Friday, 23 October 2020

My Top Picks, etc.

Those nice people at Amazon have sent me my weekly reading list. 
My Top Picks are
Captain Underpants: Three Pant-tastic Novels in One by Dav Pikey
and The Lost Spells by Robert McFarlane (a nature writer I know is a Good Thing but I find in practice unreadable). 
An interesting pairing.
And then come the books specially Recommended for You:
Sweet Sorrow, 'this summer's must-read from the bestselling author of One Day' (er, no thanks),
and Yotam Ottolenghi's Flavour (hmmm).
There we are – another triumph for those all-knowing algorithms.

Meanwhile, down at my local Sainsburys, the Argos concession – which recently declared its proud support of the LGBT+ community with rainbow-coloured bunting – is now using its bunting to declare its equally proud support of Black History Month. Quite what form this support takes, or could possibly take, is hard to imagine – Argos is, after all, nothing more than a retail counter attached to a warehouse. But we should not be surprised by any of this: the Woke agenda has been greedily subsumed into corporate culture and PR (which doesn't make it any less dangerous). It is one of the many ways in which the new managerial elite is reminding us of who is in charge and what attitudes we must strike if we want to get on in this craven new world. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A virtuoso of self-loathing

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

John Betjeman was a virtuoso of self-loathing – and one who was penetrating enough to know that his self-loathing was also a form of self-regard ('I pat myself upon the back'). The stanza above comes from a longer poem, 'Guilt', and I happened upon it in a new book on Betjeman that I'm reading for review (so had better not say much more). 
Here is 'Guilt' in its bleak entirety – 

The clock is frozen in the tower,
The thickening fog with sooty smell
Has blanketed the motor power
Which turns the London streets to hell;
And footsteps with their lonely sound
Intensify the silence round.

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

With breastplate of self-righteousness
And shoes of smugness on my feet,
Before the urge in me grows less
I hurry off to make retreat.
For somewhere, somewhere, burns a light
To lead me out into the night.

It glitters icy, thin and plain,
And leads me down to Waterloo –
Into a warm electric train
Which travels sorry Surrey through,
And crystal-hung, the clumps of pine
Stand deadly still beside the line.

'Waterloo' comes as something of a shock, a touch of bathos, and 'sorry Surrey' is a bit tricksy – and unfair on my home county. But 'Guilt' is still a powerful piece of work, and a very long way from the cheery nostalgia and easy charm of Betjeman's more popular poems. He was always a much more complex and interesting poet, and man, than the avuncular teddy bear beloved of the TV chat-show circuit – for which persona, and for his popular success, he also, inevitably, hated himself. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

One of Norway's Finest

Today, with my loyal Norwegian readership in mind, I mark the birthday of one of Norway's finest 19th-century painters, Frits Thaulow, born on this day in 1847. I've written about him before, mostly in connection with his Dieppe years, and I never tire of Jaques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of him with his statuesque wife and children (above). 
   Although Thaulow was Norway born and bred, he spent much of his painting career elsewhere, first in Denmark – where he worked in Skagen before it became famous for the Skagen Painters – and then in France, where Paris didn't suit him, but various lesser towns did, especially Dieppe. His work can be filed under Impressionism, and his strong suit was landscape, especially landscapes with plenty of water in them.  Or indeed watery townscapes: here is one of his Venice paintings, Under the Rialto Bridge

And here is a typical riverside scene from somewhere near Dieppe –

Thaulow also had a penchant for crepuscular mood pieces, as in this Ambiance du Soir. I wonder where it was painted – any guesses?

And this one carries the title Kveltstemning, Dieppe – which my Norwegian readers will know means Evening Mood, Dieppe. However, I'm pretty sure that is not Dieppe: neither of Dieppe's old churches looks at all like the one looming through the murk here, nor do those gabled houses look right for Dieppe  

Anyway, happy 173rd birthday to a good painter and, by all accounts, an excellent man. 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Experts and Tags

