Sunday 10 December 2023

Park Life

 With the world apparently trundling towards hell in an accelerating handcart, it is cheering to come across a good news story, so I was delighted to read that a new species of moth – one entirely new to science – has been discovered, in, of all places, a park in that 'queen of suburbs', Ealing. Indeed, it was found in the very park where, as a lad, I used to play with my brother and friends: Walpole Park, developed from the grounds of Sir John Soane's Pitzhanger Manor, which in my day was the public library (the park also, in my day, contained a small zoo or menagerie). The moth is a new species of microlepidopteron, so cannot be described by any stretch as spectacular – but that it should have been discovered at all, let alone in such a location, is quite astonishing: these things very rarely happen. Tachystola mulliganae  – named for Barbara Mulligan, the moth enthusiast who found it – belongs to a genus originating from Australia, and an unidentified microplepidopteron in the Natural History Museum's collection turned out to be an exact DNA match. That specimen was found back in 1886, in the Western Australian town of... Walpole. 
You can read the full story here.

Friday 8 December 2023

'A rushing music, seizing on her dance...'

 Among my birthday presents, and very welcome, was Christopher Lloyd's Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels, a handsome book that will give me hours of browsing pleasure. 

Among Degas's finest pastels – and unusual in showing a performance rather than rehearsals and behind the scenes action – is L'Etoile, a brilliant representation of a dancer caught in the brief ecstasy of inhabiting the dance before returning to the menacing darkness of backstage and the harsh realities of life as a dancer (and, very probably, prostitute: the two tended to go together at the time). Richard Wilbur catches the feel of the picture perfectly in his ekphrastic poem, 'L'Etoile'...

A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh. 

Thursday 7 December 2023

Birthday, and a Walk

 Well, today another year has come full circle and I achieve (simply by virtue of staying alive) my 74th birthday, as does the great Tom Waits – happy birthday, Tom. Yesterday I was walking with the miraculously resurgent walking group – a short (but sometimes dauntingly muddy) church crawl in southern Northamptonshire, taking in the gloriously named villages of Potterspury, Yardley Gobion and Furtho, the last more a remnant than a village, with a still numinous 'redundant' church, a fine dovecote and the humps and tumps of a DMV (deserted medieval village). Platonic England, if ever I saw it...
  In Potterspury church we happened on the best kind of person you can hope to meet on a church crawl  – not an antiquarian windbag along the lines of the Rev. Lord Henry D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets: 'I always say that my west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer – without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.' No, this was an old man – 91 years old – who clearly loved his church, which he had been part of since he joined the choir as a boy back in 1940, and who knew every stone of it: indeed he had laid many of them himself, having repaved the whole of the nave and chancel (a six-month job for two men, and beautifully done). It is wonderful to meet someone like him, who in his person and his memories embodies so much of what the Church – specifically the English parish church – is all about. Let us hope it lasts a deal longer yet – or even, like my walking group, undergoes a miraculous resurgence: that would be something. 

Monday 4 December 2023


 Yesterday evening I attended my first Advent service in the cathedral (last year I was at St Oswald's, Ashbourne). It was an extraordinarily beautiful service, beginning, in customary fashion, in darkness, then gradually lit up by candles along the length of the nave and into the quire. The effect was glorious, as was the music that accompanied all this – Bach, Byrd, Palestrina, Weelkes and more, including the Great 'O' Antiphons (O Sapientia, O Adonai, etc). There were the usual Advent readings, and the traditional Advent carols. The choir were on brilliant form, divided between the west gallery and the quire, and as I listened I wondered once again how a Church with so much to offer in the way of beautiful music (and words), beautiful buildings and rich tradition should be in such a state of decline. No doubt there are all manner of reasons – the current rush into managerialism being one of them – but I wonder if the dear old C of E might be wiser to make the most of its rich heritage rather than strive for novelty and 'outreach'. I suspect beauty, spirituality and tradition might prove to have much stronger appeal than lame attempts to follow secular trends or reduce worship to happy-clappy simplicity: there might be more life in Larkin's 'moth-eaten musical brocade' than the Church itself suspects. Certainly the cathedral was packed full last night – so full that I had to sit against the wall of the south aisle (all the chairs were arranged facing the nave aisle, as there was a good deal of processing). The down side of this was that I became much colder than I realised, and I was unable to read the order of service, being too far from the nearest rank of candles. But it was a wonderful service, one of the best I have ever attended. And one of the musical highlights was this glorious piece by James MacMillan, a true modern classic...

Sunday 3 December 2023


 Advent, and snow on the ground.
Here is a bleakly beautiful Advent poem by – who else? – R.S. Thomas.

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look, he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent. A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

Saturday 2 December 2023


 The cold snap has well and truly arrived, with clear blue skies and deep frost, and this morning an arrestingly beautiful combination of mist and hoarfrost – the first I've seen in some while. The particular beauty of hoarfrost lies in the way it gives a silver-white lining to every leaf and twig and blade of grass – and spiderweb. Suddenly it becomes apparent how abundant and ubiquitous spiderwbebs are, and what an amazing feat of engineering each one is. When the lines of a web are rimed and thickened with hoarfrost, its's easier to see how, from the spider's point of view, web building is not a delicate affair but sheer hard work. As Kay Ryan puts it, beautifully, in her poem 'Spiderweb' – 

'From other
angles the
fibres look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.'

Thursday 30 November 2023

Practical Criticism the Shane MacGowan Way

 Reading an obituary of the Pogues front man Shane MacGowan, who despite everything made it to the age of 65, I learned much of interest – English prep school, followed by Westminster! Who knew? – but what most struck me was the story, told by a former girlfriend, that Shane lost several of his front teeth attempting to eat The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, Volume 3. I'd like to think this was an act of truly practical criticism – that particular LP is not regarded as much of an addition to the Beach Boys oeuvre, and the record company only released it to make up for disappointing sales of the previous album, Friends. However, MacGowan was under the influence of LSD at the time, and that might be sufficient explanation. 
 Eating as practical criticism, though, surely has some possibilities – eating books (or at least taking a few bites) being the obvious example. I can't find, or call to mind, a single case of this happening (anyone?), but I rather wish I'd thought of it in my student days, when it might have enlivened a dreary tutorial. In my library days, I did have a colleague who in meetings had a habit of munching on the minutes (before his leveraged retirement). There are a couple of cases of bibliophagy in the Bible – one, involving a scroll rather than a codex, is in Ezekiel, the other in Revelations, where an angel tells John to eat a 'little book', assuring him that 'it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey' (and so it proved).
  Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing Fairy Tale of New York – almost the only secular Xmas song that doesn't set my teeth on edge – even more often than usual this Christmas.