Thursday, 11 August 2022

Sternean Evolution?

 'To New Guinea I took an old edition of "Tristram Shandy" which I read about three times. It is an annoying & you will perhaps say a very gross book, but there are passages in it that have never been surpassed while the character of Uncle Toby has certainly never been equalled, except perhaps by that of Don Quixote...'
   Who is writing here? The clue is in the mention of New Guinea: it is the much travelled naturalist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace, he who independently of Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace is writing from Bacan in the Moluccas to his friend George Silk in London. The signature at the end of the letter is botched – 'PS A big spider fell close to my hand in the middle of my signature, which accounts for the hitch.' 
  The letter was written in the same year in which Wallace conceived his theory of natural selection – a theory that came to him in a flash when he combined the insights of a range of biologists (as we would now call them ) with Malthus's ideas on population growth. He was in the throes of the Genghis ague – malaria, as we now call it – and thrashing about on a sweat-soaked bed, his head splitting, his body racked with fever chills, when he had his light-bulb moment. Did his recent, repeated reading of "Tristram Shandy" play any part in its conception? The obvious answer is No, but there may be a Ph.D. thesis in it for someone...
  I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Russell, the 'nearly man' of evolutionary theory, the dauntless, prodigiously hard-working self-made commercial collector among all those gentlemen scientists (Darwin, Lyell, etc.), and I'm glad his star has risen again in recent years, thanks in part to the advocacy of that man of many parts Mr Bill Bailey. Wallace wrote a quite extraordinary account of an encounter with a butterfly – the one that came to be named Wallace's Golden Birdwing: 'The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.' Oh, I don't know...

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

On the Hill

 From the train this morning, the dip slope of Box Hill looked more like desert than grassland – as did most of the usually grassy open spaces I saw along the way. This drought is certainly having an impact (though I was pleased to find that the river Mole, though a bit low, is still flowing well, as is the upper Wandle), and it looks as if it will be with us a while yet, along with some pretty fierce heat. Anyway, I wasn't intending to walk up that parched slope. I took a taxi from the station to the famous viewpoint at the top of Box Hill (as featured, I believe, in Emma), and from there I walked down to one of my regular August haunts, where I hoped to find the Adonis Blue and Silver-Spotted Skipper, two of our loveliest, and latest-flying, butterflies.
  My first impression was of a drought-struck and desolate landscape, with barely a flower to be seen, and nothing flying but a few doughty Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns. However, as so often, when I had slowed my pace, often to a standstill, and got my attention focused, I discovered that there was green growth to be found, there were flowers – though nothing like as many as usual – and, praise be, there were butterflies. Soon I was seeing Chalkhill Blues everywhere, then my first Silver-Spotted Skipper – the first of many, as it turned out. The Adonis Blue was harder to find, but after a while, closing in on a slight fluttering I'd noticed in a tussock, I discovered that I had found not one, but two – a male and a female taking a breather in the midst of an epic courtship chase: they were off again as soon as I'd seen them, and were chasing around at speed for the rest of the time I was there. I saw a few more Adonises too, and another one on my way back down the hill, by way of the gentler and less exposed areas of the dip slope. As I also saw a couple more Silver-Spotted Skippers, in a place where I'd never seen them before, I returned home well satisfied: I had seen the heavenly blue of the male Adonis's wings, and more than once enjoyed the Silver-Spotted Skipper's beautiful green-and-silver underwings. My butterfly summer is complete (all bar the elusive Brown Hairstreak). What more could an aurelian ask? 

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

The Big One

The heatwave continues here in southern England, and spreading across much of the country, maybe even to Hull, to Coventry... How would the 'summer-born and summer-loving' Philip Larkin be enjoying it? 'Enjoying it'? It's Larkin we're talking about here, and he was too much his mother's son to simply enjoy it...

Mother, Summer, I

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone.
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Today is the big one – the centenary of Larkin's birth. Already I've heard Larkin talking and reading his own poetry on Radio 3, and his biographer Andrew Motion being interviewed on Radio 4, and there's a string of Larkin-related documentaries lined up on BBC4 tonight – not to mention the various goings-on in Hull today and through much of the year. There will probably never be another poetical centenary celebrated so widely: Geoffrey Hill's, which falls in ten years' time, certainly won't be, though he is (IMHO) the only other candidate for greatness among postwar English poets. Larkin's reputation, and his popularity, have survived the publication of his letters and the shocking (to some) revelations in Motion's biography. One exam board recently dropped him from its GCSE syllabus, but that seems to have been nothing personal, just part of a general dumbing down. I can't help feeling that if some of those unfortunate revelations had come out in the past few years there would have been serious attempts to 'cancel' Larkin, but happily he has survived, and his work seems only to grow in stature with the passage of time; much of it has become classic. Perhaps, as Auden wrote, in In Memory of W.B. Yeats, 'Time that with this strange excuse/Pardons Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.' 
  I have written so often here on Larkin, and posted so many of his poems (try a search), that he has become a kind of tutelary deity of this blog. What can I add today? Only this perhaps – that if you haven't read his novel, A Girl in Winter, you really should. It is a revelation. 

