Thursday, 26 May 2016

Brexit and Retirement

As the dismal referendum campaign rolls tediously on - still a month to go! - it has been impossible to keep it entirely out of my head (or even out of this blog). The other day I was thinking about what Brexit might be like - how it would feel to be out of the EU - and at the same time I was musing idly on the joys of retirement. Suddenly I saw a connection between the two.
 Last autumn I wrote a piece on retirement - and specifically how, in imagining it in prospect, I had 'made the elementary mistake of simply subtracting work from my everyday life', assuming that I'd be left standing there with a great hole where my work had been, wondering what to do next. In fact, I quickly realised, retirement is not 'life minus work, but rather a new kind of life'.
 I suspect those in favour of remaining in the EU might be making the same mistake, imagining the shape of the future as being 'UK minus EU', with a shell-shocked nation standing gaping at the hole where 'Europe' used to be - whereas the post-Brexit future would be, of course, a new form of life, a new stage in our relations with the world. (And it needn't be a new isolationism, as our international ties are, and will remain, highly complex, and by no means all of our relationships even with European countries are related to EU membership. Not to mention that there's a big wide world outside Europe...)
 The future is of course by definition unknowable - which is why a campaign fought largely on predictions has been so fatuous - but I do think this negative and static 'UK minus EU' model is flawed. As for what's going to happen when this referendum at last arrives, my own tentative prediction is that there will be a narrow vote in favour of Brexit, but that - the EU being what it is  - we'll end up staying in the EU after it comes back with a raft of concessions to swing a second referendum in favour of staying in. A dismal prospect after all this...

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

My Butterfly

A red-letter day for me yesterday: I saw the first Glanville Fritillary of my life! That's my (inadequate) photograph above.
 It wasn't a chance encounter. I set out in the morning with the Glanville in my sights - or my dreams - and knew just where I might discover it, in a nature reserve improbably situated at the edge of an unlovely suburb of Croydon. The Glanville, a butterfly (with an interesting history) otherwise confined to the Isle of Wight, had been reintroduced there a few years ago and was apparently doing well. What I hadn't adequately researched was exactly how to find my way from the tram stop to the reserve, so inevitably I set off in the wrong direction and found myself lost in a labyrinth of seemingly endless Crescents (the most vexing kind of street) in search of a way out.
 Eventually, with a little help from passersby who seemed none too sure about it, I found a way into a spinny, from which I emerged into an unpromising sloping field. From this I eventually escaped by following an obscure path through another spinny - which duly delivered me into a second, even more unpromising field. By now the morning sun had disappeared, there was a chilly breeze, and my hopes were fading fast.
 To escape this latest dismal field margin, I bashed my way through a bed of mixed nettles and thistles, found myself on a remnant of a path, with daylight at its end - and was delighted to emerge onto a decidedly promising bank of scrubby downland. And the sun came out. And within minutes I had the heart-lifting pleasure of seeing a Green Hairstreak, my second of the year - surely a good omen for the Year of the Hairstreak. Dingy Skippers followed, and Small Heaths, Brimstones galore, Peacocks, Common and Holly Blues... I might not have reached my exact destination, but I was clearly heading in the right direction. This was looking good.
 It stayed that way too - despite a young man who seemed to be living rough on the downs assuring me that there were 'no butterflies, mate ' - and after a while it got even better. As I walked along the upper slope of the bank, I noticed down below, in a sheltered lane, a group of middle-aged men (mes semblables, mes frรจres) with fancy optical equipment - clearly butterfly men, and they'd clearly found something. I made my way down and joined them, and straight away there it was, posing most obligingly for one of the camera-wielders - my first Glanville Fritillary, wings spread in the distinctive near-delta shape, looking rather smaller than I'd imagined it in my lepidopteral fantasies, but every bit as beautifully marked.
 It was not to be my last. When, a little later, the sun having gone in, I sat down on a bench to eat my 'ploughman's lunch', I looked down and there, little more than a yard from my right foot, was another Glanville, quite still, wings spread, showing no inclination to move. A friendly chap - clearly the tutelary spirit of the place - joined me on the bench with a can of cola, and I pointed out our companion to him. Ah yes, he said, I know that one. And he did, he knew him individually - a particularly lazy specimen with his own particular favourite posing spots and a taste for settling on scraps of dry wood. He'd been following the Glanville year - larvae, pupae and all - with close attention and knew just what was going on, and all about Glanvilles in general. He was particularly pleased that an aberration - ab. Wittei, I think (there are many others) - had appeared in the population. He talked of the Glanville's extraordinary life cycle - ten months of the year as a caterpillar, a couple of weeks' flight - and how the females, larger than the males, skulk in the bushes and seldom fly much, perhaps because they're carrying a load of 200 or so eggs.
 All the while, he was keeping half an eye on the sky, waiting for the sun to emerge again. When it did, the Glanville at my feet stirred at last, flew off to perch on a nearby scrap of wood, then summoned the energy to head for some nearby buttercups for a spot of nectar.
 I saw two or three more Glanvilles - and even managed (just about) to catch those beautiful underwings on camera - before I left, a happy man. And I even found the tram stop without getting lost again.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Frost's Butterfly

As well as a lifelong love of his poetry, Richard Wilbur had another connection with Robert Frost. His wife's grandfather, William Hayes Ward, had been editor of The New York Independent, in which Frost had his first poem published, in 1895. William's wife, Susan, was a poetry lover and expert on hymnody who was taken with Frost's work from the start. All his life Frost described her as 'the first friend of my poetry'.
 That debut poem of Frost's was My Butterfly, and it says something for Susan Haye Ward's discernment that she could see the promise of greatness glimmering faintly in what is clearly prentice work....

