Thursday, 24 April 2014

'And shall Trelawny Die?'

From the radio this morning came the stirring sound of a Cornish male voice choir belting out the county's 'national anthem', Trelawny. This was in honour of Cornwall having been granted national minority status under EU rules (so the rest of us will no longer be able to persecute this oppressed minority with impunity). Trelawny (or The Song of the Western Men), long believed to be of ancient origin, was actually written by the Victorian parson-poet Robert Stephen Hawker, and the Trelawny in question could be one of two rebellious Cornishmen, both of whom fell foul of the English and were imprisoned.

'A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James's men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!
And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
Out spake their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:
Though London Tower were Michael's hold,
We'll set Trelawny free!
'We'll cross the Tamar, land to land:
The Severn is no stay:
With "one and all," and hand in hand;
And who shall bid us nay?
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here's men as good as you.
'Trelawny he's in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here's twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!'

Hawker of Morwenstow was, even by the standards of Victorian parson-poets, a prime fruitcake, though some of the stories about him - dressing up as a mermaid, excommunicating his cat for mousing on a Sunday - are probably mythical. He certainly dressed in a  most unclerical manner, sporting a claret-coloured coat, a fisherman's jersey and sea-boots, and a kind of poncho made from a yellow blanket, in imitation (he claimed) of the Welsh saint Padam. And he talked to the birds, entertained his nine cats in the church, and had a lively belief in the 'little people' and a Lord Emsworth-like attachment to his pet pig. He spent much time writing, brooding - and smoking opium - in a driftwood hut (now known as Hawker's Hut, and the National Trust's smallest property) overlooking the Atlantic breakers.
  But if Hawker was eccentric - and addicted to opium - it is hardly surprising. His Cornish parish was poor, weatherbeaten and extremely remote (there was no railway at all into Cornwall until 1859: Wilkie Collins's early Rambles Beyond Railways describes what it was like to travel there in the earlier 1850s). The worst of it was that Morwenstow was a notorious haunt of wreckers, happy to lure ships onto the treacherous rocks of the coastline, regardless of the cost in human lives. Hawker, humanely determined to give every drowned man a Christian burial, had to cope with the grisly consequences of these frequent wrecks, as well as witnessing the hopeless struggles of drowning men just off the rocky shore. Despite these tribulations, he produced several volumes of  antiquarian studies and verse, including the first part of an Arthurian epic, The Quest of the Sangraal, that was praised by Tennyson. He also, in 1843, instituted the Harvest Festival as we know it today - a tradition no more ancient than The Song of the Western Men.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Red Letter Day

Calendar-wise, today is the Big One for us Englishmen and women - St George's Day, and the traditionally accepted birth date of William Shakespeare (baptised April 26th) and his undoubted death date. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, look down on Shakespeare - Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw among them - or question his authorship of his works, or, reasonably enough, whether he deserves his prime position in the literary pantheon. Only the other night on Radio 3, the playwright Mark Ravenhill asked if Shakespeare's genius is beyond question. My answer would be, well, yes actually it is, if anybody's is ('Others abide our question. Thou are free,' as Matthew Arnold put it). Not only did Shakespeare give us reams of the most beautiful English poetry ever written; he also wrote at least a score of the greatest plays in any language. What's more, I would contend that all we need to know of human nature and the workings of the human mind is to be found in Shakespeare.
  This is the 450th anniversary of his presumed birth date. The last Big One, the 400th, was marked, rather reluctantly, by a special issue of postage stamps (then an infrequent event), designed by the brilliant David Gentleman. At the time they were highly controversial. Not only were these the first British stamps to feature an image of a commoner - that commoner's head was the same size as the Queen's. 'This caused a fuss that would be unimaginable now,' Gentleman wrote later, 'and there were jokes in Parliament about the proximity of the Queen's head to Shakespeare's Bottom.' How times change. But the greatness of Shakespeare does not.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Kingsley Amis Reread

I guess I first read Kingsley Amis's The Green Man some time in the early Seventies (it was published in 1969), and perhaps again not many years later. It struck me at the time as being in many ways the best of Amis's post-Lucky Jim novels, and I thought it was maybe time to reread it and see what I made of it now.
  I haven't read an Amis in quite some while. I gave up on him somewhere around the time of The Old Devils (but was pleased that it won him the (right author, wrong book) Booker), but I've had a niggling feeling for some while that he might be one to revisit - partly because his reputation seems to have survived in better shape in the US than it has in his home country (this is usually a good sign).
 So, The Green Man. The first thing to say is that it is an extremely well crafted novel, one that deftly weaves together a ghost story, a sexual comedy and the portrait of a crumbling marriage (and a man very close to crumbling), with a bit of social satire thrown in - and it really keeps you turning the pages. The narrator, Maurice Allington, is the hard-drinking, womanising landlord of The Green Man - an establishment we would now class as a high-end gastropub - in a village in rural Hertfordshire. He is also, of course, a surrogate Kingsley Amis, with very much the same outlook on life, not to mention the compulsive drinking and leching.
 The novel's weakness is in its characterisation, much of which is flimsy, and as a result some of the dialogue reads rather clunkily. But of course the tale is being told by someone for whom other people barely exist. For Maurice, nearly all other people divide into nuisances to be endured (most males) or sexual opportunities to be exploited (most females - and they too must be endured, for the sake of sexual conquest). The very lack of characterisation, then, is part of the characterisation of Maurice Allington, terrible man that he is - and yet somehow (perhaps because he is telling the tale) almost sympathetic, often engagingly funny, and refreshingly honest about himself.
 What is remarkable about The Green Man is its strikingly original rethinking of the ghost story genre. Amis makes it disturbingly believable by exploring the uncertain perceptual world in which Allington lives - one of drunken absences, corner-of-the-eye misperceptions, troubled states of mind and strange hypnagogic hallucinations due to heart problems (and drink). Locating the ghostly phenomena in this penumbra is often brilliantly effective. The visions, the horrors creep in at the edges, and are the more convincing for that.
 The ghost story has to come to a climax and find resolution - and, as with most ghost stories, the climax is the weakest part (suggestion is so much more effective than display). But happily there is a lot more going on in The Green Man than the ghost story, so it ends like what it has been all along - a fine novel, every bit as good as I remember it being. This probably means that I should reread more Amis, and perhaps I shall, in due course...

