Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A Happy Return

Warm and sunny again - now the weather's turned, it seems determined to make a proper job of it - and today, borne in on the southerly breeze, came the first swifts! Four of them, this afternoon, passing over a park in Cheam, circling as they went. The world's still turning, summer is on its way. It was a well timed return too, this being Mrs N's birthday - though she was too occupied at the time with Summer, the adorable granddaughter, to notice the swifts passing over. There will be more, happily. Many more.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ball Ball Ball, Footie Footie Footie...

I'm no football fan (though I have a soft spot for former Carshalton Athletic full-back Roy Hodgson) but Leicester City's Premiership triumph is in every way a great story, of a kind we could do with more of, especially in the bloated big-money world of professional football. The brouhaha on Radio 4 this morning included an interview with Julian Barnes, lifelong Leicester fan, who sounded mildly gratified. He, we were reminded, had foretold just such a turn of events in his account of the 'New Heaven' at the end of his History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, with Leicester not only winning the championship but being chosen, en bloc, as the new England team. Barnes said a few words about fiction's habit of anticipating fact, and seized the chance to align himself yet again with his 'great master' Flaubert. Ah well, fair enough - it's a great day for any lifelong Leicester fan...
 For myself, Leicester's triumph put me in mind of another great footballing underdog story - J.L. Carr's 1974 novel How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup. There's a review of it, written from a footballing angle, here.

Monday, 2 May 2016

While it lasts

At this time of year, the green alkanet - with its intense blue flowers, each dotted white at the centre, showing against fresh green foliage - is one of our most beautiful plants. (I say 'our', but it's an introduction, probably of long standing, probably grown for the red dye that can be extracted from its roots - its name is a derivative of the Arabic word for henna.) The alkanet has all too short a prime, so enjoy it while it lasts. Once the leaves start growing and the flowers fading, it becomes less attractive and gradually degenerates into a leathery, grey-leaved, gristle-rooted invader that crops up everywhere you don't want it, and stings like a nettle if you try to pull it out with bare hands.
 The short-lived beauty of the alkanet is easily overlooked in the midst of the great spring flowering - the flowering I enjoyed yesterday when the sudden arrival of sunny warm weather had me heading for the Surrey hills. Cowslips and violets everywhere, bluebells and windflowers in the old coppices, lovely pink-white cuckoo flowers showing above the grasses, blackthorn and wild cherry in full bloom...
 And what of the butterflies, I hear you ask? Orange tips, brimstones, a few tortoiseshells and peacocks (still no red admiral), speckled woods, holly blues... I was hoping for a green hairstreak (especially after my hairstreak duck last year), but no such luck (perhaps that long cold spell has held them back). However, my old friend the dingy skipper was flying - I saw three or four - and, a delightful surprise, a grizzled skipper, that little beauty that deserves a better name. As does its dingy cousin. In my book, there are no dingy butterflies.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Look Back in Anger - Why?

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was on Radio 4 yet again yesterday, supplemented by an Archive on 4 in which David Tennant, star of this latest version, explored the play's origins, its impact, its place in Osborne's life, etc, etc. Why? Isn't it about time someone pointed out that Look Back in Anger is and always has been a pile of tosh - toxic tosh at that - of interest only as a period piece and a case study in morbid psychology? Call me a rabid feminist, but I really can't see the fun in listening to a whingeing little sociopath (yes, that 'iconic' figure Jimmy Porter) sadistically bullying, hectoring, insulting and degrading his long-suffering wife at unendurable length (with a little sentimental drivel about bears and squirrels thrown in). Is it because she's upper-middle-class that she somehow deserves this - or is it simply because she's a woman? Very much more the latter, I'd say, especially as Porter treats the other woman in the play every bit as badly. Jimmy Porter is essentially a projection of his woman-hating, mother-hating, narcissistic creator.
 Why has this ghastly play not slipped into oblivion, like most stage plays that seemed 'important' at the time? Why hasn't it been booed from the public arena by feminists - or just self-respecting women? Why does it keep coming back, and why on Radio 4 of all places? Theatrical revivals are one thing (theatregoers being easily pleased), but you'd expect better of Radio 4. It's notable that there hasn't been a TV version in a long while - no TV audience would stand for it. It's also notable that the first reviews of Look Back in Anger were entirely hostile, one critic lamenting that the actress Mary Ure (the lucky woman who was soon to become the second of Osborne's five wives) should have wasted her talent on a role that consisted largely of ironing and making lunch. Indeed. But then along came Kenneth Tynan ('I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger') and Harold Hobson ('a landmark of British theatre'), and the rest is history - the dismal history of a dismal play that just keeps coming back to torment us. Enough already.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Another Voice from the Past - and the Saddest Story...