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Justice's Farewell

It was on this day in 2004 that Donald Justice, one of America's finest poets, died. As David Orr wrote of him, 'sometimes his poems weren't just good; they were great. They were great in the way that Elizabeth Bishop's poems were great, or Thom Gunn's or Philip Larkin's. They were great in the way that tells us what poetry used to be, and is, and will be.' Quite so. 
Here is one of the last poems Justice wrote, and one of those that is indeed great. In painterly terms it is a triptych. The first panel is a Crucifixion scene, bathed in the even light of divine love (charity). The second is a scene from the Orpheus legend, expressing the pain of love and parting. And in the third, a direct paraphrase from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Sonya Alexandrovna paints a wishful vision of the life to come. The three six-line sections of this poem (with their ingenious whole-word rhyming) add up to something far larger than its parts – a poised and poignant farewell to the world.

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
  And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
  Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
  I say the song went this way: O prolong
  Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
  And all that we suffered through having existed
  Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Johnson on the Duvet

 I've bought, for a tiny sum, another tiny volume from the Carr's Pocket Books series, published by the Quince Tree Press from J.L. Carr's home in Kettering. This one, titled The Sayings of Chairman Johnson, is a well chosen little anthology of quotations from Samuel Johnson's writings and utterances (including the whole of his famous letter to his dilatory patron, Lord Chesterfield, and some lines from 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'). The collection, 'arranged by Edmund Kirby', is prefaced by a quotation from (Professor) Sir Walter Raleigh: 'The memory of other authors is kept alive by their works. But the memory of Johnson keeps many of his works alive. The old philosopher is still among us in his brown coat with the metal buttons and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being who has been seventy years in the grave is so well known to us.' True enough, thanks to Boswell's extraordinary feat of sympathetic, indeed loving (and therefore unblinking) biography. 
  One entry in The Sayings of Chairman Johnson brought me up short. A quotation from The Idler, it reads: 'Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement ... and there are now to be sold for ready money only, some Duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called Otter Down: warmer than four or five blankets and lighter than one.' 
  Duvets? In the mid-eighteenth century? Even two centuries later, duvets were regarded with suspicion as something only foreigners would use; we English were quite content to sleep under woollen blankets. It was Terence Conran who finally popularised the use of duvets in this country, and it was not until the 1970s that they began to become a standard form of bedding.
  'Duvet' is of course a French word, meaning down, and Johnson seems to have been the first English writer to use it. There had been at least one attempt to introduce the duvet to England in the seventeenth century, when the diplomat and historian of the Ottoman Empire Sir Paul Rycaut sent his friends a quantity of eider down, with instructions on how to turn it into a warm bed covering. He had come across the duvet in Hamburg and felt sure it would be a boon in the English winter. However, the blanket-loving English wanted none of it. By the sound of Johnson's remarks on advertising, it would seem another campaign to introduce the duvet was under way half a century after Rycaut's efforts. If so, it was again doomed to failure. Only Terence Conran, it seems, could make this foreign innovation palatable to the English. 

Monday, 1 August 2022

'The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought...'

 The great naturalist Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, better known simply as Lamarck, was born on this day in 1744. He is remembered chiefly for his evolutionary ideas, notably the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It's an idea that seemed to have been rendered irrelevant by the development of genetics and the discovery of DNA as an apparently sufficient explanation for all heredity. Then along came transgenerational epigenetics, in which heritable characteristics occur in response to the environment without any alteration of DNA. At least I think that's how it works... 

Here is a poetical response – 'Lamarck Elaborated' by Richard Wilbur, in which he takes the Lamarckian idea that 'the environment creates the organ' and runs with it...

                   "The environment creates the organ"

The Greeks were wrong who said our eyes have rays;
Not from these sockets or these sparkling poles
Comes the illumination of our days.
It was the sun that bored these two blue holes.

It was the song of doves begot the ear
And not the ear that first conceived of sound:
That organ bloomed in vibrant atmosphere,
As music conjured Ilium from the ground.

The yielding water, the repugnant stone,
The poisoned berry and the flaring rose
Attired in sense the tactless finger-bone
And set the taste buds and inspired the nose.

Out of our vivid ambiance came unsought
All sense but that most formidably dim.
The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought.
It was the mind that taught the head to swim.

Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres
Whelmed us in whirling worlds we could not know,
And by the imagined floods of our desires
The voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

More Moore

 Born on this day in 1899 was the great accompanist Gerald Moore. I've written about him, and his rather unusual career path, before (e.g. here), but am happy to take any opportunity to enjoy again the special magic that occurred whenever Moore was at the piano with one of his favourite singers. It was never more magical than when the singer was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who said of Moore: 'There is no more of that pale shadow at the keyboard; he is always an equal with his partner.' In this recording of two Schubert lieder, both men are on top form. The piano introduction to 'Der Lindenbaum' is especially wonderful. As ever, Fischer-Dieskau just stands and delivers – but what a voice! That he maintained it through 35 years of heavy smoking is little short of miraculous...