Monday, 16 September 2019

Sixty Years On

It was on (or around) this date 60 years ago that I arrived, a tenderly reared lad of but nine summers, in the suburban demiparadise where I have been securely rooted, off and on, ever since.
  My mother had secured me a place in the local state primary school, though the headmaster (a large plump man who, I noted, kept a hacksaw in his study) was clearly reluctant to swell the population of his already bursting-at-the-seams institution. I joined a class of 50-plus coevals, and soon discovered that I had a very strange curriculum to contend with. Having until now been educated at a cosy little prep school (whose uniform, embarrassingly, I was still wearing), I was used to learning Lat, Fr, Geog, Hist, Geom, Algy, ect, ect (as Nigel Molesworth would put it), but now I discovered that the most important thing, the one thing, the sine qua non, was to master the approved Surrey County Council italic script. And so a titanic struggle ensued, involving the purchase of a pen with a kinky nib to cope with my curious lefthanded grip, and much laborious copying out of words and passages. Eventually I was able to produce an acceptable semblance of S.C.C. italic and could embark on this next, rather undemanding phase of my education. 
 The huge class was presided over by a formidable woman of ample build and mighty bosom who, with the aid of a weaponised wooden ruler, singlehandedly maintained order and, greatly to her credit, managed to teach us to a level that, in some areas (grammar, punctuation, spelling) was about on a par with today's undergraduates. To my horror, I discovered that this strange curriculum also included, of all things, Country Dancing (Strip the Willow, etc). Such was my complete ineptitude in this essential life skill that I was finally allowed to sit it out and man the Surrey County Council gramophone.
 I passed through all this, as through just about everything else in life, in a state of utter bewilderment mingled with ear-burning embarrassment, but I went along with it, having no choice. And there were compensations – not least, Gurls! Yes, half my fellow pupils belonged, I was delighted to see, to a sex with which, until then, I had had all too little contact. I plunged into this new world of boys and girls with alacrity, making new friends of the opposite sex (we didn't have genders in those days, except in Lat, Fr, ect) and enjoying many a spirited game of kiss chase in the playground.
 But back to my first day. When the final bell rang out, I fell in with a little gang of boys who constituted a loose-knit 'tree climbing club' devoted to climbing all the trees – from veteran Spanish chestnuts to half-grown newcomers – in Carshalton Park. They knew every tree, had given names to many of them, and had worked out just how to climb each one and to what height you could go before things got really dangerous. They also knew where every bird's nest was (including, in those days, owls' nests) and where to find frogs, newts and other attractive wildlife. On a mellow sunny September afternoon, this all seemed to me like a little taste of paradise, and I arrived home at the end of that day happy to discover that I'd fallen on my feet. I just loved this new place.
 And, 60 years on, here I still am.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Good News (for now) on Butterflies

Like many, I'm listening to Radio 4's Today programme less and less (and generally avoiding all news programmes, especially on TV), but early yesterday morning I happened to catch a pleasantly surprising item on Today – a report on the state of the nation's butterfly population that was actually upbeat in tone. What was still more surprising was that a spokeswoman for those dismal Jimmies at Butterfly Conservation was in the studio sounding positively cheery and delivering only good news – not a word about threatened species or 'climate change'. What occasioned all this good cheer was the news that this summer has been a Painted Lady summer, with a huge influx of these beauties swelling the numbers of butterflies being seen and contributing to a very heartening Big Butterfly Count result. John Humphrys, who was doing the interview, seemed very happy about it all, and also seized the opportunity to launch a little tirade against people replacing their lawns with Astro Turf (quite right too).
  In my inbox this morning was the Butterfly Conservation report that led to all this jollity – and it is indeed an unusually upbeat document, which arrived with the label 'A Smashing Summer' (not the kind of language BC often uses). The picture it presents is actually quite mixed, with, for example, 'Whites on the Wain' (to quote a bizarre crosshead) – but there is more than enough to justify the 'smashing summer' label. No doubt by the time all the numbers are in, Butterfly Conservation will have found ample contrary evidence to justify their traditional yearly jeremiad.
 My own butterfly summer – which has indeed been pretty 'smashing' (37 of Surrey's 41 species spotted) – continued this afternoon with a stroll around Belmont Downs, where there was a fine abundance of butterflies. Most of these, admittedly, were late Meadown Browns, flapping around with a decidedly fin de saison air (though one pair had mustered the energy for a bit of lepidopteral how's your father, as we scientists call it). But I also saw several pretty little Brown Arguses and Small Heaths, a few late Common Blues and the odd Speckled Wood. Earlier in the day I'd also seen several Red Admirals, a Peacock and a lovely, burnished Small Copper. So yes, a good season – and it's not over yet...

