A Different Perspective


This week I discovered Albrecht Altdorfer’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon.’

I’ve been inspired before by Uccello’s version, which heralded the Renaissance and redrew the rules of painting with its extreme perspective as below.


But Altdorfer’s small panel painted in 1510 was revolutionary in its own right. It was the intermediate ‘evolutionary form’ between portrait and landscape. Within a decade of ‘Saint George!, Altdorfer was painting and printing some of the first “true” landscapes in Northern Europe.

The dense forest dominates a tiny Saint George looking diffidently at the rather uninspiring dragon. His horse doesn’t fancy it much, and the whole scene – robbed of the customary ‘damsel in distress’ of Uccello’s has a ‘more in sadness than in anger’ feel.


Here’s what Daily Art App has to say:

This tiny panel (22.5cm x 28cm) is filled with the ferocious wildness of the forest, from which the lumpy, froglike dragon seems to emerge, slobbering with primordial slime.

In a little window where the trees open, the light of the outside world burns through. St. George is not in the act of killing the dragon—rather, he seems to be looking down on it with pity. His lance hangs limply at his side.

Altdorfer’s George looks tired, his armor is dingy, and the horse seems to shrink back in disgust at the sight of the formless, murky dragon.

The figures become lost in the ferocious foliage (ferocious like the dragon traditionally should be) which threatens to choke out the figures themselves (who should traditionally be the focus), and they all seem to merge into monochrome.

The knight seems to be musing on something within himself which he knows he must slay in order to leave the dark forest of the unconscious and emerge

Although Uccello’s is one of my favourite paintings (forever associated, in my mind, with the buzz and bustle of London due to its place on wall panels at Charing Cross tube) Altdorfer’s is more my type of Saint George.

A thing to be done but not revelled in. A certain amount of ambiguity, a fearful horse and a lumpen unfortunate dragon – a moment of pause and perhaps uncertainty.

Few true acts of ‘bravery’ in real life are as clear cut as Uccello’s. Most have the ambiguity and uncertainty of Altdorfer’s Saint George – which usually makes them all the braver.

The Eaves

Cycling to work every day I get a regular soaking. Decent waterproofs help. But there are days, when looking out of the kitchen window, I don’t fancy it much. A number of years ago in the book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ I read a quote from the Hagakure – the Japanese Book of the Samurai. It advised stepping out from the eaves:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

I was reminded of this, in the week, by Montaigne’s similar write-up on the Roman Legions:

Their military discipline was much ruder than ours, and accordingly produced much greater effects. The jeer that was given a Lacedaemonian soldier is marvellously pat to this purpose, who, in an expedition of war, was reproached for having been seen under the roof of a house: they were so inured to hardship that, let the weather be what it would, it was a shame to be seen under any other cover than the roof of heaven. We should not march our people very far at that rate.

I don’t mind being rained on, but I’ve often thought I’d last about five minutes on a proper Roman or Medieval battlefield. Some glum milling about before, and then probably a spirited moment of excessive unavoidable bravery early doors followed by a sharp death. That sounds about my fate. I can only assume my forebears were quick to procreate, as I don’t reckon we’d have lasted long.

But my other pet theory is we were scouts and messengers. Sharp eyed endurance runners with a precise tongue. Who knows. The Hagakure is admirably clear on the matter: ‘Bravery and cowardice are not things which can be conjectured in times of peace. They are in different categories.’

Some Hagakure quotes are positively Aristotelian, take:

‘Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes of this.’

But like Aristotle, with his theories on biles and humours – and posture, character and beards – not everything in the Hagakure is to modern tastes. As ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ also highlighted:

When one departs for the front, he should carry rice in a bag. His underwear should be made from the skin of a badger. This way he will not have lice. In a long campaign, lice are troublesome.

I’ll step out from the eaves in GoreTex and Lycra, but I draw the line at the skin of a badger.

Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.


Within hours of setting up this blog and posting my first post I was gripped with a pang of pure fear. What if someone mad, bad or sad takes an interest in me, seeks to contact me, meet me or hurt me or my family? Natural human reaction to unknown unquantifiable risk – flight. Must put privacy around the blog, make it invite only or better still just write for myself and only let others see any of it when I’m 100% sure it’s safe and correct and good.

But then Achilles came to me. When I thought of the concept Aristotle was the Greek for me. Achilles like Brad Pitt in Troy was too flashy and reckless and gym-toned and beautiful. But on reflection Achilles has qualities I value too. Bravery, action, leadership, courage and the capacity to stand tall and be a man.

So I changed the name of my blog to Achilles and Aristotle not or. I may not have his looks, torso or divine protection, but I can have his courage, boldness and strength. The desire to retreat to the purely cerebral, to my own cave and away from the uncertainty of people is strong within me. But the rewards of family, work and friends require me to constantly step out from the shadows.

So what’s to hide? If I attract some spam, some barbed comments, even some people I don’t want, I have the strength growing within to ignore, forgive or say no. I increasingly know myself and have real strength within. So I’ll follow Achilles, set aside fear and just write.