THINE emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)        5
Save only me
There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.
The gray grass is not dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—        10
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee glance,
With all the dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,        15
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.
When that was, the soft mist
Of my regret hung not on all the land,
And I was glad for thee,        20
And glad for me, I wist.
Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.        25
And there were other things:
It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o’er eager, with ungentle grasp.        30
Ah! I remember me
How once conspiracy was rife
Against my life—
The languor of it and the dreaming fond;
Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought,        35
The breeze three odors brought,
And a gem-flower waved in a wand!
Then when I was distraught
And could not speak,
Sidelong, full on my cheek,        40
What should that reckless zephyr fling
But the wild touch of thy dye-dusty wing!
I found that wing broken to-day!
For thou are dead, I said,
And the strange birds say.        45
I found it with the withered leaves
Under the eaves.

'Thine emulous fond flowers', forsooth - 'and glad for me, I wist' - 'the languor of it and the dreaming fond' - 'for thou are dead, I said'... But there's something there, under the strained sentimentality and the 'poetical' archaisms. Frost's handling of metre is precociously adept, and the odd arresting phrase shines out - 'the daft sun-assaulter', 'those great careless wings', 'the grasses dizzied me of thought' - and the penultimate stanza, culminating in the touch of that 'dye-dusty wing', is good.
 Frost himself was well pleased to see My Butterfly in print and to pocket the $15 fee. On the strength of it, he proposed to his girlfriend, Elinor Miriam White, but she wanted to finish college first. So Frost took himself off on an excursion to the gloriously-named Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, proposing again on his return. This time Elinor said yes, and they were married at the end of the year.  A few years later, they were working the farm bought for them by Robert's grandfather, and Frost was beginning to write the poems for which he would become famous. The faint promise of My Butterfly had borne fruit.

Monday, 23 May 2016

1966: Best Year Ever?

In this month 50 years ago, two of the greatest albums ever made were released: the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (did ever a classic album have a more ludicrously inappropriate cover?) and Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Each, in its own way, was a response to the release, in the last weeks of the previous year, of The Beatles' game-changing Rubber Soul - those were golden days for record-buying teenagers like my young self. Just how golden they were came home to me recently as I scanned a list of the year's major LP releases.
 In May alone - the month of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde - Stevie Wonder released Up-Tight, the Small Faces their eponymous debut album, and Marvin Gaye Moods of Marvin Gaye. Earlier in the year, highlights included James Brown's I Got You LP, Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence, Them Again (by, er, Them), John Coltrane's Ascension (to take a detour into jazz), The Young Rascals, the Lovin' Spoonful's Daydream album, The Fugs (if you like that kind of thing; I did), the Mamas & the Papas' If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Sam & Dave's Hold On, I'm Coming and Otis Redding's The Soul Album.
 And the gems just kept on coming through the rest of the year: the Byrds' Fifth Dimension, the Beatles' Revolver, Aretha Franklin's Soul Sister, the Mothers of Inventions' Freak Out! (if you like, etc.), the Incredible String Band's debut album (ditto), Sunshine Superman by the mighty Donovan, Jefferson Airplane's first album (and Buffalo Springfield's), The Exciting Wilson Pickett, very different first albums by the Monkees and Tim Buckley, Love's Da Capo, Junior Walker's Road Runner LP and the Rolling Stones' youthful live album Got Live if You Want It - not to mention The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. And this is to say nothing of a vintage crop of singles...
 Surely this was a truly great year, an annus mirabilis - it certainly felt like it at the time, and it still looks that way now. Was there ever a better year? Probably not, at least for the music-crazed 16-going-on-17-year-old that I was half a century ago.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Wherever This Is

