Friday, 31 October 2014


Well, I made it out of the building, all to briefly, to enjoy this glorious, summer-warm sunshine - the last of the year, we are assured. November tomorrow and the thermometer will fall.
 In Holland Park the trees were in their autumn beauty, and there, spreading its wings on a sun-splashed hazel leaf, was one faded, autumnal Speckled Wood. If this proves to be my last butterfly of the year, the symmetry is near perfect; it was no more than a couple of paces from where I saw this year's first - a Comma.
 In the course of my brief wanderings I was also divebombed several times by disoriented ladybirds, woken from early hibernation - the big ones, Harlequin ladybirds, they're everywhere.
 And I developed a minor nosebleed.
 It was soon gone.


I see that a mighty educational research project has, after much labour, come to the startling conclusion that overpraising poor work is not a terribly good idea. Still more shockingly, it concludes that the two key factors in improving results are the quality of the teaching and the teachers' subject knowledge - who'd have guessed? (The National Union of Teachers, needless to say, is having none of it.)
 When I look back to my own schooling, in what was by the standards of the time a fairly run-of-the-mill state grammar school, I am gratefully amazed at the quality of teaching and the subject knowledge of many of the teachers. They were certainly of a calibre that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the state sector these days. Indeed, the rot set in (even in this school, which escaped being comprehensivised) when the generation that taught me retired. My old friend, mentor and English teacher - let us call him K - handed over his department in the mid-70s to a younger man who was a perfectly capable and effective teacher, but, to K's bemusement, had no apparent interest in or enjoyment of  his subject, knew no more of it than he needed to, and read little beyond the syllabus. By contrast K lived and breathed English (and French and Italian) literature; he had more close, detailed knowledge of Shakespeare than anyone I ever knew (including at university) - likewise Milton, and Dante, and, above all, Keats, whose great odes and much else he knew by heart.  As today is John Keats's birthday (1795) - and as it's the kind of glorious sunny, unseasonably warm day when here in the city I feel unusually pent, let's have this fine sonnet:

To one who has been long in city pent,
         'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Boswell - What If...?

Among my current bedtime reading is another damn'd thick square book by the notoriously readable Bill Bryson. At Home is a history of the development over the years of the home and all the comforts we now take for granted. Built around a room-by-room tour of the Norfolk rectory that is now Bryson's home, the book soon develops into a big, baggy - and, dammit, immensely readable - history of, well, nearly everything (a subject he's already covered in another fat book). Bryson is a virtuoso of research - or rather of distilling vast quantities of material into fascinating titbits - and he's happy to roam at large in his subject, wandering off into digressions and footnotes, and as a result delivering far more than his subject might promise. For example, last night, while reading about the agricultural revolution of the 18th century (this in the chapter devoted to The Drawing Room), I learnt from a footnote that the Ayrshire breed of cattle - a handsome, good-natured and bountiful breed - was developed by Bruce Campbell, a second cousin of James  Boswell. Campbell was put in charge of the estate when Boswell turned down the life of a Scottish country gent in favour of something a deal more raffish and metropolitan. Just think - if Boswell had decided to take over the estate, we would most likely not have Ayrshire cattle, and we could certainly not have Samuel Johnson - Johnson the man, that is, as large as life and larger: Boswell's Johnson.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Hole in the Floor

It's high time we had a poem here - and this one is oddly apposite, as our house is currently in the grip of two simultaneous flooring crises, with floorboards up and strange, alarming sights on view. Of course Richard Wilbur's poem is not about flooring. The subject is the hole, the hidden darkness and mystery - the 'buried strangeness' - that sustain the life we think we're living, here in the light. The poem has a characteristically controlled and orderly surface, but there's a strong undertow, something threatening to break through. Looking into a hole is not far from staring into the abyss. 'For God's sake, what am I after?'
The poem is dedicated to Rene Magritte.

A Hole in the Floor

The carpenter's made a hole
In the parlor floor, and I'm standing
Staring down into it now
At four o'clock in the evening,
As Schliemann stood when his shovel
Knocked on the crowns of Troy.

A clean-cut sawdust sparkles
On the grey, shaggy laths,
And here is a cluster of shavings
From the time when the floor was laid.
They are silvery-gold, the color
Of Hesperian apple-parings.

Kneeling, I look in under
Where the joists go into hiding.
A pure street, faintly littered
With bits and strokes of light,
Enters the long darkness
Where its parallels will meet.

The radiator-pipe
Rises in middle distance
Like a shuttered kiosk, standing
Where the only news is night.
Here it's not painted green,
As it is in the visible world.

For God's sake, what am I after?
Some treasure, or tiny garden?
Or that untrodden place,
The house's very soul,
Where time has stored our footbeats
And the long skein of our voices?

Not these, but the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known:
That spring from which the floor-lamp
Drinks now a wilder bloom,
Inflaming the damask love-seat
And the whole dangerous room.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Top Trees

Good to see the shortlist for Tree of the Year has been published. I rather fancy Old Knobbley, a tree with a substantial fanbase and its own website -  its most recent offspring, Young Knobbley, also has an online presence.
 It's a bit of a shame - though unsurprising - that oaks so dominate the shortlist. Me, I'd nominate the mighty (and immensely elegant) London Plane beside the Old Rectory in Carshalton...

Rebranding Brand

On the Today programme this morning, Tom Sutcliff came on to tell us who his guests were for Start the Week. One of them, he announced, was 'comedian Russell Brand'. 'Is he a comedian now?' mused Jon Humphrys, a tad sardonically. 'Shouldn't we call him a thinker?'
 No, Jon. Now that Brand has set up as a thinker, the label 'comedian' fits him better than it ever did when he was at large in the world of comedy. As a thinker, indeed, he makes a first-rate comedian. The trouble - and the mystery - is that he gets taken seriously.

Friday, 24 October 2014


I've just noticed that a piece of mine on Marianne North is over on the new-look soaraway Dabbler...