Monday, 28 July 2014


Here I am, back from a week of jaunting around the country in almost unbroken sunshine. Early in the week, on an impulse, I went to have a look at Margate, a Kentish coastal resort with a reputation for being thoroughly scuzzy and run-down. The reputation is well earned by the part of town nearest the station (as is so often the way - why do so many towns present their worst side to those arriving by train?). However, as you walk further, along the sweep of what is by any standards an impressive bay with fine sands (on which, as Eliot noted, one can connect nothing with nothing), Margate improves, indeed gets better and better the farther you go. Lots of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings with exuberant seaside detailing, looking out over bay after sandy bay, all bathed in a wonderful light - the light that attracted Turner to Margate year after year...
 The Turner connection is celebrated in the town's landmark (literally) art gallery, the Turner Contemporary, which dominates the harbour. Opened three years ago, it was designed by David Chipperfield and has been described as 'ugly, alien and bleak'. From the outside, especially close up and especially at certain angles, it lives up to that characterisation, and my expectations were not high as I approached - but, once inside, all that changed. What looks from the outside like a random collection of blank boxes turns out to be a space full of light and sky, in which the view out to sea and across the bay becomes, to a quite magical extent, part of the building. The effect is breath-taking.
 In an upstairs gallery (artificially lit, which seems a pity) the exhibition Mondrian & Colour was still under way - an interesting small-scale display of works by Mondrian before, as it were, he became Mondrian. Some of them are very fine, others seem like mere experiments in other artists' styles, and as a whole the exhibition doesn't really explain how Mondrian made the leap to his form of extreme abstraction (represented by a few characteristic works, which certainly give more in reality than they do in reproduction).
 In another gallery - this one making good use of natural light - was an enjoyable little exhibit by Spencer Finch, an American artist I hadn't heard of. This was unfortunately dominated by a large 'cloud' suspended from the ceiling which had something of the air of a Sixth Form art project about it. But there was also a fascinating display along one wall that, at first glance, looked like a row of black squares. These were in fact 60 photographs taken with a fixed camera at one-minute intervals as fog came and went across a swathe of forest. Peering into the images in succession, as the fog clears and thickens again, ghostly trees come in and out of vision and sunlight occasionally breaks through, was a strangely rewarding experience. As indeed was visiting Margate. 
 But enough - I must now step out into the sunshine...

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Lover of the Dawn?

When I got up this morning (I'm on holiday this week), there was a female Gatekeeper perched on a leaf of the Buddleia bush outside the back door, her tail in the air, waiting for some passing male to take the, er, hint. She is still there as I write...
It's been another bumper year for the delightful Gatekeeper, the most cheering and approachable of our summer butterflies. Its Latin name is Pyronia Tithonus - yes, Tithonus, the mortal cursed by Zeus with the inability do die, whose wretched plight is so powerfully expressed in Tennyson's poem: 'The woods decay, the woods decay and fall...' What could he possibly have to do with the merry little Gatekeeper? I think the explanation must be that Tithonus was the (reluctant) lover of Eos, the goddess (strictly speaking, Titan) of the Dawn. Is the Gatekeeper, then, a lover of the dawn, or at least an early riser among butterflies? This would seem likely, to judge by the hopeful female on my Buddleia bush.
 I've been thinking about the Latin/Greek nomenclature of butterflies ever since reading a fascinating article on the subject in the current edition of Butterfly magazine. From this I learnt that my old friend the Dingy Skipper [see Nigeness passim], Erynnis Tages, is named after the Erynnes - the Furies - because it flies as if pursued by them, and after Tages, a miraculous boy who 'rose suddenly from the ground', just like a Dingy Skipper taking off.
 In other butterfly news, on Ashtead Common yesterday, where Silver-Washed Fritillaries were flying in glorious abundance (along with a few White Admirals), I spotted, high up in an oak, the second Purple Emperor of my life. He was only briefly in sight, but on size alone he was unmistakable, and I got a good sight of the equally unmistakable underwing. As a lepidopteral thrill, it wasn't quite up there with seeing my first - especially as that one was settled on the ground - but it was not far behind. There really is nothing like seeing the Emperor.
 Update: The Gatekeeper has flown - I hope she found her male.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Great Fire of Carshalton; An Eye-Witness Report by Your Man on the Spot

