Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Gallivanting Again

It's all go - I'm off to the (other) Earthly Paradise, Derbyshire, for a few days, then immediately after that to Chester for the funeral of my last remaining uncle, my late mother's brother.  I'll be packing some technology, so might manage a little light blogging along the way...

Monday, 8 February 2016

Two Writers Attend a Hanging

There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this afternoon about Herman Melville's connections with England - in particular Liverpool, where he lived for a month in 1839, having set sail from New York as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. The programme was, unfortunately, presented by the Liverpool poet Paul Farley, whose hushed, awe-struck Scouse monotone - the epitome of the contemporary 'poetic' voice - is very trying on the ear. Still, he had mustered some interesting material - including the rather startling fact that both Melville and Charles Dickens were among the spectators at a public execution in London in 1849.
 I knew Dickens had something of a morbid fascination with public hangings, but it was a surprise to learn that Melville also attended this one - which was the first double hanging of a husband and wife since 1700. He and Dickens had been among a vast crowd of 30,000 attracted by this novelty, and by the lurid nature of the couple's crime. Frederick and Marie Manning - a shifty publican and a Swiss-born former lady's maid - had murdered a wealthy friend who was also Marie's lover, stolen what they could of his money, then double-crossed each other. A broadsheet account of their crimes reportedly sold something like two and a half million copies (and Dickens had Marie Manning in mind when he wrote the character of Hortense in Bleak House).
 Melville recorded in his diary that he and a companion paid half a crown each for a good rooftop view of the hanging. It was, he concluded, 'all in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene'. Dickens, who was with his friend the illustrator John Leech and also secured a good viewpoint, expressed himself at much greater length in a forceful and highly indignant letter to The Times, describing and deploring the behaviour of the crowd in the most colourful terms, and calling for executions to be conducted in private rather than in public: 'I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun,' etc, etc.
There was surely an element of humbug - or perhaps of disguising from himself his own guilty pleasure - in Dickens's indignation, but no doubt his letter played a part in the eventual abolition, nearly 20 years later, of public hangings. The fact that not one but two great novelists should have been present as paying spectators at a public hanging one November morning in 1849 should remind us that the past is indeed a foreign country.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Yarts Update

Opening my email inbox this morning, what should I find but a follow-up mail from 'Joel from Artsy', reaching out to me again! 'Hi Nige,' he writes. 'Just checking to see if you received my last email. We'd love to hear back from you!'
No, Joel - I really don't think you would...

Friday, 5 February 2016

Je Suis Circonflexe - et Nénuphar aussi

That Laputan institution the Académie Française has been at it again, with the usual chaotic results. The impending loss of the circumflex - that dinky little hat that is everyone's favourite (and can be helpful in translating into English, as it often denotes a missing 's') - is causing particular outrage, as well it might. Most of the other changes seem either pointless or mad. 'Ognon' for 'oignon' - what's that about? And one in particular seems rather sad - 'Nénuphar' (water lily), one of the most beautiful words in French, is to become 'Nénufar' for no good reason at all.
 'Nenuphar' is a word that has its place in English poetry - in Oscar Wilde's overwrought poem The Sphinx, a high water mark of Decadent verse:

      'Or did huge Apis from his car
           Leap down and lay before your feet
           Big blossoms of the honey-sweet
       And honey-coloured Nenuphar?'

Wilde owed the rhyme to his young friend and admirer Robert Sherard, who suggested it when Oscar told him of his struggle to find a suitable 'ar' rhyme for this particular quatrain of The Sphinx. Sherard was touchingly proud of his contribution, writing that 'On the day when I had found 'nenuphar' for the wanting rhyme, I was made as proud by his thanks as though I had achieved great things in literature.' Which he never did; Sherard's chief claim to fame is that he was the first biographer of Oscar Wilde (The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, privately printed in 1902) - a subject to which he frequently returned. But he was also 'the man who thought of Nenuphar'.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Dru Drury Day

It's time for an anniversary, and today's is that of the pioneering English entomologist Dru Dury, born on this day in 1725. (A shame he wasn't a Doctor, then he'd have been Dr Dru Drury.) The illustration above, by the great Moses Harris, is from Drury's 'Opus entomologicus splendissimus', Illustrations of Natural History.
 Drury, a successful and wealthy goldsmith (and father of 17) with a royal warrant and a shop on the Strand, spent much of his spare time amassing and describing a huge collection of insects from around the world, including more than 2,000 species of Lepidoptera alone - this at a time when there were thought to be no more than 20,000 insect species in total. It is said that when the Danish entomologist Fabricius visited England, he inspected Drury's collection with 'as much glee as a lover of wine does the sight of his wine cellar well stocked with full casks and bottles'.
 As well as paying others to collect specimens for him from around the world - issuing precise instructions and paying a standard rate - Drury enjoyed collecting for himself, mostly in Middlesex and the still rural suburbs of north London, but with excursions into Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Epping Forest. His diaries speak of 'Swallowtails very plentiful' around Warnham in Surrey, and 'Black Veind white Butterfly [now extinct] plentiful and fine' in Epping Forest. A reminder of the wealth of butterfly life in England in the 18th century - a wealth that lasted well into the 20th century.
 Drury died at the ripe old age of 79 and was buried at St Martin's-in-the-Fields. When his mighty insect collection was sold a couple of years later, it fetched barely £600 - less than a sixth of what he spent on it. Ah well, it was never about the money...

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Back to the Yarts

Oh, the things one comes home to - some very welcome, like the early spring flowers in the garden, and one's own bed; some tiresome, like the News, and a mighty heap of post, including six apparently identical letters from HM Revenue & Customs telling me my Tax Code for the year. And, in my inbox, an email titled 'reaching out about' and emanating from one 'Joel from Artsy'. Suspecting a prank, I opened it, and discovered it was, alas, entirely serious.
 'Artsy' is an arts website dedicated to publicising the contemporary Yarts in all their glory, and 'Joel' claims that, 'while researching Zaha Hadid', he had come across my page. What page? His link led me to Nigeness for July 2008, in which month I presciently announced the death of Labour, but did not, as far as I can see, make any mention of Zaha Hadid. Indeed, I believe the only time I've mentioned the Camilla Batmanghelidjh of architecture (as Malty calls her) was in a recent post about a visit to Haddon Hall, where 'all was as I remembered it, apart from a bizarre object plonked in the middle of one of the rooms. Clad in a grubby, hideously coloured textile (a kind of Seventies mustard yellow) and resembling a disassembled delta-wing aircraft, this was, I learnt, a sofa designed by Zaha Hadid. How anyone would contrive to sit on it I have no idea; why anyone would buy it and put it on display, still less.' 
No wonder Joel felt the urge to 'reach out' to me, drawing my attention to Artsy's very wonderful Zaha Hadid page, and urging me to 'spread the word' about it. Consider it spread, Joel.
 And now, thanks to the News, I learn that Zaha Hadid has won the RIBA's Gold Medal. And that the 'pop artist' known as Kaws has been allowed to inflict a number of his gigantic and disgusting 'sculptures' on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Will Gompertz seemed delighted, but then he always does. Hey ho - life goes on...


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Waking to Pym

I return from the Antipodes, wake after an epic 13-hour sleep (where am I? What time of day is this? What season? etc) and find that my review of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn is on The Dabbler...