Monday, 25 May 2020


My father would have turned 111 today – born under Edward VII and, as he used to claim, in uniform in both world wars (in the First, it was a sailor suit that he wore to wave a little flag at the passing troops).
Today is also the birthday (in 1888) of that fine character actor Miles Malleson, especially memorable as Dr Chasuble in the 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest, and as the poetically inclined hangman in Kind Hearts and Coronets (neither of which performances seems to be available on YouTube). I was surprised to learn (from Wikipedia) that the mild-mannered, multi-chinned Malleson was a red-hot socialist and pacifist, and very much one for the ladies.
And a third birthday today: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, born on this day in 1803. I've written about him before, but the magnificently awful opening sentence of his Paul Clifford always bears requoting:

'It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.'

This was the sentence that inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for the worst opening sentence of the year. The 2019 winner was this, written by one Maxwell Archer:

'Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.'

Not bad. Well yes, bad of course – a worthy winner.  

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Burton Lives – On Radio 4!

As a lifelong radio lover, one-time radio critic and intermittent fan of Radio 4, despite its present all-pervasive wokeness, I am always happy when there is occasion to praise that potentially great network. So I was delighted to find a series of quarter-hour programmes running through the last couple of weeks called The New Anatomy of Melancholy. Yes, this was a series inspired by Robert Burton's great Anatomy of Melancholy, a masterpiece which, despite its massive size and relentless display of formidable classical learning, is, rather wonderfully, still read for pleasure and profit today. The Radio 4 series focused almost entirely on just one aspect of the mighty Anatomy – the one likeliest to attract present-day readers – its utility as a therapeutic self-help manual. Most of those contributing to the programme were therapists, psychologists and writers who had found Burton helpful in their struggles with depression (not quite the same thing as melancholia, but congruent). Much of Burton's advice on averting or overcoming melancholy is indeed sound commonsense stuff, and some of it chimes remarkably well with present-day therapeutic practice. Certainly the series offered a narrow and particular view of Burton's sprawling, encyclopaedic work, but that Radio 4 considered such a relatively obscure and daunting work by a long-dead white male worthy of a series is a heartening sign. And, although each programme consisted mainly of present-day voices, it was a joy to hear passages from the Anatomy beautifully read by the great Simon Russell Beale.
This link should take you to the Omnibus edition...

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Finishing The Betrothed

I have now completed my big 'lockdown' reading project. Yes, I've finished reading Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed – and, as my occasional progress reports have made clear, it's been a pleasure. Indeed, I was enjoying it so much that as the end drew near I slowed down to make it last longer. This might seem odd when The Betrothed is, among other things, a 'plague novel', a tale of pestilence – hence its sudden unavailability on Amazon.
  The descriptions of the plague in Milan are indeed harrowing, but the ever present author is at pains to spare us from too much horror, and he maintains his tone of lightly inflected irony through everything. Manzoni is less interested in the horrific scenes he paints than in the range of human responses to the plague, all the way from saintly self-abnegation to depraved criminality – and in the folly let loose by the plague. The most striking instance of the latter (and something that was new to me) was the mass hysteria over 'anointing'. From the excitable masses to the most learned and rational in the land, all were firmly convinced that the pestilence was being deliberately spread by individuals painting walls, streets or healthy people's clothing with a noxious concoction that infallibly passed on the plague to all who came in contact with it. Some kind of toxic powders were also purportedly used to the same end. In response the masses administered summary justice, killing many innocent people on suspicion of 'anointing'. At least we haven't experienced anything like that in the course of the great Covid panic – nor, as will surely be clear to anyone who reads The Betrothed (or Journal of the Plague Year or La Peste or any other plague fiction) is Covid anything like as terrifying, as deadly or as infectious as the bubonic plague, which could strike anyone of any age at any time and, usually, kill them in double quick time. This is quite a useful perspective to have in these crazed times.
  But never mind the plague. Though memorably vivid and brilliantly written, the plague chapters only account for a small portion of Manzoni's huge novel, which, despite its size, is essentially about just one thing: the fate of the sundered lovers, Renzo and Lucia. We keep on reading because we want to discover their fate; it's as simple as that. This is not a panoramic, cast-of-thousands historical epic; indeed, it has a surprisingly small cast of characters. As I've said before, it's the manner of Manzoni's telling of the tale, and his unique, engaging tone of voice, that keeps us reading.
  And what does become of Renzo and Lucia? I'd better not give that away, but just urge anyone who's looking for a hefty classic that they might actually enjoy reading to give The Betrothed a try. If you can find a copy (and do get the Bruce Penman translation – it's brilliant).
  Surprisingly for such a naturally gifted storyteller, Manzoni wrote no other sustained fiction. The Betrothed was instantly hailed as the first great novel of modern Italy, and Manzoni became a hero of the newly unified nation. Verdi's mighty Requiem was written to honour his memory. Has any other writer had such a grand musical memorial? I can't think of one – over to you, Mahlerman?

