Tuesday, 13 November 2018

'The tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby'

To my surprise, my recent post on Old Spice's bizarrely sweet Wolfthorn deodorant spray proved one of the most popular in a while, in terms of hits – perhaps Wolfthorn is big in Norway?
  I had no intention of returning to the subject, still less trying another of Old Spice's 'Wild Collection' range – but there I was the other day, scanning the shelves in vain for my preferred brand (Tabac), when I spotted another Old Spice fragrance (if that's the word), Hawkridge. I pondered a while, then what the heck, I thought, I'll chance it – even if it's vile, it might help my statistics. And it's nothing if not cheap.
  The Boots website, I subsequently discovered, goes into ecstasies over Hawkridge:
'When your body flesh is covered in Hawkridge Body Spray, there is nothing for women to do but smell the tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby and accept that science cannot explain the feeling in their hearts.'

 Lordy – is this stuff safe to wear? Is my 'body flesh' worthy of this irresistible potion?

   Then I came across a user review elsewhere which was frankly rather worrying: 

'The sweet and refreshing smell of coconut morphs into a dark, noxious, bitter mess that leaves me smelling like a stale piña colada.'
  Oh dear. Other reviews speak of 'strawberry donuts' and 'really sweet cherry cough syrup'. 
So, what was I in for – stale pina colada or tingly freedom? I raised a trepidatious arm and sprayed...
  And I have to report that what came out of the can was quite unexceptionable, and really, I must say, rather pleasant. I can't detect coconut in it, let alone strawberry or sweet cherry. Compared to Wolfthorn, Hawkridge is manly stuff indeed and pretty much what you'd expect of a modern Old Spice spin-off. It's a bit woody, a bit spicy, with a dash of citrus, and it seems to last very well – what more could a man ask? Sorry, ladies, science cannot explain that Hawkridge feeling in your hearts...

Monday, 12 November 2018


Here's a word that was new to me – 'jobation'.
  I came across it in Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, which I'm reading in an edition that is heavily footnoted – but not with notes that are likely to tell you anything you don't already know. Rousseau? 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), major philosopher and writer.' Mrs Gaskell? 'Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), important novelist.' Who knew? But 'jobation'? The editor falls silent, forcing the reader – this one anyway – to reach for the dictionary.
  I'm glad I did. 'Jobation' is a fine and useful word which sadly seems to have fallen out of use. It means a lengthy and tedious reproof, lecture or harangue – the kind of thing Mrs Caudle delivered nightly to her errant husband in Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures. The origin is in the book of Job, in the lengthy and tedious reproofs dished out to the suffering Job by his various 'comforters'. Their lectures are then followed by a lengthy contribution from God himself, speaking from a whirlwind to remind Job that he is but a lowly worm by comparison with Him, the almighty, omnipotent and omnicapable God, who laid the foundations of the Earth and created, among many other fine things, the horse, who 'saith among the trumpets Ha, ha'. The jobation of all jobations, you might say.
 Young Edmund Gosse, a boy of nine, is on the receiving end of a 'jobation' from his father, for having the temerity to cry out when a fearsome-looking beetle crawls menacingly up his counterpane towards his face, while his father, beside the boy's bed, is fervently addressing God. Gosse writes:
'It is difficult for me to justify to myself the violent jobation which my Father gave me in consequence of my scream, except by attributing to him something of the human weakness of vanity. I cannot help thinking that he liked to hear himself speak to God in the presence of an admiring listener. He prayed with fervour and animation, in pure Johnsonian English, and I hope I am not undutiful if I add my impression that he was not displeased with the sound of his own devotions.'

