Monday, 3 August 2020


Tomorrow, at an ungodly hour, I'm heading for a certain French port (unsubtle clues above) for the now traditional holiday with the English branch of the family. I'm not quite sure what to expect (apart from pleasure) but will no doubt report back in due course... A bientôt!

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Before and After Summer

'Ah, that's good,' I thought, as I heard the scream of swifts flying past my bedroom window. 'They're still here.' I was lying half asleep this morning, with Radio 3 playing softly, and... And at this point I realised the swifts were not outside, but on Radio 3, as part of its beguiling Sunday morning mix of birdsong and music, Sounds of the Earth.
  This morning's mix included a song (I'm not sure which one; I was half asleep) from Gerald Finzi's collection of Thomas Hardy settings, 'Before and After Summer'. This is the title poem –

Looking forward to the spring
One puts up with anything.
On this February day,
Though the winds leap down the street,
Wintry scourgings seem but play,
And these later shafts of sleet
– Sharper pointed than the first –
And these later snows – the worst –
Are as a half-transparent blind
Riddled by rays from sun behind.

Shadows of the October pine
Reach into this room of mine:
On the pine there stands a bird;
He is shadowed with the tree.
Mutely perched he bills no word;
Blank as I am even is he.
For those happy suns are past,
Fore-discerned in winter last.
When went by their pleasure, then?
I, alas, perceived not when.

Cheery stuff, isn't it? It also demonstrates – as does so much of Hardy's poetry and prose – how it is possible to write very badly, or at best awkwardly, yet still have something of greatness about your work. 'Looking forward to the spring/One puts up with anything' – really? And yet there is genuine expressive power, especially in the second stanza. That familiar rhetorical question 'Where did the summer go?' – one moment it was all ahead, the next it was all behind – finds pungent, if typically bleak, expression here.
  As for the swifts, they were certainly still around yesterday evening, half a dozen or or so circling quietly, after several days of mad, screaming flypasts. I hope they are back this evening, even if it is for the last time...

Saturday, 1 August 2020


May I commend to your attention the August edition of the online magazine British Intelligence, out today. Much food for thought and sustenance for the soul – and a piece by me about churchyards, etc.

Friday, 31 July 2020

An Aurelian Writes...

Today being blazing hot, I launched a Timely, Targeted and Time-limited one-man expedition to a butterfly-haunted Surrey hillside in the hope of seeing one of my favourite little butterflies, the heat-loving Silver-spotted Skipper, and perhaps that famous beauty, the Adonis Blue. Oddly, having left home in all too still air, I found the hillside raked by a strong, if warm, southeasterly breeze – never good news for butterflies, especially if they're as small as the Silver-Sotted Skipper.
  The sturdier Chalk-Hill Blues, pale and milky, were flying in abundance, especially in the more sheltered spots, where they rose up in clouds (mingled with other chalk downland regulars) as I passed. My hopes of seeing their Adonis cousin were not high – it's a bit early, even without the wind – but, as I began the long climb back up the hillside, I spotted a flash of that unmistakably intense jewel-like blue and, sure enough, it was an Adonis Blue (not my first of the year this time, as I'd seen a first-brood specimen back in June). I also had a surprise sighting of a skipper I wasn't expecting to see – the Dingy Skipper, which these days sometimes runs to a second brood. But still no Silver-spotted Skipper, and, as I drew near the top of the hillside, I had given up all serious hope of seeing one. Then, suddenly, as if from nowhere, a perfect specimen appeared just inches from my left elbow, perched on a flowerhead with its beautiful underwing – sage green spangled with silver – on display. It was one of those moments when, as Nabokov puts it, the aurelian experiences 'a thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern'. I might never see another Silver-spotted Skipper this year, but today's belated encounter was one that I'm not likely to forget.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Blackberrying with W.H. Hudson

