Tuesday 21 May 2024

The Springtime of Flight

 I happened upon this picture online, and my first thought was that it might be by Badmin or Tunnicliffe or another of the Shell/Ladybird stable of gifted illustrators. In fact it is the work of Tirzah Garwood, the talented wife and widow of Eric Ravilious, and is one of twenty or so distinctive oil paintings she produced towards the end of her life, moving on from her usual lines of wood engraving and paper marbling. Called The Springtime of Flight and painted in 1950, the picture brings together three vernal elements – spring flowers, a spring butterfly and an early aeroplane from, yes, the springtime of flight – into a charming composition with a slightly otherworldly feel, more like an instructive composition than an actual landscape. The flowers are very nicely, and accurately, done – and so is the Brimstone butterfly, and that is a rare thing in art. Nabokov took a severe line on the failure of most artists to paint butterflies at all accurately: ‘Only myopia,’ he declared (in a 1970 interview), ‘condones the blurry generalisations of ignorance. In high art and pure science detail is everything.’ Well, Tirzah Garwood's delightful painting is not 'high art', but that is a very well painted Brimstone – accurate enough, I think, to satisfy even Nabokov. 

Monday 20 May 2024

Too Many Trees

 Yesterday I walked across town to have a look at Borrowcrop Hill, an eminence associated in local legend with the slaughter of three Christian kings killed by the Romans around 300AD. There is nothing much to the hill now, hemmed in as it is by modern housing, but it sports an arcaded  brick gazebo dated to 1804, and it promises fine views across Lichfield and into the surrounding countryside. I say 'promises' advisedly; the reality is that most of those views are either compromised of blocked completely by trees – 'weed trees', mostly sycamore and ash, that have sprung up in recent years and more or less put paid to Borrowcrop Hill as a viewpoint.  Much the same thing has happened to the once fine views of the city from the nearby St Michael's churchyard, and I've noticed the same sad phenomenon in many other places that once commanded good views. The fact is that there are just too many trees – trees, that is, of the wrong kind, in the wrong place. This is what happens when trees are allowed to spring up and grow unchecked wherever they fancy. Woodland, on any scale, needs to be managed, otherwise it turns into a scrubby mess of weed trees and undergrowth. Blocking views is the least of it: unmanaged growth leads to the shading out of many species – including woodland butterflies – and a loss of what is now called 'biodiversity'. You might have thought that those in charge of managing our woodland would know this, but today I learn that Forestry England (formerly the Forestry Commission, and guilty of many crimes against the environment) has had a bright idea – yes, rewilding. What could possibly go wrong? Forestry England's plans have, in their own words, 'an exciting unpredictability', but they are 'confident that whatever happens', the rewilded woodlands will become 'more nature-rich, with benefits for neighbouring landscapes'. So that's all right then.
  What is needed is not 'rewilding' but proper management of existing woodland – especially coppicing and clearing – which in itself would create more biodiversity. And it's not just me saying this either – here's someone who knows what he's talking about, and his report is well worth reading. 
  Pictured below is something I did see on Borrowcrop Hill – a curious wood sculpture of an owl whose legs appear to go all the way up to his beak, and whose feet resemble a lion's. Funny old world.

Saturday 18 May 2024

From Omar Khayyam to Charles Causley, via Edward FitzGerald and Dick Davis

 Born on this day in 1048 (by our calendar) was Omar Khayyam. A Persian polymath – astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet – his name would barely have impinged on the English consciousness had it not been for a remarkable feat of translation: Edward Fitzgerald's version of the collection of quatrains known as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, first published, anonymously, in 1861 to near universal indifference, but rescued from oblivion by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne and others impressed by its distinctive beauty. Rossetti apparently found FitzGerald's book languishing among the unsold unsaleables on a book stall, priced at a few pence. After various revisions, the Rubaiyat was republished, and within a few years became one of the most popular and widely read poems in the English language, reaching a peak of popularity at the end of the 19th century. With its easy melodic flow, its air of Romantic melancholy and thrilling but safe exoticism, it has retained its popularity to this day, at least in terms of being present in the public consciousness and widely quoted, if not widely read. Like most popular poetry, it is unfashionable, and like most translations it is contentious: it could hardly be otherwise when FitzGerald himself called it a 'transmogrification' rather than a straight translation. It is clear too that at least some of the quatrains owe nothing to any Persian original – a measure of how completely FitzGerald had made an English poem of it. 
   A poet closer to our own time, Dick Davis, was known as a brilliant translator of Persian verse – and one who recognised the greatness, for all its infidelities, of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat. In his 'A Letter to Omar', he stands at the tomb of Omar Khayyam (pictured above) and reflects on the Rubaiyat, on his own life, and on the strange but gifted man who turned those quatrains into English poetry: 

I stood beside the ghastly tomb they built for you
And shuddered with vicarious, mute guilt for you;
Are concrete columns what they thought you meant?
I wanted wine, a glass turned down, drops spilt for you.

