“One had a sense of links fished up into the light which are usually submerged.”
— Virginia Woolf, after visiting Knole, 23 January 1927

"A detailed close up of the great chimneypiece and overmantel in the Ballroom at Knole." (c) NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel. No copyright infringement intended. Image found in the National Trust's Works In Print Catalogue:

“A detailed close up of the great chimneypiece and overmantel in the Ballroom at Knole. ” (c) NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel. Image found at the National Trust’s Works In Print Web site:


There is a window at Knole, a house with three hundred and sixty-five rooms: a room for every day of the year, they say, so many it’s rumoured that some remain unmapped.

This window is not grand. It does not glow with gold-tinted light. Nor does it command a prospect high above gallery or dining hall, presiding over brightly painted rams and leopards, pale gentle-faced courtiers and caryatid Medusæ, all the guardians of this noble house. No, this window nestles in the angle made by the join of landing and wall of a lesser member of Knole’s complement of fifty-two staircases.

I found it behind a door I’m not sure I was supposed to open. Its dove-grey walls came as a relief after the vibrant explosion of colour and texture in the public rooms. Through the window clear sunlight fell so softly that it did not carry any distance, but rather halted just past the frame. In this still place, where even the dust motes fell quietly, as if conscious of making too much noise, I sensed grace waiting for me, patiently but without fanfare, as is its nature. Unsure how much time I had before the inevitable arrival of guard or beadle, I stopped to rest my cheek on the stone sill of the casement.

“Casement.” Here is a word out of Tennyson, belonging to storybook princesses or one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s beleaguered heroines. As is tradition, my casement was narrow, mullioned, the glass within the frame bubbled and puckering. Together we gazed imperfectly out onto an interior courtyard, a view shared by similar casements scattered almost at random across a triangle of walls. Far below me, at the heart of this secret, an ashen figure crouched atop a knotty pedestal. The distorted buckle of the glass kept the image from coalescing into a nameable whole. Fountain, statue, remnants of both, collapsing into each other or propped together for storage, it was impossible to say. What is certain is that the arrangement had been forgotten. Or rather, that it existed out of time.

In my memory there are no doors onto the courtyard. The rational part of my mind lazily insists that there must have been a door somewhere down there, beneath the very window at which I was standing and occluded from my sight being the most logical solution…

Ten years later, stretching out my pen, I flick this thought away, listening instead to the distant sound of a clock ticking, for there is always a clock ticking somewhere, in the rooms at Knole, and I roll my head onto my other cheek on that deep cool sill, continue to wonder when the decaying form in the courtyard below last felt the touch of a human hand.

— amrh / June 2006, Sevenoaks, Kent, and September 2015, Mougins


The Painted Staircase at Knole, photo by Nathaniel Lloyd (1867-1933) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Painted Staircase at Knole, photo by Nathaniel Lloyd (1867-1933) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


At this writing, the photos of my visit to Knole are lost: either somewhere in that impossible mound I call “storage” or on a stolen cell phone. A journal entry from 2006 notes that “hardly any of the pictures I took either came out or reflect anything of what I perceived when taking them.” So perhaps their absence is for the best.

 One can happily go blind looking at photos of Knole on the Internet. In the interest of preserving your eyesight, I recommend starting with:

 the WikiMedia Commons photo set of Knole, several of which, by Nathaniel Lloyd, date to the time of Woolf’s visits in the 1920s;

the beautiful Pinhole camera series from Knole by John Sims from 2012, which comes closest to capturing the light as I remember it, albeit on a more renowned staircase:

 and finally, backstage with the Knole Conservation Team, July 2013


Les Anciens Combattants

Eternelle at Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Eternelle at Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

I was sure to be the youngest person there. So wrong was this supposition that when I arrived up at the place, I thought I had stumbled into a wedding, or a children’s party. Running, shouting, weaving in and out, clambering onto the edge of the fountain and threatening to fish for coins, pulling on parental sleeves, begging for a visit to the café…which, somewhat incongruously, was blaring disco from the depths of the Seventies via an amplifier propped high on the struts of the winter-bare canopy. Breathless after the last savage incline that curves through the cemetery at the edge of the village, I found a bench, collapsed, watched the small insistent souls swirl around me.  Outside the mairie early Christmas lights sparkled in twin cypress trees: fingernail-sized, blue-white, rippling out along the feathery branches. Inevitably it came to me, that old cliché, that the path of anti-aircraft fire in a dark sky is like that of fireworks.

It was ten minutes to eleven, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Les Anciens Combattants, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Les Anciens Combattants, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Someone interrupted the disco diva in mid-screech, and put on an equally generic but more patriotic tune. A sudden swell in the crowd, and les anciens combattants began their march, clustered behind a serry of flags: French, British, Australian, others I didn’t recognise and so must hail from far-away places which one had imagined the wars of Europe could not touch. The late morning sun was bright in my eyes and so they faded into view, these ranks of elderly men in dark suits. There were as many varieties of suits as there were men: frayed at cuffs and collar, dusty, stained in odd places; or impeccably pressed with overcoats in rich fabric thrown over an arm. One particularly jaunty type strutted past in a three-piece corduroy suit. Very few were in uniform. But all wore a poppy on their lapel, made of either silk or paper, and many wore red calots, the black braided tassels placed precisely down the centre of the back of their necks. Monsieur le Maire, sturdy, hirsute, brought up the rear, working the crowd like a pro and pausing for a photograph with one of the women handing out stickers in exchange for a donation to the local VA.  Simple emotions were on display: pride, gratitude, friendship. I searched in vain for the solemnity I expected. Perhaps that would come later, at the memorial with its attendant wreaths, its spectacular view out over the hills and down towards the Baie des Anges.

Memorial, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Memorial, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

One tiny blond girl – there is always a tiny blond girl – twirled along in the wake of the procession. She wore a hooded jacket covered in graffiti-esque writing, candy-striped tights, leopard-print boots. She sang a song of her own devising, to no-one in particular. Flinging out her arms, she spun faster, carving out her own space. Had she an uncle, a grandfather, somewhere in this crowd? Or was there someone asleep further down the hill whose child she might have been? A girl’s ponytail tangled on the wind, a column of smoke rising peaceably from a chimney in the valley: are these the things men and women die for? Or is that too an old lie?

It felt intrusive, dishonest, to impose the complexity of my feelings upon what was taking place before me.

Another sideways lurch, and the procession moved off through the village, trailing dogs, children, latecomers in cars.

I did not follow.

Mougins, Vieux Village, Late Winter 2012. The view towards Chateauneuf and Les Loups.

Mougins, Vieux Village, Late Winter 2012. The view towards Chateauneuf and Les Loups.

— amrh / November 2013, Mougins

La Joconde

“…the mysterium is experienced…as something that bestows upon man a beatitude beyond compare…one whose real nature he can neither proclaim in speech nor conceive in thought, but may know only by a direct and living experience.”
— Rudolf Otto, in
The Idea of the Holy (1923)

Then somebody says, “Hey, there’s no line.”

So I turn, and sure enough, there is a clear line of sight to the Mona Lisa, framed within the frame of a door. To say there is no line is not entirely accurate. Indeed, there is no scrum of cranky tourists heaving its way down the length of la Grande Galerie, through the Trecento and back towards ancient Egypt. Rather, there is about fifty yards of open pine floor, ending in a gently pulsing mass of people. Fifteen minutes ago, I met the Nike of Samothrace, and the force of her arrival resonates still in my body, my bones. In this heightened state accentuated by a summer cold’s fever, by the anxiety of shepherding my sister and the Sprite through the busiest museum in the world on its busiest day of the week, I believe I can hear currents of air swirling up towards the glass barrelled ceiling, stirred by hurrying feet. Around us, in me, everything is in motion. Every sense I have is extended; my highest level of artistic battle readiness is engaged.

If I was alone, I would have stayed at the feet of the Nike for a long time. Some thoughtful curator caused rough steps to be carved into the walls surrounding her: a place to collapse when trembling knees finally give way. I would have braced my back against that cool stone, looked up, and continued to trace the folds of her chiton, moulded to her body from sea-spray and rippling with her breath.  My mind would have pursued the mystery of our encounter far, far down: a stone dropped into deep water.