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Thankful Villages and Angry Words

The other day I caught a programme on Radio 4 that was being broadcast from a 'Thankful Village' (Herodsfoot in Cornwall it was). The Thankful Villages – a term popularised by the indefatigable Arthur Mee (The King's England) – are those that lost none of their men who went to serve in the armed forces in the Kaiser War. There are fifty-odd of them in England Wales, and perhaps a third are 'doubly thankful', having lost no men in the Hitler War either.
  If these numbers seem low, reflecting the devastating impact of the Great War, they need to be kept in perspective. France suffered far greater losses, and one of the results is that the Republic has only one Thankful Village – Thierville in Upper Normandy, a village in the 'Norman Alps'. Remarkably, Thierville also suffered no losses in any other war, including the Hitler War and the Franco-Prussian. I passed through this village, all unknown, a couple of years ago, walking to nearby Le Bec Hellouin.

Today, amid all the ceremonies of Remembrance and the ubiquitous (subsidised) art installations marking the centenary of the 1918 armistice, I wonder if it might now be time so start rethinking the whole business. As, with the passage of years, Remembrance comes to have less and less to do with actual memory, would it not be better to honour the dead of the two world wars by focusing less on the 'fultility' of their sacrifice and paying more attention to what they thought they were sacrificing their lives for? In particular, should we not be cherishing and preserving the freedoms that we have been all too happy to surrender to dubious supranational entities, or fritter away in response to confected outrage and spurious offence? And, in general,  should we not be encouraging better, more honourable behaviour, better education, common decency? Surely that would do more to honour our war dead than any number of poppy cascades. If it's not too late...
I think of the angry words of Geoffrey Hill in The Triumph of Love

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
Battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off. Honour the young men
whose eager fate was to steer that droopy coque
against the Meuse bridgeheads. The Fairey
Swordfish had an ungainly frail strength,
cranking in at sea level, wheels whacked
by Channel spindrift. Ingratitude
still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.

By what right did Keyes, or my cousin's
Lancaster, or the trapped below-decks watch
of Peter's clangorous old destroyer-escort,
serve to enfranchise these strange children
pitiless in their ignorance and contempt?

Friday, 9 November 2018

A Very Good Haul

I don't want to give the impression that I spend all my waking hours scouring the bookshelves of charity shops, but this week, I must say, I've had a very good haul. A couple of days ago I picked up Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (Penguin Modern Classics, with extensive footnotes carefully restricted to things you already know). I'm now reading (technically rereading) this, with mingled pleasure and astonishment. An extraordinary book... And then I spotted The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – hardback, good as new, £2.99 – which of course I had to have.
Then today, on the £1 table at another charity shop, the irresistible volume pictured above (oddly enough, the first American edition) turned up, demanding to be bought and taken to a good home. The illustrations alone are a delight, let alone the poems. Supposedly 'for younger people' – but this was 1962 – it's a good selection from Betjeman's poems, divided into sections, each of which begins with a related passage from Summoned by Bells and an Ardizzone frontispiece. I guess the notes at the back are aimed at the 'younger readers' of 1962, but they are well written, often useful and interesting, unlike those in the Penguin Father and Son. 'Flannel dance' anyone? It's 'a dance where people went in informal clothes such as flannel trousers and blazers'. 'Ted'? 'Spread out for drying'. Lionel Edwards? 'An artist who specialised in sporting and hunting pictures with the rainy, grey skies of the English winter'. Good to know.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