Yesterday's news story about Pat Glass, shadow Europe minster, came as no surprise. While drumming up support for the EU in Derbyshire, she was heard to say 'The very first person I came to was a horrible racist.' Well, we should know by now that many senior Labour politicians - those supposed friends of the Working Class - tend to be thoroughly appalled when they actually meet a specimen thereof, unless said specimen belongs to an approved ethnic minority or client group. Ms Glass's remark was almost an exact replay of Gordon Brown's 'bigoted woman', and in the same fine tradition as Emily Thornberry's snide tweet of an 'Image from Rochester' (a blameless white van and England's national flag).
 Over recent decades, white working-class people have been done over by governments of every stripe (see Michael Collins' The Likes of Us for a brilliant account of this). They've been done over by de-industrialisation and globalisation, done over by mass immigration, and done over by membership of the EU (which, for them, means mass immigration and low wages). Over the first two of these they have had no say, but, by a bizarre twist of fate, they will have a say in our continuing membership of the EU - and I suspect they're going to speak loud and clear and quite possibly swing it for Brexit. We'll see...
 Meanwhile, back to the ghastly Ms Glass. What she also said, having denounced the 'horrible racist', was 'I'm never coming back to wherever this is.' Wherever this is. Some hideous place where white working-class racists live, get me out of here... 'This', in fact, was the southeast Derbyshire village of Sawley - not exactly a picture-postcard village, but, like so many in Derbyshire, it has a fine church. All Saints has a grand five-light East window, a chantry chapel, several 15th and 16th-century monuments, and some fascinating fragments of a demolished monument, including an angel swinging a censer.
 Wherever this is, it is continuous with a deep past, a history of life and death and faith. It is platonic England, a country unknown to the likes of Ms Glass.

Thursday, 19 May 2016


Talking of Victorian Olympians, I was at Leighton House today. This sumptuous palazzo in Holland Park was the home, studio and personal art gallery of that giant of the high Victorian art world, Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, etc. I was there partly to refresh my memory for a piece I'm writing elsewhere, and partly to take a look at an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings (collected by Dennis Lanigan, a Canadian surgeon and collector, and bound for the National Gallery of Canada) that is soon coming to an end.
 To be frank, if it wasn't in such a glorious setting, this exhibition of 100 or so drawings, spread over several rooms of the house, wouldn't be much fun. Mostly studies, sketches, designs and preparatory drawings, the pictures on display cover the familiar range of Pre-Raphaelite fixations - to quote the headings from the handlist, Romantic Middle Ages, Biblical Times and Morality, Antiquity: A Dream of the Past, and Renaissance Men (themes from Italian art and literature). There's plenty of good draughtsmanship on display, as you'd expect - in those days artists could really draw - but the high-mindedness, archaism and artificiality get pretty wearing after a while.
Happily there are also a fair number of landscapes and portraits, and these are easier to enjoy. My eye was caught by an exquisite pencil drawing by Henry Wallis of Mary Ellen Meredith, wife (at the time) of the flame-haired poet and novelist George, who modelled for Wallis's most famous painting, The Death of Chatterton. Within months of that picture's sensational success, Mary Ellen - daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, who took a dim view of his son-in-law - had left George for Henry Wallis. They travelled together for a while, Mary Ellen bore him a son, and then, on their return to London, Wallis abandoned her and the child. Meredith promptly seized his son by Mary Ellen and refused to make any attempt at reconciliation, even as she became more and more ill. The poor woman died alone and wretched, just a few years after Wallis drew her so tenderly, and neither he nor Meredith nor even Peacock attended her funeral. A terrible - and terribly Victorian - story.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Climbing the Golden Staircase

This - The Golden Staircase: Poems and Verses for Children, chosen by Louey Chisholm - was the poetry anthology of my earliest childhood (to be supplemented later by the Golden Treasury, A Book of Narrative Verse, Lyra Heroica and the near-anthology Tennyson & Browning). I still have my Golden Staircase, in a condition best described as falling apart, but still just about intact, complete with childish drawings on what endpapers survive. Published in Edinburgh (around 1900?), it is a very Scottish-flavoured anthology, full of border ballads and the likes of Young Lochinvar and Edinburgh After Flodden (both of which, I believe, I had by heart, little though I understood them, especially the latter). It is arranged as a journey through poetry, from verses suitable for a four-year-old to more demanding stuff that might suit a 14-year-old; the last poems are Arnold's The Forsaken Merman and two long ballads (The Gay Goshawk and Hynde Etin). As if the 200 selected poems weren't enough, there follow a selection of Cradle Songs and another of Carols, Hymns and Sacred Verse.
 The illustrations (by M. Dibdin Spooner) look insipid to my adult eye, but I found many of them haunting in my boyhood - not least The Forsaken Merman ('Come dear children, let us away; Down and away below'), The Pied Piper [above] and Kipling's The Hump ('Lifted the hump - the horrible hump - the hump that is black and blue').
 Looking at the volume again just now, I noticed that the first poem, The Robin ('When father takes his spade to dig, Then Robin comes along...') and several others are ascribed to Laurence Alma Tadema. Alma Tadema, the Victorian Olympian? Did he write as well as paint? Well, no - this Laurence Alma Tadema, I discover, was the oddly-named daughter of the great Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (and it's not easy to imagine him taking his spade to dig in the garden...). She seems to have led a blameless life of good works, good causes and literary endeavours, mostly for the benefit of children. She never married or had any children of her own - a fact that lends poignancy to her little poem If No One Ever Marries Me, which was set to music very effectively by Natalie Merchant (late of 10,000 Maniacs): here's the link.
 Another poem from The Golden Staircase that was set to music much later was Wynken, Blynken and Nod (the illustration for which was one of my favourites). This lullaby (by Eugene Field) had the honour of being set and performed by no less a figure than Donovan Leitch, and can be heard on his children's album, HMS Donovan (arguably his best work). Enjoy...