Saturday, 25 March 2017

Nature Notes

Seeing the first butterfly of the year is always a spirit-lifting thrill - and I experienced it quite early this year - but there's also something very special about catching that flash of sky blue that is the first glimpse of a Holly Blue. In a sense, this is also the first butterfly of the year, being the first to have emerged from a pupa, the others - Brimstones, Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals, Commas, Peacocks, Painted Ladies (if you're lucky) - all being awakened hibernators. I saw my first Holly Blues of the year this sunny morning (and my first, rather late, Peacock), so my butterfly year has begun again. So much more to look forward to now...

Yesterday another natural spectacle caught my eye too as I walked down my road. Looking up, I saw a kestrel and a crow in close proximity - the familiar sight of corvid harrying raptor, I thought - but as I carried on watching, it became clear that this was something different, more like an aerial ballet than the usual snappy chase-off. Kestrel and crow were staying unusually close together, seemingly quite relaxed about it, making no more than gestures at aggression. Each was mirroring the other's movements, moving together like a pair of aerial syncrhronised swimmers and giving a strong impression of playful enjoyment. The crow seemed to be imitating the kestrel's wingtip flutters, the kestrel dropping its purposeful style to adopt a crow-like abandon. All the time, I was expecting this aerial display to break down into the usual unseemly scuffle, but it never happened, and gradually kestrel and crow flew off into the distance with every appearance of perfect harmony. Has peace broken out between these normally fierce competitors, I wonder, or was this just an outburst of vernal friskiness?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Saint Mug's Day

Born on this day in 1903 was Malcolm Muggeridge. If he's remembered at all now, it is as the rather ridiculous, overexposed figure he became in his latter years, when he was a fixture on the nation's television screens - and, with his contorted features and strangulated vowels, a gift to impressionists. He made a fool of himself over his infatuation with Mother Teresa (see Christopher Hitchens on all that) and there was undoubtedly much of the humbug about him (his sexual habits didn't bear much examination), but there is also much to praise about Muggeridge. Despite his early socialism, he was one of the first to see Soviet Communism for what it was, travelling unofficially in the Ukraine in the Thirties, seeing the famine for himself, and attempting to report on it. Sadly his efforts were trumped by the New York Times' Walter Duranty's whitewash job, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize (Mug subsequently described Duranty as 'the greatest liar I have met in journalism').
 Muggeridge also had a very 'good war', serving with the Intelligence Corps and MI6, working with the Free French forces and winning a Croix de Guerre. In the Fifties, he made a surprisingly good job of being editor of Punch, despite having, by his own account, no sense of humour. It was with the Swinging Sixties, and after his conversion to Christianity, that 'Saint Mug', the ubiquitous moral scourge, took over and, driven (one suspects) as much by vanity as by moral fervour, Muggeridge grew into an often ludicrous caricature of himself.
 And yet, and yet. Looking back to that time when Muggeridge and the even more ridiculous - as it seemed - Mary Whitehouse railed against the excesses of the 'permissive society', it's possible to feel quite nostalgic for a period when matters of morality were discussed at such a high pitch and with such seriousness in the mass media. And it is even possible, in view of subsequent events, to see Muggeridge and Mrs Whitehouse as canaries in the cultural coal mine, sensing the moral nihilism that was soon to become common currency, sweeping away so much in its path. Both these 'moral crusaders' often made fools of themselves by firing off at the wrong targets, but, viewed from here, there is also something rather admirable about their efforts to stem the unstemmable tide.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

More than Dutch

Last night I came across (again) this poem by Kay Ryan -

Much of life
is Dutch
in which
legions of
big robust
people crouch
badly cracked
dike systems
by the thumbs
their wide
balloon-pantsed rumps
up-ended to the
northern sun
while, back
in town, little
tulip magnates
stride around.
 Everything about this little poem - even the title - is as Dutch as can be. It could be the description of a scene painted on a Dutch tile or a Delft bowl, and the tone is fittingly comic and naive. Yet it seems to me that the image presented here could have a much wider application.
 Is there not something oddly recognisable in this picture of a world where most lead lives of quiet, good-humoured desperation, stoically holding disaster at bay, while 'back in town' a complacent elite, who know nothing of the ordinary struggles of life, enjoy a wealth founded on unrealities - tulip fever, the derivatives boom, there's little to choose between them (and both are doomed to crash when an altogether different kind of dike bursts, and reality floods in). The divided society so quaintly depicted in Dutch is not that far, it seems to me, from the one that gave us Brexit and the Trump victory, when the big, wide-rumped stavers-off of disaster turned on the little self-regarding magnates of unreality and showed their strength.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

In Deepest England

This ruin, crying out for the John Piper treatment, is the unroofed church of St Mary, Colston Bassett, deep in rural south Nottinghamshire. It is one of several similarly abandoned churches in the Nottinghamshire Wolds, the casualties of depopulation. But one that still stands, complete with roof, is St Andrew, Langar, and inside it is one of the finest monuments of its period in England.
 The interior of this large church is short on atmosphere and charm, thanks to a clunky Victorian restoration and a more recent reordering of the nave, which is now furnished with upholstered chairs in a semicircle facing an altar table to the north; the whole east end is thus rendered liturgically dead. In the north transepts are a couple of Elizabethan tomb chests, monuments to members of the Chaworth family, that might have been placed there specifically to show the difference between run-of-the-mill work and the best - the best being in the south transept, in the form of the Scrope monument.