Friday, 13 September 2019


Yesterday I finally visited the Felix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy, something I'd been meaning to do ever since it opened back in May, but you know how it is...
I only knew Vallotton from a few of his better known woodcuts, like the gorgeous La Paresse

I didn't know his much darker (in every way) woodcuts, like this one (L'Argent) from the series Intimit├ęs

Or Vallotton's lively Parisian street scenes, like this one, Le Coup de Vent

This exhibition has a fine display of his woodcuts, which make it clear that he was one of the very best woodcut artists of his time.
As for Vallotton's paintings, the only one I was familiar with was this strangely disturbing image of a little girl chasing a ball –

I had much to discover, and this superb exhibition opened my eyes to a remarkable artist, one who never settled long into any of the art-historical pigeonholes available – which is surely one reason he is not better known (this, I think, is the first major exhibition of his work in the UK). He vigorously resisted Impressionism, and, although he was one of the group that called itself Les Nabis (which included Bonnard and – an artist much closer to Vallotton in spirit – Vuillard), he seems always to have stood a little apart, as in this awkward, semi-parodic group portrait (he's standing at the left) –

The Swiss-born Vallotton began in thrall to the sharp naturalistic precision of the painters of the Northern Renaissance, as can be seen in this early, very accomplished self-portrait, painted at the age of twenty –

It shows too in such crisp and forceful paintings as La Malade, an early domestic interior –

Look at the play of reflections in the bottles on the bedside table. This is virtuoso stuff –

But Vallotton had soon developed a much looser style, dependent on flat masses of colour and blurring out of detail, that clearly owed something to Vuillard, especially when he turned his attention to domestic interiors –

Here, as so often with Vallotton, what looks at first sight like a cosy domestic scene becomes something rather unsettling – strangely disturbing indeed – as one absorbs it. This one shows his wife Gabrielle (a wealthy widow, to whom he owed his financial security) and her young daughter, but it is emotionally flat, and those reds (his best colour, along with green) are almost oppressive.
Here is another faintly menacing interior scene, of a woman looking for something (what?) in a cupboard –

  Vallotton's later career was dominated by his adoration of his artistic idol, Ingres, and his growing fascination with the possibilities of the nude. The trouble with Ingres, IMHO, is that he was a phenomenally brilliant painter, but a very bad model for imitation, not least because nobody could paint the kind of things he painted half as well as he did. Vallotton's austere Ingres-influenced nudes seem to me rather to prove the point, and their effect is generally chilling. However, among Vallotton's nudes, is also this extraordinary work, La Blanche et La Noire, clearly painted in response to Manet's Olympia. Whatever is going on here, this is definitely not a portrayal of a white mistress and her attentive black handmaiden. In the original, it's a large, powerful and deeply enigmatic picture  –

Late is his career (he died in 1925), Vallotton also painted stylised, pared-down landscapes, composed more in his head than en plein air. This one, of sandbanks on the Loire, is a good example...

And he painted some glorious, semi-abstract sunsets. This one really has to be seen in the original, and close up. It's a glowing, vivid painting that seems to engulf you as you get closer to it –

This is a terrific exhibition that I found quite fascinating from beginning to end, with no trace of the gallery fatigue that so often overcomes me well before the last room. It was, for once, a real journey of discovery. The exhibition is on until 29 September, so there's still plenty of time to catch it.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A House of Many Mansions