But I have a flock, who have taken to calling me Tour Guide Barbie, and they are looking to me for our next move. Because we had made a plan, about Miss Mona; we were going to give her a miss. She’s tiny, we said, so you have to get close, and closer in will be crowded, uncomfortably so, and the promise of opportunistic pickpocketry has been drummed into our heads from every available news outlet. We’ll see nothing beyond a forest of arms crowned with iPads and cell phones, and right now we are standing in front of four perfectly serviceable Leonardos, hung at eye level, with no overly vigilant guard looming nearby to disturb our reflections. What more could we possibly want to see?

“Oh, hell,” I hear myself say. “We’re here, I’m going.”


When trying to describe in words an experience which by its nature rebels against such strictures, I fall back on my training as a historian, and start with the simplest of facts. So: the Mona Lisa hangs on a wall in the middle of an enormous room. As we enter this space, we are immediately confronted by a vast painting hanging just to the left of the door. Relying on its own set of facts, the Louvre’s Web site quaintly describes this experience as: Turn around to admire ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese.”  At twenty-two by thirty-three feet, the height of a modest two-story house, we really don’t have much choice. Perhaps that’s why it’s placed here, I think: not as a rival to its most famous neighbour, but as the only thing the Louvre owns that’s large enough to be seen clearly at any point in the room, over any number of heads.

The wedding is a mirage of brilliant pastels and twisting figures, stage-set before an aperture of celestine sky. As we move across that first fifty yards of floor, the Sprite passes the time by walking backwards and zooming her camera in and out of focus on the Veronese, looking for cats. She quickly finds the famous one just at the front of the picture, rolling on its back and doing something rude to a very expensive urn. On the walls around us blaze the bright jewels and generous flesh of sixteenth century Venice. My sister and I turn in little self-contained orbits, mouths open but trying not to point. From all sides now, disparate groups of people are converging, collecting in ranks like silt at the mouth of a river. We drift with them.

And so it is that, almost imperceptibly, we wash up in the tidal eddy of pilgrims in front of the Mona Lisa.


Somewhere I had read that she glows as if lit from within. In this expectation I’m disappointed. There is too much glass in the way, of the same type that fills the windows of armoured limousines, and the mustardy yellow of the walls leeches the colour from her skin. It’s hot and noisy, I’m conscious of losing track of the Sprite, I grow restless. But I’m stuck here now. So I wait, and concentrate on my breath. Amid the susurrus of voices, the click and whirr of devices, I hear the voice of my beloved art history professor. Look at the fall of her hair, he says: how it flows like water, and how that flow echoes throughout the landscape around it. This landscape, at once both real and dreamlike; the patterning found in the movement of water; the easy interplay between the quotidian and the divine…each of these themes will recur in every one of Leonardo’s paintings, Dr. Radan says in his soft burled voice, if we just learn how to look. In that place where the Nike has taken up residence, raising her beautiful arms and calling to me, there is a shuddering, a sudden movement in the air. I lean forward over the head of the re-appeared Sprite, and look.

And despite myself I am taken aback. How calm this woman is. How still. I see now that what Mona Lisa radiates is not light, but rather a bemused serenity in the face of what’s before her. We are a diverse congregation, travellers and strangers mostly, arrived in this secular cathedral for any number of reasons. Yet we are all willing to endure discomfort and a certain amount of bad behaviour in order to participate in a communal, creative act. The two small boys intent on their handhelds, chivvied up through the crowd by their flustered parents; the hipster flashing a peace sign as his girlfriend holds up her cell phone; my failing attempts to remain aloof. These rituals are part of what Mona Lisa is, and she is graciously accepting of all of it.