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Birthday Boy

As his alleged living spit, I feel I cannot let this day pass without marking the birthday of that great film actor and good man, James Stewart, born May 20th, 1908. With actors of his generation, it is always interesting – and, I think, an index of character – to see whether they 'had a good war'. Jimmy Stewart certainly did: the first major Hollywood star to enlist, he served in the Air Corps, rising from Private to Colonel in only four years. After a year spent training pilots, he insisted on being sent to the front line to do his bit, and flew B-24 Liberators from England on bombing missions over Germany. Stewart was awarded the DFC, the French Croix de Guerre with palm and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. When, after the war, he was promoted to Brigadier-General, he became the highest-ranking actor in American military history.
  When Stewart returned from the war, he was uncertain whether to continue with his movie career, but he signed a contract with MCA, and Frank Capra cast him in his first postwar movie. That movie was It's a Wonderful Life...

Monday, 18 May 2020

Approximate Botany

The dog roses are in flower again. This species (Rosa canina) is certainly Rupert Brooke's 'English unofficial rose' – but is it also 'mid-May's eldest child, The coming musk-rose', as described in Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale'? It seems that Keats's 'musk rose' is certainly not the flower generally known as a musk rose (Rosa moschata), which is purely a garden plant. In context, Keats is clearly describing a wild rose:

'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.'

Does he perhaps mean the sweet-briar (Rosa rubiginosa)? No, he can't, as that is the 'pastoral eglantine'.
There's at least one other wild 'musk-rose' in Keats's verse. Here is his sonnet 'To a Friend Who Sent Me some Roses' –

'As late I rambled in the happy fields,
What time the skylark shakes the tremulous dew
From his lush clover covert;—when anew
Adventurous knights take up their dinted shields;
I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields,
A fresh-blown musk-rose; 'twas the first that threw
Its sweets upon the summer: graceful it grew
As is the wand that Queen Titania wields.
And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excelled;
But when, O Wells! thy roses came to me,
My sense with their deliciousness was spelled:
Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whispered of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquelled.'

That's quite a thank-you letter. (Its recipient was Charles Wells, one of whose sons was to take up the career of professional gambler and fraudster and become famous as 'the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo'). Keats had a genius for friendship as well as for poetry (and letter writing), but in botany it seems he was – like most of us – what might be called an approximate botanist. He probably went for 'musk-rose' because it sounds so much better than the faintly derogatory 'dog-rose'.

Anyway, all this talk of roses calls for another Schubert song...

Saturday, 16 May 2020

A Discovery

It has been widely remarked that retail sales of booze have risen sharply under lockdown. This is hardly surprising: if there are no pubs and restaurants to drink in, home will have to do. Me, I've been tidying things up by drinking the remnants left in various bottles – our glass recycling must be raising eyebrows among the bin men. Also, addressing the current situation, I have been pursuing my researches into the prophylactic effects of alcohol. Not any old alcohol, but only certain forms: good whisky obviously fends off disease, as does, I'm pretty sure, pastis (especially M. Bardouin's elixir) and very probably Benedictine. And I once killed a flu stone dead with two glasses of grappa. What else? I think the wonderful world of bitters looks promising, but it's hard to find anything very interesting in that line, so my researches have been limited – until, that is, I found this Vermut Lustau rosé winking at me seductively from the bottom shelf in my local (but not local enough) Waitrose.
  Lustau vermouths are made in Jerez from a variety of sherries (already fortified, so no raw alcohol added) plus a range of fine botanicals – in the case of the rosé, chamomile, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom and the all important wormwood. The result is something vastly better than your standard vermouth: a lovely mix of bitter and sweet, fruity and herbal, spicy and floral – the works. It's a pleasure to drink on its own with ice and a slice of orange or, to make it go further, a good squirt of soda. Highly recommended. Salud!

Thursday, 14 May 2020

'Not as an eye Servant'

In these locked-down times, I find myself frequenting the churchyard even more than I did before. This morning I was treated to the grisly spectacle of a jay snatching a juvenile robin – its beak still wide, its breast not yet red – from the headstone where it was vulnerably perched. There was a great commotion from the robin parents, from a couple of watching magpies and a blackbird catching the mood of momentary terror. And then, as the jay flew off casually with its prey in its beak, it all died down as suddenly as it had begun, and the birds resumed whatever business of survival they were about, the hapless young victim already forgotten.

A happier discovery was a headstone I had noticed before but whose inscription I had never fully read. The stone commemorates one Edward Taylor, a 'servant out of livery' (a senior servant of high status) who was in the service of a 19th-century rector, the Rev. E.T. Beynon. Taylor, the inscription reads, 'discharged the duties of his Station not as an eye Servant but with attention regularity and Fidelity'. 'Not as an eye servant'? This striking phrase was new to me. What did it mean?
Thanks to the internet, I soon found out: an eye servant is a servant who attends to his duties only when watched, when under the eye of his master or mistress – the kind of servant Edward Taylor was not. The phrase derives from the Bible, appropriately enough – from Ephesians 6: 'Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.'
You live, and learn.