My indefatigable son-in-law has done it again, coming up with a fine singer-songwriter from the Sixties folk scene who had somehow eluded me - though, in view of his life story, that really isn't too surprising. Jackson C. Frank, who came over from Buffalo equipped with a Martin guitar, some fine songs and a rich, expressive voice, was a striking figure on the London folk scene of the mid-Sixties, where he caught the attention of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Al Stewart, Sandy Denny (his girlfriend for a while) and fellow expat Paul Simon, who produced his first - and, as it turned out, last - album.
 So far, so straightforward, but Frank's back story was tragic, and worse was to come. When he was 11, a furnace exploded at his school, killing 15 of his fellow pupils, including his then girlfriend, and leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body. It was while he was recovering in hospital that he was given his first guitar... Ten years later, Frank received a hefty insurance cheque that enabled him to make the journey to London and launch his short-lived musical career.
 It wasn't long before his mental health was beginning to deteriorate, with depression coming to the fore as he developed writer's block and his money ran out (the album hadn't sold, and had barely been noticed except by a few cognoscenti - including Nick Drake, who learnt a lot from it). He went back to the States, and when he made a brief return to London in 1968 he was clearly in a bad way - 'falling apart in front of our eyes,' according to Al Stewart - and couldn't find any work.
 Back in Woodstock, where he'd set up home, he married and had a son and a daughter, but the son died of cystic fibrosis, the marriage fell apart, and Frank was committed to a mental institution. In 1984 he made his way to New York, hoping to track down Paul Simon, but ended up living on the streets, when not being shunted from one institution to another. Some years later, by chance, a fan who lived in the Woodstock area tracked Frank down and, although the singer was by then an unrecognisable overweight wreck, he got him singing again and dug out a lot of his old unreleased recordings - but not before Frank had been blinded in his left eye by a stray airgun pellet while sitting on a street bench. He died in 1999 at the age of 56, and at least some of his songs have lived on, in cover versions and on film sound tracks, as well as on that one album, which was rereleased on vinyl in 2014. There was even a Radio 4 programme about him a few years ago. I managed to miss that too.
 But to the music. Frank's best-known song (covered by Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch, Laura Marling and many others) is Blues Run the Game - here's a link - and it is also my three-year-old grandson Sam's current favourite song. He is a boy of sophisticated and eclectic tastes... This song, dedicated to Frank's girlfriend who died in the fire, was featured on the soundtrack of the film Martha Macy May Marlene. And here's another one... Listening to all of these (and there are more on YouTube), I can't help but think of the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis - and sure enough Blues Run the Game is covered by Colin Meloy of the Decembrists on the concert album (Another Time, Another Place) of that great film.

First Martin

One of the joys of my recent trip to the Mani was the profusion of swallows, martins and swifts. Back in chilly Blighty - where I've already seen my first swallows (in Staffordshire) - I wasn't expecting to see anything more in that line before the arrival of the first swifts, which should be happening around the end of next week if they're on time (and no one could blame them for not being; it's been a cold and uninviting spring). However, as I was walking home from the shops just now, I looked up into the sky to check how close the latest rainclouds were - and there was a lone House Martin, racing overhead like a bird on a mission (presumably to get to its nesting place and start the year). It was a heart-lifting sight on a chilly morning. And the swifts can't be far behind...

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Charles Cotton

The poet, writer and angler Charles Cotton was born on this day in 1630, in the delightful village of Alstonefield, just over the Derbyshire border in Staffordshire (I've lunched there many times, at The George, with my Derbyshire cousin). Like many Royalist gentlemen in the wake of the Civil War, Cotton sought a quiet life in the country - and he found it in fishing the River Dove with his close friend and writing partner Izaak Walton. Cotton contributed the section on 'how to angle for trout or grayling in a clear stream' to The Compleat Angler, of which later editions also included Cotton's poem The Retirement.
 Otherwise, Cotton was best known in his time for his more or less indecent 'burlesques' of Latin classics, and for his authorship of The Compleat Gamester, a manual of games that was the standard work until Hoyle came along. He also produced a successful (if unreliable) translation of Montaigne's essays, and clearly had a more sensitive side to his nature, responding warmly to the scenery of the Peak District (whose praises he sang in The Wonders of the Peake) and finding, in the valley of the Dove, his paradise on Earth.
 One of Cotton's poems, The Evening Quatrains - with its startling images of an ant as a 'monstrous elephant' and the shafts of an upturned cart as 'the cuckold's crest' - was set to music by Britten as the Pastoral movement of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. You can enjoy it, arranged for tenor, horn and piano, in this video. I wonder if Cotton's poem, rich in evening imagery (including 'lowing herds'), fed into the creation of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard...