Friday, 15 November 2019

Moore's Silence, James's Amenities

Today is the 132nd birthday of Marianne Moore, so a poem is surely called for.
Here is her 'Silence', a poem full of wise words, which she attributes to her father. This is odd, as she never met her father, who suffered a psychotic episode, and split up with her mother, before she was born. The name of Longfellow pops up again here, by way of his grave (in Mount Auburn cemetery, west of Cambridge, Mass.)...

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "`Make my house your inn'."
Inns are not residences. 

Talking of inns – here is Henry James, in English Hours, reflecting on the traditional English inn:
'I have sometimes had occasion to repine at the meagreness and mustiness of the old-fashioned English inn, and to feel that in poetry and in fiction these defects had been culpably glossed over. But I said to myself the other evening that there is a kind of venerable decency even in some of its dingiest contingencies, and that in an age in which the conception of good manners is losing most of its ancient firmness one should do justice to an institution that is still more or less of a stronghold of the faded amenities.'
Well, that 'ancient firmness' has only weakened since James's time, and those 'faded amenities' have faded yet more. Those who work in what is nowadays oxymoronically called the 'hospitality industry' display a hollow form of 'good manners' that is no more than a matter of following a script. This helps things to run smoothly – at least until circumstances demand a departure from the script – but at a cost in character, spontaneity and variety. James would not be impressed.
To our ears, his phrase 'faded amenities', in the context of an inn, suggests something very different from, and more concrete than, James's meaning. 'Amenities' is a word he uses broadly and freely to convey all those things that make life pleasing, decent and liveable. On his memorial stone in Chelsea Old Church, James is described as a 'lover & interpreter of the fine amenities, of brave decisions & generous loyalties.'

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Niv, a Good Egg

I couldn't resist this picture of David Niven, exuding that characteristic officer-and-gentleman charm even when mounted, improbably, on a bicycle. Niven, readers of the authoritative Me Cheeta might recall, is one of the few Hollywood stars of whom Cheeta – always a very sound judge of character – approves. One of the comic highlights of Cheeta's memoir is an anecdote about Johnny Weissmuller and 'Niv' borrowing Douglas Fairbanks's Rolls-Royce and sending it on its way with Cheeta driving and Jackie, the MGM lion, in the passenger seat (it does not end well).
  Niven, with his irresistible charm and preposterous good looks – and ability to act, should the occasion demand it – was pretty much bound to become a star, once he reached Hollywood. Before he got there, he had been a Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry, but became bored with life in the peacetime Army. A minor 'act of subordination' got him placed under close arrest, but, having finished a convivial bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him, he was allowed to escape from a first-floor window. He was soon on his way across the Atlantic, resigning his commission by telegram.
  In the second spot of bother, however, he returned to England as soon as war was declared – the only British Hollywood star to do so – and ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel, having done important undercover work in the Allied invasion of Normandy. He had a 'good war', but, despite being a famous anecdotalist, he spoke little of his wartime experiences, saying on one occasion, 'I will, however, say one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.' Another story emerged that Niven, about to lead his men into action, calmed their nerves by telling them, 'Look, you chaps only have to do this once, but I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn.'
  He was a good egg – and there weren't many of those in Hollywood.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

'Restoring intellectual day'

Has there ever been an election campaign as dismally uninspired, and uninspiring, as this one? Apart from the one important issue – Brexit, about which there is probably little more to be usefully said at this point  – the parties seem to have nothing more to tell us than how much of our money they're itching to throw away. With the socialists and the tories competing to outspend each other, those of us of a conservative bent can only look on and wonder what became of English conservatism; it certainly doesn't reside in Johnson's 'Conservative' party. What a dismal lookout.
  As a result of all this – piled on top of what was already wrong with them – the news programmes are becoming quite unlistenable (not to mention unwatchable). Radio 4's Today programme has become something from which I recoil each morning in horror, taking refuge with Radio 3, or my own music. Recently I've been exploring Handel, particularly the operas – why did it take me so long to realise what a great composer he was?
  And so it was that this morning I happened upon this sublimely beautiful duet...

It's from his pastoral ode L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, but the words of 'As Steals the Morn' are adapted from Shakespeare, from the final act of The Tempest –

As steals the morn upon the night,
And melts the shades away:
So truth does fancy's charm dissolve,
And melts the shades away:
The fumes that did the mind involve,
Restoring intellectual day.

'Restoring intellectual day' – aah, if only...