I was out blackberrying today on Mitcham Common, amid clouds of Gatekeeper butterflies and the odd Purple Hairstreak, among  other beauties. Whenever I'm picking blackberries I'm teased by the vague memory of a passage somewhere in W.H. Hudson, in which, while similarly engaged, he meets an extraordinary tramp. After more than one failed attempt, I've finally tracked the passage down: it's in an essay called 'Rural Rides', collected in Afoot in England.
  The tramp, whom Hudson initially describes as 'gorgeous', is a striking figure – 'a huge man, over six feet high, nobly built, suggesting a Scandinavian origin, with a broad blond face, good features and prominent blue eyes, and his hair was curly and shone like gold in the sunlight'. But there were bruises on his face, suggestive to Hudson of a drunken brawl, and 'Alas! He had the stamp of the irreclaimable blackguard on his face.' His clothes were a gaudy mix of ill-fitting, once fancy, now  worn-out garments, topped by a 'long black frock-coat, shiny in places, and a small dirty grey cap'.
  Walking along the hedgerow, Hudson and the tramp help themselves to the abundant blackberries. Hudson remarks conversationally that it is late to be picking blackberries (it is November) and that 'the Devil in these parts ... flies abroad in October to spit on the bramble bushes and spoil the fruit' – and that it's worse in Norfolk and Suffolk, where 'the Devil goes out at Michaelmas and shakes his verminous trousers over the bushes.'
  The tramp is not amused: 'he went on sternly eating blackberries, and then remarked in a bitter tone, "That Devil they talk about must have a busy time, to go messing about blackberry bushes in addition to all his other important work."'
  Hudson does not respond, and the tramp continues in the same tone: '"Very fine, very beautiful all this" – waving his hand to indicate the hedge, its rich tangle of purple-red stems and coloured leaves, and scarlet fruit and silvery old-man's-beard. "An artist enjoys seeing this sort of thing, and it's nice for all those who go about just for the pleasure of seeing things. But when it comes to a man tramping twenty or thirty miles a day on an empty belly, looking for work which he can't find, he doesn't see it in quite the same way."
  "True," I returned with indifference.
  But he was not to be put off by my sudden coldness, and proceeded to inform me that he had just returned from Salisbury Plain, that it had been noised abroad that ten thousand men were wanted by the War Office to work in forming new camps. On arrival he found it was not so – it was all a lie – men were not wanted – and he was now on his way to Andover, penniless and hungry and –
  By the time he had got to that part of his story we were some distance apart, as I had remained standing still while he, thinking me still close behind, had gone on picking blackberries and talking. He was soon out of sight.'

I'm sure we have all met people like that tramp – blinded to all else by an implacable sense of grievance, incapable of simple gratitude, and unable to acknowledge happiness, goodness or beauty for what they are. Hudson's is a vivid portrait of a particularly striking example of the type; no wonder it has lingered at the edge of my memory for so long.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The Fall of Rome

In times like these, it's often a good idea to reach for Auden.
His The Fall of Rome, written in 1947 (and dedicated to Cyril Connolly), could hardly be more apposite, right down to the flu-infected cities:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic* Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

* 'Cerebrotonic' denotes a personality type characterised by a highly developed intellect, shyness, introspection and lack of social skills. Today we might place such a person on 'the spectrum' – spectral Cato...?

Monday, 27 July 2020

More than Suitable

Last night I watched the first of the new BBC1 showpiece drama series, a six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy – and I loved it. Coming in the wake of the incomprehensible and unwatchable The Luminaries – and so many other BBC dramas full of anguished expressions and inaudible dialogue, filmed in the dark – this burst of light and colour and lucidity was more than welcome. Andrew Davies seems to have made a brilliant job of turning Seth's 1,400-page epic into a slick, involving and comprehensible TV narrative. There has been some silly confected 'controversy' about this white Rajah of the classic drama being involved in an otherwise 'all-Asian' production, but he's there for the simple reason that no one understands the art of translating novels into television better than Davies. It's hard to imagine anyone else taking on this project, let alone making a success of it. I fear my Sunday evenings will be taken care of for the next five weeks...
  But will I read the book? Tortoise-slow reader that I am, I very much doubt it – and if I'm going to take on a novel on such a grand scale, surely it should be War and Peace, which, to my shame, I have never read (though it feels as if I had). I've read Seth's extraordinary novel in Onegin sonnets, The Golden Gate, which is IMHO some kind of masterpiece. Perhaps, if I can't face A Suitable Boy, I should read An Equal Music – I'm sure I've got it somewhere...