How Studying Eng Lit Stopped Me Reading

Yesterday on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp wrote of how 'even dedicated readers tell horror stories about teachers who tried their damnedest to sour them on literature'. In Patrick's case, a teacher managed to turn reading Julius Caesar into 'an exercise in vivisection'. At school I had a similar experience with Henry IV, Part One, a play that became a torment to me, largely because I had difficulty sorting out who was who and what exactly was going on (I've always been weak on plot), and the teacher in question made a point of interrogating me relentlessly on precisely the things I didn't know. Happily his efforts did not put me off the play for life.
  Far worse, for me, was the effect of what is quaintly called the English Tripos at Cambridge. I arrived in the 'city of perspiring dreams' (copyright Frederic Raphael) a fresh-faced youngster in love with literature, and staggered out of the place three years later quite literally unable to read any substantial literature for pleasure or even profit. For about a year I read very little at all, and my appetite for reading only revived when I found myself working in a university library and my wanderings in the stacks left me in no doubt of the vast extent of my ignorance. It was time to start again...
 But what on earth had happened in those three dazed years at Cambridge (a question that applies to more than my literary studies)? What had managed so effectively to put me off literature altogether? I think it was partly the 'exercise in vivisection' aspect – so much probing of the text, so little genuine engagement with it. The work in question was not something to be appreciated on its own terms but a mere springboard for displays of intellectual gymnastics and contortionism, the more modish and far-fetched the better. I even had an early immersion in what I daresay was deconstructionist criticism, which made everything that much worse, and probably put the tin hat on the whole sorry business. Although I managed a decent degree (thanks in part to a gift for creative plagiarism – a very English thing, according to Peter Ackroyd's Albion), I left university thoroughly alienated from the thing I had loved, English literature. Thank heavens the effect was short lived.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Word Needed

In an essay on V.S. Pritchett (collected in Life Sentences), Joseph Epstein quotes Pritchett as saying, 'I have talent, but no genius.'
'This may well be true,' writes Epstein, 'but it has always seemed to me that the English language is deficient in not possessing a word that lies between the two; it would be a word that described how far talent, honed under the pressure of unrelenting hard work, can take one. The missing word would, I think, apply nicely to V.S. Pritchett.'
  It surely would, and it's a shame that no such word is available in English (is it in any language?). Pritchett, who admired and appreciated Chekhov so hugely, wrote short stories that were often decidedly Chekhovian, but the distance between the best of his stories and the best of Chekhov's is precisely that between the highest pitch of talent and genius.
  In painting, it's the distance between Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. In music, the distance between Telemann and Bach. In architecture, between Adam and Soane... A word would indeed be useful.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

A Glass of Blessings

I've been at the Barbara Pyms again – A Glass of Blessings this time, which I rate about the best of those that I've read. Philip Larkin thought it 'the subtlest of her books', in which 'the sparkle on first acquaintance has been succeeded by the deeper brilliance of established art'.
  Unusually for Pym, it's narrated in the first person, so we see events through the eyes of the gloriously named Wilmet Forsyth (her Christian name comes from a Charlotte M. Yonge novel). Wilmet is comfortably off, married to a slightly stodgy husband, childless and decidedly under-occupied. She observes the world with amused detachment, finding plenty of scope for amusement in the goings-on of her London parish – extremely high and ritualistic, with celibate clergy and a small army of officials and acolytes, assisted by another small army of 'excellent women', on the fringes of which Wilmet, feeling she ought to do something, finds some occupation and much comic material.
  As the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent (though not, of course, to her) that Wilmet has a way of missing the most obvious things – for example, that the object of her romantic crush (a very Pymian thing) is clearly gay. He's not the only gay character either: for an English novel published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is pretty relaxed about such things. Wilmet also fails to spot not one but two impending marriages, and that her husband is up to something. She also makes a wholly wrong assumption about the source of a romantically anonymous Christmas gift.
  Towards the end, the endearing Wilmet realises how much she's missed and got wrong – but with that realisation comes another: that perhaps her life has been, and is, rich in blessings. This sense of being blest is prompted by a friend whose life has taken a wholly unlooked-for turn for the better:
'Oh, Wilmet,' she exclaims, 'life is perfect now! I've everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it's like a glass of blessings. Life, I mean,' she smiled.
  'That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn't it?' I said.
                       'When  God at first made man,
                        Having a glass of blessings standing by...'
Then her friend's vicar husband chips in:
'But don't forget that other line ... how, when all the other blessings had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass. That's so very appropriate for a harassed suburban vicar. What an afternoon! I'm simply exhausted.'
  In Barbara Pym's world, everyone can be expected to have George Herbert at their fingertips. She's a great one for the seventeenth-century poets.
  Here is the poem they are quoting from, The Pulley (with its wonderful last verse)
When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.”