Sunday, 20 April 2014


After a murky and persistently rainy day came blue skies and a blaze of late sunshine - and, flying fast and purposefully over the park, my first Swallows of the year, half a dozen of them. Summer is on its way!

Easter Sunday...

and I see the headline on the cover of the Easter issue of The Spectator is 'The Return of God'. Inside is a double-page piece by Theo Hobson headed 'Atheism's empty tomb', drawing attention to a crisis of faith in the New Atheism as the movement (or some involved in it) begin to realise just how bleak and profoundly problematic the human world can look once you've subtracted God from it. The piece also notes how the New Atheism has led some prominent figures to rediscover their Christian faith - presumably not the intended effect. It's heartening stuff, though there's plenty that could be disputed.
 More interesting, I think, is the companion piece by the excellent Douglas Murray, 'Ethics for Atheists'. Murray has grasped - and presents in a startlingly vivid manner - the kind of ethical problems that confront the atheist. Like Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard, he sees clearly that arguing yourself into atheism is the easy bit; living with the consequences and implications of removing God - that's the hard part. As Kierkegaard puts it in Fear and Trembling:
'If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all–what then would life be but despair?'
Murray is a thinking and feeling atheist, one who is very alive to what religion actually is (rather than the aunt sally set up by the likes of Dawkins) and what it offers, and equally alive to what is lost by its rejection. Indeed one of the best defences of religion I ever heard was delivered by him in a filmed debate in which he was the representative atheist. Having read his Spectator piece, and especially its final paragraph (ending, 'If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not'), I have a feeling that he might yet return to some kind of belief. He could be just the kind of apologist thinking Christanity needs.
 Incidentally, I am genuinely puzzled by both believers and atheists insisting that the question of 'the existence of God' is the crux of the matter of belief or non-belief. It's surely a philosophical question (and philosophy can stand up neither theism nor atheism but must default to an agnostic position). And it's a question that simply would not have occurred, would not have made sense, to anyone (apart from perhaps a few heterodox believers) until historically recent times, and still makes little or no sense to most of the world's population. It's surely a mistake to see Christianity, or any religion, as a checklist of dogmas to be ticked in full if you're to be a believer. As Marilynne Robinson (and many others, including Coleridge) has pointed out, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. And, I would add, being a Christian should not depend on the answer given to an unanswerable philosophical question.
 Anyway, that's enough of that - I now wish everyone a very happy Easter.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday...

and I make no apology for returning to this image of the Crucifixion, which hangs in San Sebastanio in Venice, where I was admiring it just six months ago.
  The grand Veronese exhibition is under way now at the National Gallery and is attracting rave reviews (as are the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern). Perhaps this will be the year when Veronese's artistic reputation returns to the stratospheric level where it belongs - as even the above 'minor' work I think demonstrates.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Formica, Fablon

Well, you live and learn. This morning, listening to the radio, I discovered the etymology of Formica, that ubiquitous wipe-clean, heat-resistant laminate. In as much as I'd given this any thought, I had assumed it was something to do with formic acid - but no. Originally, I learnt, the doughty laminate was used as a substitute for a mineral commonly used as electrical insulation - mica. Yes, it was substitute for mica. Formica. More like a crossword clue than etymology, isn't it?
 Any child of the Fifties will have memories - fond or otherwise - of Formica. All our parents fell victim to the Formica fashion, replacing all those old-style wooden surfaces with the smooth and characterless plastic, usually choosing strong bright post-Festival of Britain colours (my Formica memories seem to be mostly yellow). My mother seemed very pleased with the transformation, and my father was happy to go along with it. His moment was to come when the next transformative material turned up - Fablon, the original 'sticky-back plastic', which came in all manner of colours and patterns and could be used to cover just about anything: shelves, work surfaces, wood panelling, cupboard doors, tables. It also had a myriad of craft uses, as witnessed by Blue Peter week after week. Like many others, my father took to the stuff with relish, even using it to cover the broken-down spines of his old set of Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a pleasing effect, but it did the job. Isn't one of Doyle's historical novels called Micah Clarke...?