A sick child reads (his life is not imperilled – 
He sucks the candied death-wish of FitzGerald);
I was that child, and your translated words
Were poetry – the muse's gaudy herald.

Was it for you I answered that advertisement
Before I knew what coasting through one's thirties meant?
If so I owe my wife and child to that
Old itch to get at what your English verses meant.

Thus in your land I doled out Shakespeare, Milton –
Decided I preferred sheep's cheese to stilton
But knew as much of Persia or Iran
As jet-lagged fat cats sluicing at the Hilton.

My language teacher was a patient Persian Jew
(I pray that he survives), a techno-person who
Thought faith and verse vieux jeus; he thought me weird –
He learnt my loyalties and his aversion grew.

Love proved the most effective learning lure and not
His coaxing tact: my girl required the score and plot
– Explained in halting, pidgin syllables – 
Of our first opera (which was – aptly – Turandot).

When I had said, in crabbed words bare of ornament,
What La Bohème, The Magic Flute and Norma meant
She married me; my Persian was still bad
But now I knew I knew what 'nessun dorma' meant.

We set up home ... but I feel more than sure you
Would not assent to Dr Johnson's poor view 
Of tulip streaks* (Damn all particulars...)
And I desist – I wouldn't want to bore you.

You left the busy trivia unspoken:
Haunted by vacancy, you saw unbroken
Miles of moonlight – time and the desert edge
The high-walled gardens, man's minute, brief token.

And if I revelled in your melancholy
(Like mooching through the rain without a brolly)
It was the passion of your doubt I loved,
Your castigation of the bigot's folly.

Besides, what could be more perversely pleasant
To an ascetic, hungry adolescent
Than your insistent carpe diem cry
Of let conjecture go, embrace the present?

And all set out (I thought so then, I think so now)
In stanzas of such finely wrought, distinct know-how
They were my touchstone of the art (it is
A taste our pretty literati think low-brow).

Such fierce uncertainty and such precision!
That fateful metre mated with a vision
Of such persuasive doubt ... grandeur was your
Decisive statement of our indecision. 

Dear poet-scholar, would-be alcoholic
(Well, is the wine – or is it not – symbolic?)
You would and would not recognise the place – 
Succession now is quasi-apostolic,

The palace is a kind of Moslem Deanery,
But government, despite this shift of scenery,
Stays as embattled as it ever was – 
As individual, and as sanguinary.

The warring creeds still rage – each knows it's wholly right
And welcomes ways to wage the martyrs' holy fight;
You might not know the names of some new sects
But, as of old, the nation is bled slowly white.

Listen: 'Death to the Yanks, out with their dollars!'
What revolution cares for poet-scholars?
What price evasive, private doubt beside
The public certainties of Ayatollahs?

And every faction would find you a traitor:
The country of the Rubaiyat's creator
Was fired like stubble as we packed our bags
And sought the province of its mild translator.

East Anglia! – where passionate agnostics
Can burn their strictly non-dogmatic joss-sticks,
And take time off from moody poetry
For letters, crosswords, long walks and acrostics;

Where mist and damp make most men non-committed,
Where both sides of most battles seem half-witted,
Where London is a world away and where
Even the gossips felt FitzGerald fitted;

He named his boat The Scandal (no misnomer...)
And fished the coast from Lowestoft round to Cromer,
One eye on his beloved Posh, and one
On you or Virgil, Calderon or Homer;

Then wrote his canny, kind, retiring letters
To literature's aggressive, loud go-getters –
Carlyle and others I forbear to name
Who had the nerve to think themselves his betters;

You were the problems (metrical, semantic)
From which he made an anglicised Romantic – 
The perfect correspondent for his pen
(Inward, mid-century, and not too frantic);

As you are mine in this; it makes me really sick
To hear men say they find you crass or merely slick;
Both you and your translator stay my heroes – 
Agnostic blessings on you both!
                                               Sincerely, Dick.
November 1982

* 'The poet does not number the streaks of the tulip' (Samuel Johnson, Rasselas). 