 Thomas, Lord Scrope, and Philadelphia, his beautifully-named wife, lie side by side, he in armour with a full ruff and the mantle, garter and cap of the Order of the Garter, she in flowing mantle and ruff, her hair swept back from her face. Both have their hands together in prayer and their eyes raised to heaven - conventional attitudes, but they lie as if in life, so convincingly naturalistic is the carving. It is also superbly skilful in rendering the hang of their garments, the details and textures.

 The most extraordinary feature of this monument, though, is the figure of Emanuel Scrope, the son who commissioned it. Represented at about a quarter of the scale of his parents, he kneels at their feet, smartly dressed in Spanish fashion, not mourning but apparently reading a book, while keeping one hand on the hilt of his sword. Once again, the modelling is superb, even if the scale is disconcerting - perhaps it looked less so to Jacobean eyes, accustomed as they were to seeing miniature offspring kneeling beneath their parents on standard Elizabethan tombs. The figure of Emanuel Scrope might be said to represent the transition from hierarchical to naturalistic representation in monumental sculpture (but that's probably pushing it).

 Sadly, this remarkable monument is beginning to fall apart as a result of damp. Two panels of the chest tomb have had to be removed, the marble columns of the canopy are in poor shape, and the transept in which it stands has the air of a workshop crossed with a lumber room. A full restoration will get under way when the money has been found, but meanwhile the Scrope monument stands as a sad example of how little we value the products of what was arguably the golden age of English sculpture. That work of such astonishing quality should turn up in remote parish churches seems little short of miraculous, and is certainly one of the things that make church-crawling in England so richly rewarding.
 Emanuel Scrope went on to father an illegitimate daughter who, in the absence of a legal heir, inherited and married into the Howe family, who in due course produced Admiral Howe, one of our great naval heroes; he is interred and memorialised in the church along with other Howes. Their family home, Langar Hall, is next to the church and is now a rather lovely country house restaurant and hotel.
 Langar was also the scene of the grim early years of the novelist Samuel Butler, so vividly described in The Way of All Flesh. His father was rector here and young Samuel grew up in the oppressively evangelical atmosphere of the rectory, dominated by the father with whom he was locked in a relationship of mutual loathing. Letting bygones be bygones, the church now has a display of photographs - some of them taken by Butler - documenting the life of this notable son of Langar.
 Such an obscure place, so many claims to fame. Truly England is fathomless.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

No Problem

'At last Elphinstone replied. "I have no problem." He said the word "problem" with sardonic emphasis to make clear he knew it for an Americanism.'
[Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus]
 Oh dear, not another Americanism - they're everywhere, and people were probably noticing them rather more in the postwar period in which The Transit of Venus is set. (Elphinstone, by the way, is an unattractive incidental character - just the kind of prig to shudder at an Americanism.)
 The other day I had an email from my friend Susan in snowy New York, remarking on my recent use of the phrase 'meet up with' - undoubtedly some kind of Americanism (building on 'met with') - and asking if I knew when it crossed the Atlantic. I guessed it has probably been in general use here since the 70s or thereabouts, and it does seem to me to be marginally useful in suggesting a meeting that has been prearranged. Oddly, however, to Susan's American ears it suggests the opposite, whereas a plain 'met' suggests something arranged. No doubt we would be better off all round if we just stuck to 'met'.
 While I was at it, I thought I'd update Susan on a few recent developments in English English which I don't think we can blame our American cousins for.
 The drift from 'different from' to the incorrect 'different to' and the frankly appalling 'different than' has recently accelerated to the point where the battle has been decisively lost, at least in spoken English (though some of us are still prone to shout 'from' at the radio).
 I'm not sure where the habit of beginning answers to questions with the word 'So' came from - perhaps it is an Americanism? - but it has spread very fast and is to be heard with depressing frequency on any radio or TV programme involving the asking of questions. Perhaps it is no worse than the equally meaningless 'Well', but it has the annoying implication that the answer being given is somehow self-evident and need only be spelt out to the dimwit questioner.
 Another recent development tends to pass unremarked, even though it results in people saying the exact opposite of what they mean. In its classic form this kind of misspeaking (?Americanism) results in statements such as 'His contribution to the arts cannot be understated'. No one seems to notice.
 Perhaps the most bizarre recent development, though, is the double 'is', which I've noted before, back when (?Americanism) I thought it was a fleeting phenomenon that would soon disappear. Alas it hasn't and all the time one hears usages such as 'the reason is is' or 'the point is is'. I guess it buys the speaker another tiny beat of thinking time, having already no doubt made use of 'So', or perhaps it's a curious way of emphasising the little word 'is'.
 So, the answer is is that American English is different than English English to an extent that cannot be understated.
 Please feel free to add your own linguistic bugbears to this short list.
 Meanwhile, I'm off to the midlands for a few days, with some fine church monuments in my sights.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Elegy Land