Monday, 11 November 2019


Something warm and sunny for this chilly day – Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson by Edouard Vuillard.
The great intimiste, born on this day in 1868, is best known for his enigmatic, often dim domestic interiors, but pictures like this show that he could work just as well outdoors, in the sun.

Sunday, 10 November 2019


This morning – happily a bright and sunny one – I was at a local remembrance ceremony, along with all the local worthies (a category that doesn't include me, I hasten to add). After the Minister's introductory sentence, the Mayor stepped up to the mike – far too close to the mike – and began to bellow, in a pawl-and-ratchet monotone, something that I assumed must be a poem. From the few words I could make out through the booming distortion, I guessed it was something by Wilfred Owen, always popular on these occasions. Consulting the programme afterwards, I discovered it was this one, The Send-Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Naturally this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin's thematically similar MCMXIV,  a poem more contained, more vivid, more controlled, and, I think, more eloquent for its restraint...

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring,
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Between the Laurence Binyon ('They shall not grow old...') and the Kohima epitaph ('When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today') came the Last Post, the silence and the Reveille. Unfortunately the bugler was having a bad day, had lost his high notes and had but a shaky grasp of the lower ones, so the Last Post sounded like a solo by a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and the Reveille was little better. 
This was all as it should be, of course. This is England, and we English are naturally suspicious of anything too slick, preferring to give an appearance of amateurism, even in things we're rather good at. Like winning wars.  Or maybe that should all be in the past tense. 

Friday, 8 November 2019

Butterflies and California Dreamin'

A dismal day today, cold and grey. Just the day to look back to sunnier times and relive my butterfly season, which is surely now over (though I saw a single, surprisingly lively Red Admiral yesterday, and on a sunny morning a week or so ago I totted up three more, plus a late Holly Blue, an even later Small White, and a Comma)...
The season got off to a great start with a February heatwave, the glorious surprise of a Hummingbird Hawk Moth in March, and an unprecedented species count of 16 (not including the moth) by the end of April. Later highlights included Wall butterflies in Derbyshire and beautiful Dark Green Fritillaries on some local downland where I'd never seen them before. A bonanza year for Painted Ladies began for me at the end of June, and went on into early autumn. On a July day near Brookwood I found myself in the company of more Graylings than I've seen since boyhood, and later Chalkhill Blues galore on my favourite Surrey hillside, followed a little later by a few – a very precious few – Silver-Spotted Skippers. Then, out of the blue, the surprise finale of a single Brown Hairstreak at my local nature reserve.
Meanwhile, today's dismal weather has set the Mamas and Papas song California Dreamin' playing persistently in my head. This may seem odd, but remember, the first words of that song are 'All the leaves are brown/And the sky is grey./I've been for a walk/On a winter's day...' It just doesn't sound like a winter song: the lush arrangement, and those joyous vocal harmonies, make it sound like a summer rhapsody, full of Californian sunlight, not the exile's lament it actually is (the exile being a spell in New York in winter). This contrast between the words and the sound of a song is very much a John Phillips trademark, and is apparent throughout his solo album, Wolfking of LA. Consider, for example, this dark number set to an oh so jaunty, upbeat tune –

But, to return to California Dreamin', here is something of a curiosity – the original recording, by Barry (Eve of Destruction) McGuire, with the Mamas and Papas as backing singers, various of the Wrecking Crew behind them, and a rather unfortunate harmonica solo...

Then producer Lou Adler had the bright idea of giving the song back to the Mamas and Papas, with the sweet-voiced Denny Doherty on lead vocal, and Bud Shank's jazzy flute replacing that harmonica. And so a great, great single was born.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Words of the Year – oh dear...

It's 'Word of the Year' time again, heaven help us. This little publicity gimmick by Collins dictionaries can always be relied on to lower the spirits, and this year it obliges handsomely. The word of the year, according to Collins, isn't even a word but a phrase – 'climate strike'. (This is not when climate strikes, but when schoolchildren, with their teachers' encouragement, walk out of school to demonstrate about what they have been told is an imminent 'climate emergency' that will wipe them from the face of the earth.)
There are other new words lined up to join 'climate strike' in Collins's next edition. Reading the list is like hearing a bell tolling for the end of civilisation as we once knew it – a litany for end times, if you like (or am I getting carried away here?):

Climate strike.
Double down.

Hands up if you even know what the last two mean. Truly we live in strange times...