It’s impossible not to yield to such a benediction, given so freely across time and experience. So I do, and with my acquiescence comes a rush of unexpected peace. Everything else falls away, the smell of bodies in too tight a space, the bumping and jostling, until there is just myself and a woman’s face emerging from darkness. I realise for the first time that she is wearing a veil. Escaping from that veil, just above her right breast, are finely drawn tendrils of hair. I look past her shoulder, into the landscape, and am rewarded by the same tender curves echoed in a road winding through a narrow defile. Further down that path is a lake and a shadowed wood, and around its circumference a route to the bridge on the other side. Later, when poring over one of the glossy reproductions of Mona Lisa that I surprised myself by buying in the gift shop, I’ll surprise myself further by playing an old childhood game.  I’ll turn the first two fingers of my right hand into legs, and wander down that road to see where it leads, what adventures I might find.

For now, it is enough to stand quietly in her famous regard, and look back.

— amrh / Summer 2013, Paris and Mougins

At the Louvre, 15 June 13

Trust me to fall in love with the moodiest guy in the joint.
With Titian’s “Portrait of a Man” (1520), at the Louvre, 15 June 2013.

** For a thorough introduction to the Nike of Samothrace, see (in English)

** One of my favourite rainy day reads is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects: nuggets of Italian Renaissance history and gossip, richly described by a fellow artist of the period. I found a beautifully curated Web site which weaves together selected quotes from the Lives with contextualised images. Here is the Leonardo page:

** The sheer size of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana made a lot more sense to me after Peter Greenaway got ahold of it:

Interlude: Happy Bloomsday, Belated

With apologies for the long silence, occasioned by family obligations and much travel. In addition to the usual “post-show” round of bronchial woes, I’m deep in the throes of what Big Bill Gibson called “soul delay“: the nagging feeling that you’ve left part of yourself on the other side of the Atlantic, but you’re damned if you can recollect exactly where.

Until I’m back up to speed, I wanted to share with you a better-late-than-never Bloomsday post. To my delight, and with thanks to the University of Adelaide, I was able to keep up my tradition of reading my favorite chapter of Ulysses at the exact time of day it takes place, even while away from my library. People tend to be surprised when they find out which chapter I prefer above all others. Standard guesses include Nausicaa (number thirteen) or Penelope (the last of eighteen, otherwise known as Molly Bloom’s monologue). But no, it’s number four, the humble Calypso, with its lyrical odes to breakfast, domestic felines, and early morning perambulations on the north side of Dublin. I read it this year perched on the least rackety of the kitchen chairs in a splendid flat on the Boulevard Port Royal in Paris. The smell of white wine and mussels drifted up from the Academie de la Bière below, where the chef was getting a head start on the day’s mountain of moules marinières. (For the record, they also serve a mean croque flamand, which is like Welsh rarebit made by enthusiastic Belgians.)  In the living room next door, The Sprite stirred briefly in the depths of the sofa and pulled the duvet more securely over her head. Somewhere nearby was a copy of The Odyssey, in Robert Fitzgerald’s masterful translation: a present from me, to mark her first trip across an ocean.

This is the story of a man who was never at a loss.  I looked up and saw him stroll past my window, his Latin Quarter hat at its usual angle on his close-cropped head, precise in its carelessness. He swung his ashplant round three times in his hand, dared me to stoop to cliché, to dub him Chaplinesque. I declined; you’ve taught me too well, old artificer, I said. I like to think of him laughing, although I’ve never seen him pictured doing so. And so I watched him laugh his way down the boulevard, disappearing in the shafts of sunlight breaking through the plane trees.

It meant more to me than I could say, to rediscover him in a city where, as a wise man once said, he came to stay for a week and remained for twenty years.

More soon.

