Wednesday, 26 February 2020

From Mercia

This rare survival from Anglo-Saxon Mercia is displayed on the wall of St Mary's, Wirksworth, one of Derbyshire's finest churches. It's a stone coffin lid, dated with a broad brush at 700-900, and (perhaps wishfully) associated with Betti, one of four missionary priests who came into Mercia from Northumbria in 653.
The coffin slab was found, plain side up, below the surface of the chancel pavement when work was being done to the church in 1820. The carving is a little crude but it packs in a lot of story – eight more-or-less complete scenes, portraying, among other things, the Crucifixion, the Death of the Virgin, the Descent into Hell and the Ascension of Christ. What is striking about the Crucifixion is that it is not Christ in human form being crucified, but a lamb, the literally represented Lamb of God. This style of representation was banned by the Council of Constantinople in 692, which decreed that Christ should be portrayed as a crucified man, 'so that all may understand by means of it, the depth of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory His conversation in the flesh, his Passion and salutary Death, his Redemption which was wrought for the whole world'. Quite so.
After this, the Lamb went off in a different iconographic direction, represented supremely in Van Eyck's great Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent. The most recent restoration of this masterpiece caused something of a sensation, when the 'alarmingly humanoid' lamb was revealed in all its glory. You can read about the brouhaha here...
It would have been a whole lot worse if the lamb was on a cross.

Monday, 24 February 2020

One Year Ago

'This early spring / warm spring / warm spell has been a joy. For several days now, the early afternoon sun has warmed things up to such an extent that I've even been reduced to shirtsleeves. And it has brought the early butterflies out: in the three days around mid-month I saw a Red Admiral, a first Brimstone, a Peacock and a Tortoiseshell, all without straying from my usual haunts. There have been many Brimstones since – and today, walking on Ashtead common, I happened on a Comma, basking in the unseasonal sunshine. That's five species – and it's still February! '

That's me, writing on this blog, on this date last year. It makes poignant reading now, as we near the end of this relentlessly soggy February, with the rain still falling, the muddy ground saturated, low-lying fields more water than land, and the cold winds still blowing.
'The fold stands empty in the drown
รจd field,
And crows are fattened with the murrain flock.
The nine-men's-morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable...'

On the other hand, I did see two butterflies – both Peacocks – very early this year, on the 5th and 6th of February, when the sun briefly shone, belying what was to come. It had better be a good March after all this...

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Radio 4: Signs of Hope??

I see that Radio 4 is planning a shake-up of its content, one that will 'bring joy and optimism to our audience'. Producers have been urged to give 'a platform to exciting new thinkers' and 'widen the range of people whose thinking we take seriously', rather then relying on a familiar 'ideas establishment'. This does, on the face of it, seem to show some dawning awareness of what's wrong with Radio 4, and why so many who, like me, used to love the network now find much of its relentlessly 'woke' output quite unlistenable. Is Radio 4 actually thinking of letting voices from the broadly-defined 'right' become a normal feature of everyday discourse rather than token presences and aunt sallies? Does it mean that the BBC's notorious editorial policy on 'climate change' will be scrapped? Will Woman's Hour cease to be a radio version of the Guardian women's page? Will 'gender issues' and such preoccupations slide down the agenda? Don't hold your breath.
 The trouble is that the BBC, an elite institution with a built-in metropolitan left-liberal bias, cannot perceive its own bias, because it cannot consider it possible that any sane or civilised person could  hold views divergent from the left-liberal consensus (despite the evidence of successive general elections, the Brexit vote, Trump's victory, etc.). This is not the ideal position from which to start 'widening the range of people whose thinking we take seriously'.  However, we must live in hope – and there are hopeful signs in other elements of the planned Radio 4 shake-up: it seems they don't want any more programme ideas involving impressionists, improvised comedy, spoofs or parodies of broadcast shows, 'satire', panel games or chat shows. They've also decided that it's a good idea to do classic dramatisations 'straight'. Amen to that.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Mercia again for a few days...

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Margaret Fuller: A lady 'at once splendid and ridiculous'

Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics, which I'm dipping into from time to time 'when I'm so dispoged', is a strangely erratic book, veering in tone from the drily compendious (the book is, I believe, heavily reliant on John Timbs's two-volume English Eccentrics and Eccentricities) to the downright brilliant. To the latter category belongs the chapter titled 'Portrait of a Learned Lady'.
  The learned lady in question is not English, but she has a fair claim to being 'eccentric', and she certainly brings out the best in Sitwell, who is in this chapter fully engaged and at her sharpest. Margaret Fuller – 'this chaste, passionate and high-principled woman, at once splendid and ridiculous' – was an American intellectual, journalist, transcendentalist and advocate of women's rights, famous as the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. We first see her at a dinner party at Carlyle's house in Chelsea, a house 'filled always with a shaggy Highland-cattle-like odour of homespun materials and by a Scotch mist of tobacco smoke'. Here Miss Fuller, like so many of Carlyle's guests, sat waiting in ever fading hope for the opportunity to interrupt her host's torrential monologue – and this was a woman used to having the floor to herself in the salons of New England. 'The worst of hearing Carlyle,' she reported, 'is that you cannot interrupt him. I understand his habit of haranguing has increased very much upon him, so that you are a perfect prisoner when he has once got hold of you. To interrupt him is a physical impossibility.'
  Margaret Fuller, Sitwell supposes, 'was glad to be in Europe because her life in Boston must remind her of the imaginary being, clothed in actual flesh, whom she had lost'. This was one James Nathan, a work-shy young man of a most romantic aspect, with whom Miss Fuller had fallen head-over-heels in love two years earlier. The feeling was not reciprocated – and no wonder, if we are to believe Emerson's description of Margaret Fuller: 'Her extreme plainness, a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids, the nasal tone of her voice, all repelled.... Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most people ... to such an extent that they did not wish to stay in the same room as her.' However, Nathan was happy to spin her along, extracting money whenever he could and hanging on to her effusive love letters, before eventually marrying a younger woman.
  Before the deplorable Nathan, Miss Fuller had developed a similar hopeless pash for the equally unsuitable Mr Samuel Ward, whom she bombarded daily with bouquets of flowers. 'As a not unnatural result of this habit, Miss Fuller was rewarded by the sound of scampering feet, disappearing into the far distance.' Sitwell notes drily that this kind of thing showed 'that European culture, the Romance of the Middle Ages, and the Rights of Women, as inculcated by such teachers as Mary Wollstonecraft and the trousered and volatile George Sand, had wrought equal havoc with her life.' (Rather surprisingly, Margaret Fuller did eventually find happiness with a younger Italian husband and a  baby – only to die with them both in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.)
  'It is impossible not to feel an embarrassed sympathy, and a kind of affection for her,' Sitwell writes, 'since the whole record of her life leaves us with the impression of a certain nobility and uprightness, blurred over by an over-heated nervous sensibility masquerading as imagination.  She had a certain non-productive intellect, and considerable rectitude, but these qualities were balanced, to some degree, by her almost incomparable silliness.' A nice summing-up, as is this very fair estimate: 'She lived, indeed, a life full of noble ideals, Backfisch nonsense and moonshine, silly cloying over-emotionalised friendships and repressed loves ... extreme mental and moral courage, and magnificent loyalty to her ideals, friends, and loves.' 'Backfisch' – a new one on me – is a word for an immature adolescent girl.
  Carlyle, on a later occasion, spent some hours in rebuking Miss Fuller and her friend Mazzini for their 'rose-water imbecilities'.  This leads Sitwell into a splendid peroration: 'Scholars have, it seems, always despised this quality; but they are notoriously difficult to please; stupidity and flippancy in women, learning in women, all these offences may, at different times, prove equally unpalatable to them, though the last offence is usually the most unforgivable – largely, I imagine, because it is sometimes a little too readily assumed that heaven deems the charms of the mind to be sufficient of an endowment, and therefore bestows no other.'


Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Charles Portis RIP

There seem to have been too many deaths lately. The latest to leave us is Charles Portis, 86, author of at least two classics – the western True Grit and the comedy Masters of Atlantis, for my money one of the funniest novels of the 20th century.  He published relatively little – but all of it worth looking out – and shunned publicity, preferring to live a quiet life in Litte Rock, Arkansas. His name will surely live on – and meanwhile the Coen brothers should surely make a film of Masters of Atlantis...

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Parish Notices

I'm pleased to see that there's a nice review of The Book in the new issue of The Oldie magazine.

Saturday, 15 February 2020


I have now finished reading Jayne Anne Phillips's Quiet Dell, and I'm happy to report that the light I had hoped for was indeed shining, with steadily increasing radiance, in its darkness. The horror and evil at the core of the novel are balanced by love and goodness, and the misery by a hard-won happiness – happiness that proverbially 'writes white'*, but here writes in rich colours. [Spoiler alert] The journalist, Emily, and the banker, William, entirely believably fall in love – the moment when it happens is quite electrifying – and Emily, having already adopted the murdered family's dog, then adopts a homeless boy off the streets, and gives him a new life. And she and William, we can be pretty sure, live happily ever after, not quite married (there are complications) but as good as. And there are happy endings too for Charles, the murdered children's surrogate uncle, and Eric, Emily's charming colleague.
All this may sound as if Phillips ends her novel in a mist of Dickensian sentimentality, but in the context of what these happy events are counterbalancing, it is necessary and it works. As one reviewer wrote, 'There is evil in the world, but there are some who will stand in its way', and, in the end, somehow, goodness will prevail. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

* Actually it derives from Henry de Montherland: 'Happiness writes in white ink on white paper.'