'I don't know much about science, but I know what I like.' 
That line was quoted by Val MacDermid on Radio 4's Broadcasting House this morning. Apparently it's from Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers
   It does seem remarkably apposite in these Covid-deranged times, when every man and woman is his/her own expert in fields of science whose very existence he/she probably never suspected until recently. We pick, of course, the bits of 'the science' that match our preformed view of what's going on, the research findings that seem to prove us right.  It's open season for confirmation bias – and no wonder in times like these, when there is so much information out there and yet no one really knows what the heck is going on. 
   Addicted as I am to Latin tags (the sure sign of a man who has otherwise forgotten all the Latin he ever learnt), the phrase 'Experto crede' has been rolling around in my head for some while. With 'experts' as thick on the ground as the autumn leaves, that's hardly surprising. Experto crede – believe the expert, right? Well, yes, except that this is 'expert' in its older sense of one who has experienced (it's the same root, obvs): not one who has mastered a body of knowledge but one who has actual experience of what he's talking about – which, of course, rules out whole swathes of present-day expertise. I shall return 'experto crede' to the ragbag of tags (the tagbag) and move on. Claudite iam rivos, pueri – sat prata biberunt...

Saturday, 17 October 2020

A Year in the Life of a Book

 It was on this day last year that I announced to a startled world that my book, The Mother of Beauty, was finally available to buy
   What happened next? Well, I was delighted that the book got a warm reception from many individuals whose opinions I value, and pleased that it seemed to be selling steadily, if at low volume, on Amazon. I sent out a few copies for review, more in hope than expectation – among them, belatedly, one addressed to the books editor of the Daily Mail, who I did not expect to show the slightest interest. In fact she responded very positively, so I got some extra copies printed in case of need, then headed off to New Zealand for a month with the family there. Next thing I knew there was a rave Book of the Week review in the Mail – and, as a result, all available copies sold out in two days, leaving me to organise a hasty reprint by remote control from Wellington. This lost me three weeks of sales (so much for 'hasty'!) and led to some desperation among readers anxious to buy the book. An American publisher that happened to have the same imprint (but published books on unorthodox sexual relationships) was so bombarded with inquiries that it had to put up a big disclaimer on its website. 
  Hey ho. A few more reviews followed, my book got a mention in the Church Times (and, I gather, a sniffy review in the Church Monuments Society gazette – I haven't seen it). Things gradually settled down, and now sales seem to be close to flatlining – which is unfortunate, as a belated (too late!) extra reprint has left me with three or four boxes of The Mother of Beauty on my hands. If anyone would care to relieve me of a copy or two, you can do so either by way of Amazon, or, if you'd prefer not to further enrich Jeff Bezos, direct from me at Remember – Christmas is coming...

Friday, 16 October 2020

'A florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks'

 On the day in 1396 was born William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, statesman and military commander. A favourite of the ineffectual king Henry VI, he features in literature as a character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, parts 1 and 2 – and as one of the three subjects of Geoffrey Hill's  extraordinary sonnet sequence 'Funeral Music':

    William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: beheaded 1450
    John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester: beheaded 1470
    Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers: beheaded 1483

Actually, as Hill makes clear in the short essay he wrote to illuminate 'Funeral Music', William de al Pole was 'butchered across the gunwale of a skiff' by an angry mob, rather than judicially beheaded. Tiptoft was a nobleman and scholar who, as Lord High Constable, presided over executions (of Lancastrians) of such gratuitous brutality that he became known as 'the Butcher of England'. At his own beheading, he asked the executioner to strike three times 'in honour of the Trinity'. Woodville was also a scholar, whose translation from the French of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers was one of the very first books printed in England (by William Caxton). He fell foul of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and was beheaded at Pontefract (Pomfret) castle. 
   In 'Funeral Music', Hill writes, 'I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks' – an appropriate enough soundtrack for the Wars of the Roses. The battle of Towton, mentioned in the second sonnet, was probably the largest and bloodiest ever fought in England. The grim, relentless slaughter was enacted in a snowstorm, and when the caked snow thawed after the battle, the furrows and ditches ran red with blood for two or three miles around.
'Funeral Music' is a pretty shattering poem – brace yourself...


Processionals in the exemplary cave,
Benediction of shadows. Pomfret. London.
The voice fragrant with mannered humility,
With an equable contempt for this world,
‘In honorem Trinitatis’. Crash. The head
Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood.
So these dispose themselves to receive each
Pentecostal blow from axe or seraph,
Spattering block-straw with mortal residue.
Psalteries whine through the empyrean. Fire
Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone
Creatures of such rampant state, vacuous
Ceremony of possession, restless
Habitation, no man’s dwelling-place.


