Friday, 24 April 2015

Your Larkins Today

Today's date - the 24th of April - seems to have been a good one, creatively, for Philip Larkin. On this day in 1954 he signed off on this cheery little number, Continuing to Live - an elegant expression of his appalled fixation with death. The formal finesse is, as usual with Larkin, wonderful to behold. Those half-rhymes, those clinching, squashing fourth lines of each quatrain...

Continuing to live — that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries —
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise —
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Then, on April 24th, 1968, Larkin gifted us Sad Steps, one of the more resigned masterpieces of his maturity, combining a wonderfully vivid evocation of an everyday experience (especially to those of a certain age) with bleakly amused reflections on moon imagery and the passing of time and youth. It's a shock to realise that he was only 45 when he wrote it... 

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by   
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie   
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.   
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow   
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart   
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—   
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain   
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain   
Of being young; that it can’t come again,   
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

From the Past: Rickett, Cockerell

Glancing out of the train window this morning, I read the legend 'Rickett, Cockerell & Co' on the back of a battered little outbuilding of the station where we had stopped - and experienced a little wave of nostalgia. In the grimy, coal-fired land of my boyhood, every railway station had a little coal merchant's office - usually Rickett, Cockerell & Co, usually a kind of half-timbered miniature house with a tiled, hipped roof and a central chimney. These ubiquitous little buildings used to fascinate me and I wondered what went on in them, surmising that it must have something to do with the coal lorries that went the rounds and the coalmen who heaved great greasy sacks of the black stuff onto their backs (protected by a medieval-style leather jerkin with leather cap attached) and staggered to the coal hole to unburden themselves with a great clattering din.
 Well, those days are long gone, local coal merchants are few and far between, and the Rickett, Cockerell name survives only on weathered signboards on the remnants of their quaint former permises, now converted into minicab offices, estate agencies and the like. The name has a certain glamour, with its faint echo of Ricketts and Shannon, the aesthetic duo - and a stronger connection with Sydney Cockerell, the great curator, whose family firm it was. Indeed he began his working life as a clerk in the business, until he met the likes of Ruskin and Morris and got drawn into an altogether less grimy world.
 The name lives on too, I was amused to discover, in an important case in consumer law: Wilson v Rickett, Cockerell & Co Ltd (1954). Mrs Wilson was a housewife who in good faith purchased a consignment of Coalite from the company. When she lit it, a detonator in the Coalite exploded, taking out her fireplace. The company's defence was that, yes, it happened to contain a detonator, but there was nothing wrong with the Coalite itself. This did not cut much ice with the judge.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Fishy 2

How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
'Fish', it seems, is also the answer to the question: Which non-human life-form do politicians like to reach for when being photographed? Dead fish are most definitely the preferred option with today's vote-chasing political leaders - perhaps they think a glazed-eyed gaping cod will make them look good by comparison? There's a report on the phenomenon in The Times (mostly lurking behind a paywall, alas) with a picture of Boris Johnson cradling a codfish, while BBC News has Nick Clegg scrutinising a Ling. Ed Milliband seems to be steering clear of fish, perhaps fearing invidious comparisons, but the pioneer in this field - the master fish-wrangler - is of course David Cameron, who never misses an opportunity to look at fish. And we should also put in a word for Kim Jong Un, a man capable of looking at a great many fish at the same time.  

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


The Mole valley last weekend was dazzling white with blackthorn - white on black - and the wild plums and cherries in full bloom everywhere. In Surrey suburbia I am surrounded by cherry and plum cultivars all thick with blossom, white and pink, sometimes a rather oppressive near-red. The pear trees too are at their peak of beauty, and this sunny morning I saw the first open flowers on my apple tree. Even better, walking in to work I inhaled my first lilac blossom of the year...
 I'll probably be corrected on this, but I think English is the only major European language to have a specific word for the spring flowering of trees - and what a perfect word: blossom. (Other languages have variants of 'tree-flowers' or just use 'flowers' indiscriminately.)
 Anyway, this has been a wonderful spring for blossom, thanks to a lot of dry, still weather and sunny days followed by cold nights. Blossom time is brief - that is part of its beauty. Enjoy it while it's here.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Wodehouse Complete

There was a feature on the radio this morning celebrating the completion of the Everyman Wodehouse - the first ever complete edition of all of P.G. Wodehouse's works under one imprint, all 99 volumes of them. Naturally one's instinct is to applaud - this, after all, was the greatest comic writer of the 20th century, the Master, whose works remain, after all these years, irresistibly, laugh-aloud funny. Well yes, I would agree with all that - but with a caveat: it is only really true of the Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings Castle oeuvre, and not even of the later entrants in those canons. That still leaves a body of classic comedy writing that dwarfs all others of the 20th century, but I have always found that reading the Other Wodehouse (i.e. non Jeeves/Blandings) has been a disappointing experience - too much formula, too much repetition, too much to plough through for the odd nugget of comedy gold. Maybe it's a harsh judgment, but it seems to me that Wodehouse is not a good candidate for completist publishing; he wrote too much, and too much of it was mere pot-boiling. All the same, I can't help feeling that the Everyman edition is a Good Thing and a worthy memorial for a writer who was indeed, at his best, great. And if anyone can recommend some really good stuff from outside the Jeeves/Blandings canon, I'd be delighted...    

Friday, 17 April 2015

Bonfire of the Slippers

I caught this arresting phrase on the radio this morning. Apparently it's been coined by one Sir Muir Gray, who was, believe it or not, 'Chief Knowledge Officer' for the NHS, and who has written a book brusquely titled Sod 70! He advocates giving older people dumbbells and resistance bands rather than slippers, to make sure they stay fit, active and engaged. Not for me, thanks - I'd sooner upgrade my slippers...
The radio discussion, in which he was joined by 'Green Goddess' Diana Moran, was actually sensible stuff, advocating Walking above all things, with a gentle daily exercise routine to maintain suppleness, core strength etc. Also the importance of starting early - Sir Muir seemed to be suggesting the early 30s, which is surely pushing it a bit. John Stewart Collis, who enjoyed a spry old age, also argued (in his book on the human body, Living with a Stranger, I think) for starting early - before 40 was his recommendation, and I followed it, though largely because back problems drove me to develop an exercise routine. Now here I am, an ageing baby boomer, still mobile, still working (not for long!), GSOH, own teeth, etc, and hardly able to believe that in a few years I'll have reached the biblical span, and will at some point be joining the ranks of the dumbbell-wielding, band-stretching Elderly. Oldsters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your spectacles.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Brown, Grandson and Grandfather

Above is Manfred on the Jungfrau, a typically understated early picture by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, who was born on this day in 1821. His typical works are characterised by energy and drama, strong clear light, flat perspective and an intense focus on sometimes grotesque detail (indeed some of his work can, at a glance, look almost like Richard Dadd). Fittingly, Brown's best-known painting is the strenuous and morally charged Work, followed perhaps by that morose tondo The Last of England. For myself, I prefer Brown in more relaxed mood, in landscapes such as Carrying Corn, The Hayfield and An English Autumn Afternoon...
Ford Madox Brown was the grandson of John Brown, originator of the Brunonian System of medicine, which was briefly a major force in medical theory, at least on the Continent. Its basic idea, roughly speaking, was that all medicine was a matter of stimulation or sedation - and his system favoured stimulation. Ford Madox Brown was also the grandfather of Ford Madox Hueffer, who became Ford Madox Ford, and who definitely favoured stimulation.