This ludicrous monument to the poet Thomas Gray stands in 'Gray's Field', adjacent to Stoke Poges churchyard, the hallowed plot that inspired his most famous poem, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that quintessentially English masterpiece. Rather surprisingly, the churchyard is only a short taxi ride north from Slough railway station (a miraculously unspoilt GWR original, which Betjeman would surely have spared from those friendly bombs).
 Stoke Poges is isolated from Slough by a zone of large expensive houses in large gardens, which soon give way to something more like proper country, where the parkland of several grand houses has been preserved (some of it, alas, as a golf course) - and in the midst of all that, surrounded by dense evergreens, lies the church of St Giles in its legendary churchyard.
 First impressions - and let's be honest, second and last impressions - were not propitious. In its modern incarnation, this is not a churchyard to inspire poetry, or anything much else. It has a tidy, well-kept, municipal air, with lots of monotonously green grass and a rather sparse scattering of monuments and headstones, few of them of any antiquity (an exception is pictured below), most being modern or Victorian and more or less ugly. This is no longer a place 'where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap' - far from it - and there are probably half a dozen churchyards within a few miles of Stoke Poges that have more atmosphere and more of interest (come to that, the churchyard of my own Surrey suburban parish has more).
 The 'rugged elms' have of course gone the way of the lowing herd and the plodding ploughman, no drowsy tinklings lull the distant fold, but the setting still feels countrified rather than urban. Red kites circle overhead (they wouldn't have been there in Gray's time), harried by crows. The hum of traffic is not obtrusive. The church still stands, jumbled and irregular, built variously of flint, puddingstone, clunch and brick, picturesque and, as they say, 'not without a degree of antiquarian interest'  - also genealogical interest, as members of the Penn family are buried here, including a son of William Penn himself. Gray's tomb, which he shares with his beloved mother and aunt, is marked by a simple slab, vastly more appropriate than the grandiose monument in 'Gray's Field'.
 Sadly, almost everything that made Stoke Poges the churchyard of Gray's elegy is now lost - which is perhaps not surprising given the lapse of time. But Stoke Poges as it is now also embodies another, larger loss - of the old ways of dealing with death, of mourning and memorialising the dead. Right next to the churchyard are the Memorial Gardens - an extensive, manicured park with tarmac paths that lead the visitor to each delineated zone: rose garden, rock and water garden, parterre, oak dell, pergola, colonnade, and the less elegantly named scattering lawn where ashes may be dispersed.
 These gardens, which date back to the Thirties, are a product of the age of cremation and, if nothing else, a tribute to its efficiency. Little memorial plaques line every neat flower bed and identify each of the hundreds (thousands?) of memorial flowering shrubs and saplings. Huge numbers are remembered here - far more than would fit in a graveyard of comparable size - and they are remembered as they and their loved ones would no doubt wish to be, as an element in a pretty and well laid-out public garden, a pleasant place to visit of a Sunday afternoon and perhaps shed a tear.
 It works, and everybody seems to like it - and yet it's hard, as you walk its immaculate paths, not to sense the loss of the earthy intimacy with the dead, the intense awareness of their presence and their claims on the living, that animates Gray's elegy. It would be impossible here to think such thoughts as Gray did - even more impossible, indeed, than it would be in the present-day churchyard.
 But here is one stone that would have been there, new-carved, in Gray's day...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Ein anderer Mott ist Tot

Just a year on from the death of Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin, I discover - from Radio 4's excellent obituary programme Last Word - that the band's bassist (and founding member) Pete Overend Watts has also gone to join the great jam session in the sky. In fact, he died back in January, so Last Word was a bit slow off the mark here.
 Watts, who could belt out a humdinging bass line with the best of them, embraced the band's glam rock image with gusto, wearing platform shoes so high that roadies had to get him back on his feet if he fell over on stage. However, when the music career ended, he was happy to shun the limelight, dabbling in antique dealing, gentlemen's hairdressing (briefly) and, with more enthusiasm, carp fishing. He also developed a taste for long-distance walking, despite a professed dislike of any kind of pedestrian activity. A couple of years ago, he wrote a book, The Man who Hated Walking, recounting his adventures on the Southwest Coast Path. Watts even attempted to walk from Land's End to John O' Groats, but couldn't stick to the route, at one point taking a massive diversion into the Peak District, simply because he realised he'd never been there before.
 The obituaries - Last Word included - have focused on All the Young Dudes (which made a heap more money for Bowie than for Mott) as 'the defining anthem of its era', etc. Well, I beg to differ: when it comes to defining anthems - not only of 'its era' but of the whole era of rock 'n'  roll - surely it's got to be All the Way from Memphis. I'd say it belongs in any list of the ten (or maybe twenty) definitive rock 'n' roll belters - you know, the list that begins with Elvis's That's Alright Mama and continues with... Well, what would you include?
 While you're thinking (or not), here, once again, is All the Way from Memphis. Enjoy.