For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain—
For none but the ritual king? We meditate
A rueful mystery; we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.


They bespoke doomsday and they meant it by
God, their curved metal rimming the low ridge.
But few appearances are like this. Once
Every five hundred years a comet’s
Over-riding stillness might reveal men
In such array, livid and featureless,
With England crouched beastwise beneath it all.
‘Oh, that old northern business …’ A field
After battle utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.
Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable
Mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly
Among carnage the most delicate souls
Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.


Let mind be more precious than soul; it will not
Endure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,
Settles with tears and sweat, is possibly
Indestructible. That I can believe.
Though I would scorn the mere instinct of faith,
Expediency of assent, if I dared,
What I dare not is a waste history
Or void rule. Averroes, old heathen,
If only you had been right, if Intellect
Itself were absolute law, sufficient grace,
Our lives could be a myth of captivity
Which we might enter: an unpeopled region
Of ever new-fallen snow, a palace blazing
With perpetual silence as with torches.


As with torches we go, at wild Christmas,
When we revel in our atonement
Through thirty feasts of unction and slaughter,
What is that but the soul’s winter sleep?
So many things rest under consummate
Justice as though trumpets purified law,
Spikenard were the real essence of remorse.
The sky gathers up darkness. When we chant
‘Ora, ora pro nobis’ it is not
Seraphs who descend to pity but ourselves.
Those righteously-accused those vengeful
Racked on articulate looms indulge us
With lingering shows of pain, a flagrant
Tenderness of the damned for their own flesh:


My little son, when you could command marvels
Without mercy, outstare the wearisome
Dragon of sleep, I rejoiced above all—
A stranger well-received in your kingdom.
On those pristine fields I saw humankind
As it was named by the Father; fabulous
Beasts rearing in stillness to be blessed.
The world’s real cries reached there, turbulence
From remote storms, rumour of solitudes,
A composed mystery. And so it ends.
Some parch for what they were; others are made
Blind to all but one vision, their necessity
To be reconciled. I believe in my
Abandonment, since it is what I have.


‘Prowess, vanity, mutual regard,
It seemed I stared at them, they at me.
That was the gorgon’s true and mortal gaze:
Averted conscience turned against itself.’
A hawk and a hawk-shadow. ‘At noon,
As the armies met, each mirrored the other;
Neither was outshone. So they flashed and vanished
And all that survived them was the stark ground
Of this pain. I made no sound, but once
I stiffened as though a remote cry
Had heralded my name. It was nothing …’
Reddish ice tinged the reeds; dislodged, a few
Feathers drifted across; carrion birds
Strutted upon the armour of the dead.


Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.

'A kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh'

 The first essay in Kay Ryan's recently published Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose begins with the arresting sentence, 'I have always felt that much of the best poetry was funny.' She's not talking about comic verse; indeed the first example she gives is Hopkins's far from funny 'The Windhover': 'Who can read [it] and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?'
   Well, I'm glad it's not just me. I often feel exactly this impulse in the face of poetry, paintings, or indeed anything in art or nature that is conspicuously beautiful. Ryan likens the reaction to 'one of those involuntary ha!s that jump out when you've witnessed a wonderful magic trick', and I am much given to those ha!s when reading really good poetry, looking at great paintings (as at the National Gallery the other day) or witnessing some fine instance of nature's 'useless beauty' (my butterfly watching is punctuated by many a ha!). 'Maybe that ha!,' Ryan suggests, 'is the body's natural response to perfection: a perfect trick (one has been utterly deceived) or a perfect poem (one has been utterly deceived).'
   She goes on to examine a short, perfect poem by Robert Frost, 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' – 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– and to quote a passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood on poetry as 'a superior amusement'. 'I love two things about Eliot's definition,' she says. 'First, the bedrock, indefensible truth of it: that poetry is a superior amusement. Second, Eliot's mess of an attempt to explain what he means. I am heartened in my own efforts when I see his bluster. I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, there is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.'
  And I am clearly going to find great enjoyment in this wonderfully straight-talking collection.