I've just finished reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House, a novel that tends to get overlooked even by her admirers. It has been described as 'fragmentary and inconclusive', 'broken' in structure, psychologically ambivalent and (more pompously) 'morally and psychologically unachieved'. All those supposed faults are, it seems to me, the actual strengths of a book that never spells anything out, never (as it were) makes up its mind, but lays out the elements of what it is made of and invites us to put them together ourselves. And there is a fine abundance of elements for a book so small in scale – Professor St Peter's inability to leave the old house where he has lived the most productive part of his life and move into the smart new one; his daughters and the sons-in-law, representatives of the modern world, who are now the focus of his wife's passion; Tom Outland, the gifted and beloved should-have-been son-in-law who died in the war, leaving behind a fortune that has proved a deeply troubling legacy; Outland's first-person narrative of the discovery of an ancient cave city and a lost culture in the Southwest desert (shades of The Song of the Lark); the Professor's reflections on the course of his life, on science, home (a great Cather theme), civilisation and the modern world...
 It's easy to read, or rather deconstruct, the novel as composed of unresolved oppositions, mostly revolving around the modern world of 1920s America and older civilisations, older values, each element embodied in one or more characters. Which is fine, if that's how you want to read, but personally I'd sooner enjoy (the crucial word) this novel in the way you might enjoy a three-movement sonata, or a painting – or rather a set of paintings, domestic interiors contrasted with the vibrant plein air of Tom Outland's narrative, the central section of the book that some blame for breaking the novel's structure. Which, it seems to me, makes about as much sense as saying the middle movement of a sonata breaks its structure. The Professor's House is a richly rewarding book, replete with far more than appears on the surface (as always with Cather, it's 'the heat under the simple words') – a book to be read, slowly, on its own terms, and enjoyed.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Peter Nichols

Sorry to hear of the death of that rather wonderful playwright Peter Nichols. He had reached a good age – 92 – and lived long enough to be, finally, recognised for his achievements, with a CBE, awarded last year. Happily, his work lives on – or at least one of his plays, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which is soon to open in a new production at Trafalgar Studios. That play and the very different Privates on Parade will surely endure, and several of the others are worth a revival any time. And, for the theatre averse (like me), there's also Nichols's gloriously named autobiography, Feeling You're Behind.
Here's how the Preface begins...
'At another man's publication party, someone asked me about my writing plans now that I'd left the theatre. I told him, with some pride, that I'd been commissioned to write my life.
 "So has everyone in this room," he said.
 A glance at the assembled drunks and derelicts was enough to show that I would need better reasons than vanity to sustain me through the writing...'
 Happily there were better reasons (not least the money), and Nichols found that his autobiography was 'a pleasure to write. No vainglorious director rewrote it, no manager talked about Bums on Seats or last trains, no numbskull actors told me it wouldn't stretch them or thanked me for what they called "a vehicle".'
 Feeling You're Behind is a joy to read – especially the chapters about his early years with his family in Bristol, in a part of the city still haunted by the recent presence of young Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant, whose mother was committed to the local asylum, from which she was eventually sprung by her now famous son. Nichols's account of touring in Malaya with Combined Services Entertainment, along with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter (the inspiration for Privates on Parade) is great stuff too, much of it – as with a great deal of this playwright's memoir – written in dialogue. The line between Nichols's private life and his plays is so very fine that these dialogues from life and those from the stage are sometimes almost interchangeable. It's an unusually open and frankly spoken autobiography, and often very, very funny. If you see a copy, snap it up.
 And meanwhile RIP Peter Nichols.

Monday, 9 September 2019


Well, I'm back from my latest Derbyshire trip with a grim, disabling 'cold' (there really should be a more descriptive word for it), but with more happy Mercian memories, including a glorious wealth of early autumn butterflies flying in the (intermittent) sunshine and feasting on Buddleia: more Tortoiseshells than I've seen down South all year – many more – and a wealth of Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, plus Commas and Peacocks, Speckled Woods and the odd Small Copper, Common Blue and Small Heath. And a couple more Wall Browns at the Hoe Grange butterfly reserve. Something to remember on this grey, rainy morning...

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Birthday Girl

Time to turn away from the endless political brouhaha and wish a happy birthday to that fine old trouper Mitzi Gaynor, 88 today. Born with the splendid name of Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber, Mitzi was a great all-rounder – singer, dancer, actress – and is best remembered for her award-worthy performance in the film of South Pacific. But here she is taking Cole Porter's Anything Goes and giving it the works. Not a great singer, but she sure can put a song across, and those camp-as-Christmas male dancers are great fun. Enjoy!

Tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels again. It's all go...