favourites when in Japan, they’re delicious when grilled over hot coals), not to mention all the many kinds of sea slugs, sea urchins, plus plenty of different types of shellfish and seaweed too. Around some two thousand tonnes of seafood pass under the auction hammers here daily. The maguro マグロ (tuna) are a sight to behold – depending on the quality, their huge shiny silver frozen carcasses can sell for between 600,000 and one million Japanese Yen apiece (100 Yen currently being just over 50 pence, so up to almost £5,500!). 

Tsukiji Hongan-ji, built in 1934 is one of the largest and most Indian-looking of Tokyo's Buddhist Temples

Tsukiji is quite a sight to behold, hence why a lot of overseas visitors to Tokyo rouse themselves early from their hotel beds on at least one day during their visit to see it, but naturally, for locals alike, it’s also a Mecca for food lovers in quest of the freshest sushi and sashimi. There are lots of places here to sample perhaps the most distinctive of Japan’s signature culinary delights. Having wandered around the bizarrely empty place for a while we eventually found one small restaurant open down a side street, next door to a little knife vendor’s shop, selling the sharpest knives of varying sizes for filleting fish and slicing the finest (in both senses of the term) cuts of sashimi. Here, at this little family run eating house, we found out why the whole place was so quiet. What we initially thought was our misfortune to have turned up on a closed day turned out to be our very good fortune, as today was the day of the Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri – a local Shinto religious festival.

Mikoshi (御輿) are very ornate, gilded sacred palanquins which are used throughout Japan to parade an effigy of the local kami (the spirit, god, or genius loci) of a Shinto shrine through the streets of its district or town. Often these mikoshi do not carry the actual sacred effigy from the shrine itself, but rather a ritually invested totem or substitute imbued with the spirit of the local kami. These processions are far from the dour, solemn perambulations which the expectations of Westerners and their own experience of Christian pageantry might naturally expect, but are often in fact rather boisterous and exuberant spectacles, as the locals shake and jostle the mikoshi through the streets whilst singing and chanting as they go. According to some of the books I’ve read this liveliness is a relatively modern custom and in some parts of Japan a more sedate style of procession is apparently still practiced.

Sitting in the restaurant we gradually became aware of the rising hubbub as the procession from Tsukiji’s Namiyoke Inari-jinja, the local shrine, approached. As the sound grew louder I stepped outside with my camera and was swiftly engulfed, cut off from the restaurant, as a great surge of people, all dressed in the colours of their local wards, swelled to completely fill the narrow street. The teams carrying the mikoshi were wearing short jackets, called happi (法被), and split-toed canvas shoes with rubber soles, known as jikatabi (地下足袋), both of these are common kinds of everyday work wear. Some of the men looked like they’d forgotten to put on their trousers, but this was because they were wearing fundoshi (ふんどし), a traditional kind of loincloth. They were carrying a number of different mikoshi. I’ve read that these can often be extremely heavy, and can even weigh in at around a ton. I managed to shoot a couple of short films which really caught the vibrant atmosphere and noise of the procession.


A little book on Japan’s native Shinto religion which I own, titled Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono (Tuttle, 1962), gives the following explanation: “As a rule, the procession may be said to have one or more of the following meanings: (1) It may signify the going out to welcome to the shrine a kami coming from a far-away world or coming down from the kami-world (shinkai). This may be the reason why in some cases a procession in starting from a shrine is calm, as if travelling incognito, while on the return journey it is sometimes merrily animated or proceeds in the darkness with all the lights in the shrine extinguished. (2) It may signify a visit to some place in the parish which has a special spiritual or historical significance for the kami. (3) It may be an occasion for the kami to pass through the parish and bless the homes of the faithful. (4) And finally it may commemorate the historic processions of some Imperial messengers or feudal lords on their way to a shrine. Probably in most cases the procession has some historical significance related either to the appearance of the kami, the founding of the shrine, or some outstanding historical event in the life of the community.”

There was a real, joyous and lively atmosphere of community as the procession swelled and filled the neighbourhood, with lots of friendly, smiling faces all around. As the procession moved on and so began to thin I managed to dash back across the street through the throng of people to the restaurant, to finish our meal. The restaurant owner joked that I’d been gone so long he thought I’d been swept away by the merry tide of revellers. If Tsukiji was dead at the start of this, the day I first visited it in 2005, it certainly ended by coming to life in a most unexpected and interesting way.