Having enjoyed a morning stroll around our little local nature reserve - where the Gatekeepers and Ringlets were flying in merry abundance - I was walking back into the village when I noticed a thick  plume of pretty ugly smoke rolling up from somewhere behind the High Street shops. It looked like too much to be an over-exuberant bonfire - and so it proved. As I drew nearer, I discovered that it was the old bakery building behind the baker's shop. There were no flames, but the smoke was billowing out in quantity.
 Already knots of interested bystanders were forming all around, and in minutes the first batch of cops had turned up and set about their usual thing - putting up tape barriers, closing the road and gesticulating at drivers and onlookers alike. More police were soon piling onto the scene, with cars turning up every minute - but no sign of the fire brigade. I nipped into the Co-Op supermarket as it was still open (it wouldn't be for long), and while I was at the till, a young House Sparrow - no doubt disoriented by the smoke and kerfuffle - flew in through the open door, like Bede's sparrow flying through the hall, except that there was no exit at the other end. The last I saw of him he was perched atop Tinned Vegetables.
 When I passed that way a couple of hours later, still more of the High Street was closed, and half a dozen fire engines were now at the scene, with miles of hoses trailing everywhere. They seemed to have done their work and nothing remained of the fire but a smoky tang to the air. The firefighters were sorting out their equipment, amid much joshing and badinage. They seemed to be enjoying themselves; they don't often get to see a fire these days.
 Stop Press: I just discovered that this fire broke out just as the firefighters' latest two-hour strike was under way - what are the chances?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Full Lotus on Train

On the train this morning, a youngish chap - smart suit, achingly trendy geek-style haircut and glasses - was perched on his seat in the full lotus position, like the Caterpillar atop the mushroom in Alice. I have never seen anyone manage that before, but he seemed entirely comfortable. In his lap was an iBook, in his ears were earphones, and he worked frantically at his keyboard, looking neither to right nor to left, throughout the journey. When we reached our terminus, he was still totally absorbed in whatever he was doing and showed no sign of getting off the train. Perhaps he was some kind of performance artist or living sculpture, installed by Southern Railways to travel to and fro for the edification of us commuters. No one but me seemed to notice him.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

'Please find enclosed...'

I see this letter to the pupils in a primary school (scroll down for the full text)  has 'gone viral' - presumably because people think it's wonderful, inspiring, etc. How times change. When I was at primary school, if we'd received a letter like that from the head we'd have concluded, when we'd recovered from the shock, that either (a) he was playing some kind of sick joke on us, or (b) he'd finally succumbed to the catastrophic mental breakdown that never seemed far away. If it had come from him, though, it would at least have been grammatically correct.
 Still, we seemed to do well enough without any such patronising morale-boosters. Most of us came out of that state-run primary school - where average class size was around 50 - highly literate and numerate and with a better knowledge of many things (including grammar) than today's average graduate. In those days, teachers - taking their cue from the job title - were still in the business of teaching stuff. It worked.


As well as being Dorothy Fields' birthday, yesterday was also the 110th anniversary of Chekhov's death, and in the evening I caught an excellent talk by Julian Evans on Radio 4 Extra - Chekhov's Death: Fact and Fiction. In it Evans recounts the events, not as related in the famous account by Chekhov's widow Olga Knipper but as recorded, more accurately, by Leo Rabeneck, the young Russian student who was sent by Olga to fetch the doctor on the night of Chekhov's death.
 His record omits the more romantic, mythopoeic elements in Olga's account and gives the facts in a manner that Chekhov would surely have preferred - tinged with darkly farcical comedy. The body (which had refused to be entirely straightened) was carried away not on a stretcher but in a wicker laundry basket that appeared to be of extraordinary length - and yet Chekhov's body could not be laid flat in it, so he was borne away half sitting up, his face in the flickering torchlight appearing to half-smile. Chekhov the writer would surely have relished the scene - as he would the subsequent comedy of the body being transported in a refrigerated wagon labelled 'Oysters', and the fact that many of the mourners at his funeral inadvertently followed the procession of a General Keller, accompanied by a military band.
 Julian Evans' talk can be heard on the BBC iPlayer.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Birthday Girl

Born on this day in 1905 was the great lyricist Dorothy Fields. She did some of her best work with Jerome Kern on the Astaire-Rogers movie Swing Time. Which gives me the perfect excuse to link to this... Enjoy!