— amrh / June 2013, Paris and Mougins

In the Winter Garden

As the year draws to a close, I’ll take a few pixels to thank everyone who has kept up with Diary of a Vague American. I started writing it as…well, as a way to start writing. Over the last eighteen months, the Diary has led me down several paths: as a way to process my evolving expatriate life; a retrospective wandering through my experiences in Ireland, as my thirty-year love affair with that odd little island moves into yet another phase; and, most unexpectedly, a means of rediscovering the pleasures of this most solitary art form. When I stare at page or computer screen, and words refuse to drop down from whatever numinous country they inhabit, I see my seven or eight-year old self, twirling round and round in the tire swing that hung from the massive sycamore tree in the back yard. It’s always a blindingly sunny day in early summer, and my beloved puppy is curled up beneath me in the shade cast by the tire. I am scribbling, scribbling, scribbling, as if my life depended upon it, an indifferently chosen blue Bic pen moving at a ferocious rate across the pages of my battered composition notebook, with a fierce joy in my heart, a sense of rightness, of belonging to the world, that I have rarely recaptured in my adult life. In pursuing this Diary, I have been in that state again, much to my relief, my delight. And as a former performing artist, I am well aware that I could not have done so without the knowledge that someone out there was reading what I wrote. So for that kindness, I offer you my thanks.

There was movement on other creative fronts. As some of you are aware, my short piece Proserpine reached a new audience this year, following its publication in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. The editorial feedback on this piece included such gratifying words as “delicate, graceful”; ”lyrical, slow-paced and mellifluous,” and, in an instance of the reader finding something I wasn’t even aware I was doing, “elegantly invok[ing] a theme as Lethean as Eleusinian.”  My thanks to all of you who helped me weather the occasional squalls of my first time through this rewarding process.

I have also been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee for the proposed celebrations in Paris of Oscar Wilde’s one hundred and sixtieth birthday. In my Galway post-grad days, Oscar was barely a blip on my academic radar. His work and milieu fell just outside my concerns, and he was only beginning to be understood and embraced as an Irish writer. Indeed, my most in-depth acquaintance with “that limitless subject” was my tendency to tipsily recite The Selfish Giant or The Nightingale and the Rose when asked for “a party piece” at DramSoc booze-ups. Wilde 2014 is being led by the Société Oscar Wilde en France and DC Rose of the OSCHOLARS. I’m happy to have a chance to get back in the arts admin saddle, and to work with a diverse group of scholars on something new.

I am still not sure what the Diary will become. I do know that I need to be brave, and attempt to reach a larger audience. In that regard, I plan to start submitting some of my work to other outlets: Brevity, for example. It would be of great help to me if you could take a moment to let me know which post(s) was your favourite, either via private email or in the comments section below. I am always surprised by the reaction to those posts which I find unsuccessful, but to which you respond with enthusiasm. Any feedback, even that of a most informal nature, will be most welcome.

In closing, I especially want to thank Maddy at Peirene Press, who may not remember that the blog was her idea in the first place; Jeri Smith-Ready, whose generosity with her own readership gave this blog its “most views of all time”; and Mick the most patient of all husbands, in whom, always and forever, I am well pleased.

Woodstock from below the Winter Garden, Inistioge, County Kilkenny 19 Dec 09

amrh / Mougins, December 2012

Some Modest Publicatory News

(with apologies for cross-posting)

My short piece Proserpine appeared last week in the latest volume of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. It’s an electronic journal focusing on contemporary interpretations of nineteenth century culture, and this special issue revolves around children and creativity.

Julia, Leslie, and Virginia Stephen (Woolf), 1892; image via, Copyright © 2006 Smith College Libraries

Proserpine is a short piece of speculative fiction about a meeting between Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the young Virginia Stephen, who would later become Virginia Woolf. The story imaginatively engages with how a child of the late Victorian period might observe her world. It investigates the idea of Woolf as a “neo-Victorian,” tracing her Modernist sensibilities to the deep roots of her Victorian childhood. It can also be enjoyed, more simply, as a story about an unusual child who meets an equally unusual woman on a warm spring day.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (oil, 1874); image via

To access Proserpine, please click here:; and on the left-hand side of the page, click the heading that reads “Past Issues.” Then click on the heading for “5:1  – 2012” for the Special Issue entitled The Child in Neo-Victorian Arts and Discourse: Renegotiating 19th Century Concepts of Childhood. You’ll find Proserpine about half-way down the page. There is also, to my simultaneous horror and delight, the first critical analysis of my work in the guest editors’ introductory piece (the first essay in the table of contents).

amrh / Mougins, October 2012