FitzGerald's 'beloved Posh' was a young fisherman called Joseph Fletcher, with whom FitzGerald bought a herring lugger and spent many happy hours fishing the Suffolk coast (in today's reductive terms, he was probably 'gay'). Despite being born into one of the wealthiest families in the land, FitzGerald lived a quiet, retired life, seldom venturing far from Suffolk. He died in 1883, and is buried in the remote churchyard of Boulge, where another poet, Charles Causley, visited his very plain grave (below), and marked the occasion with a short poem, 'Boulge' –

Edward FitzGerald sleeps
Under this sheet of stone,
Neat as never in life,  
Innocent, alone.

The earth that he lies in is his.
Grass and willow-herb drown
The wilderness path through the trees.
The great house is down.

He longed to lie in birdsound.
To be ash. To dare
The salt of the ocean and find 
Lodging there.

Flint-eyed, the church, the tower
Shadow his page.
Thinly the Persian rose
Frets in its cage.

It is He that hath made us. And he
Who is lying among
Hard voices of pebble and shard
Holds his tongue.

Thursday 16 May 2024


 Further to yesterday's post, my blog friend Patrick Kurp (of the incomparable Anecdotal Evidence) has an intriguing theory about that butterfly in the King's portrait. Could it be, he wonders, a Viceroy, a butterfly that mimics the Monarch and is almost identical to it? If so, rather than being a simple visual pun (or symbol of the King's love of nature), that butterfly could be carrying a coded message from the famously insecure King – that he feels himself to be a viceroy, a stand-in, a place-holder, rather than a real monarch like... well, obviously, like his mother, the late Queen, who reigned for so long and in such exemplary style. For Charles perhaps, it's always going to be a case of 'The Queen is dead, long live the Queen!'

Wednesday 15 May 2024

That Portrait

 There are several things that worry me about Jonathan Yeo's disturbing new portrait of the King – the harsh, wrinkle-heavy rendering of the face (and hands), the facial expression of something close to despair (maybe just resignation?), above all the hideous pink-red mist from which the poor King's features loom – but the detail that mystifies me most is the butterfly about to alight on the royal shoulder. We are told this is to highlight the beauty of nature and the King's concern for the environment. If that is the case, he might at least have chosen a British butterfly, not this gaudy American species that only turns up here as an occasional vagrant (or escape from a butterfly release at some social event). A couple of (British, endangered) Adonis Blues would have fitted the bill much better, and made a welcome break from all that red. 

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Alice Munro RIP

 I was sorry to hear that the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has died, but glad to learn that she had reached the grand age of 92 – I had no idea she was that old. I came late to her work, by way of the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, which I wrote about here. Later I was bowled over again by Friend of My Youth, writing about it here. I have read many of her other stories too, but don't seem to have written about them. Unlike many writers, particularly of short stories, and particularly those not by nature inclined to self-publicity, Munro was rewarded with all the honours she deserved, up to and including the Nobel Prize for Literature. 'A story,' she wrote, 'is not like a road to follow … it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.'
 And now I intend to read or reread more of Alice Munro.

Monday 13 May 2024

'The timber is to carry'

 'It's my mission,' wrote Les Murray, 'to irritate the hell out of the eloquent who would oppress my people, by being a paradox that they can't assimilate: the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems.' Murray was happy to play the part of unrepentant ocker*, fat, shorts-wearing, plain-spoken, born into absolute poverty, educated largely by his own efforts – and he was determined to created a new Australian poetry not from the offcuts of British or European culture but from what was uniquely and distinctively Australian: the Bush, Murray's own country. He was of course a highly cultivated poet, with a vast vocabulary, well versed in the British and European traditions – indeed he was for some years a professional translator – but that was just another element in the Murray paradox. Another, perhaps, was that he was a devout and observant Catholic (he converted when he married his Budapest-born wife). Last night, browsing in the Selected Poems, I came across this moving little poem, written to mark the conversion to Catholicism of the poet Kenneth Hart. (It begins by recalling an incident at the brutal Moreton Bay penal colony, and the overseer 'who later died' was probably the notoriously harsh commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, who was killed in a skirmish with Aborigines in 1830.)

New Moreton Bay

A grog-primed overseer, who later died,
Snapped at twenty convicts gasping in a line
That pole ain't heavy! Two men stand aside!
And then two more, and you, pop-eyes! And you!
– until the dozen left, with a terrible cry,
broke and were broken
beneath the tons of logs they had stemmed aloft desperately.

Because there is no peace in this world's peace
the timber is to carry. Many hands heave customarily,
some step aside, detained by the Happiness Police
or despair's boutiques; it is a continual sway – 
but when grace and intent
recruit a fresh shoulder, then we're in the other testament
and the innocent wood lifts line-long, with its leaves and libraries.

* An ocker is defined as 'a rough, uncultivated Australian man' – though of course Murray was very far from uncultivated.