Sunday, 31 October 2010

Kay Ryan - Nothing to Add

'They will explain themselves,' says Keats of his poems, 'as all poems should do without any comment.' (He wasn't to know that future generations would have little or no knowledge of classical mythology.) One modern poet to whom his dictum can surely be applied is Kay Ryan. Her poems say what they have to say, do what they have to do, with such economy of means and simplicity of expression that there is little, if anything, to explain. Take a poem such as Carrying A Ladder (which I've mentioned before)...

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

Is there really anything that can usefully be added?
Or to this one - Chinese Foot Chart

Every part of us
alerts another part.
Press a spot in
the tender arch and
feel the scalp
twitch. We are no
match for ourselves
but our own release.
Each touch
uncatches some
remote lock. Look,
boats of mercy
embark from
our heart at the
oddest knock.

All I can add to that is that, on me at least, it enacts itself - it 'touches' me, I feel it in my scalp, that tingle. And of course it's beautifully, artfully constructed, with all that fierce enjambment, those rhymes and half-rhymes, assonances, echoes. Try to work out the sound patterns in this equally short poem, Fake Spots, and they begin to seem endless...

Like air
in rock, fake
spots got here
really far back.
Everything is
part caulk.
Some apartments
in apartment blocks
are blanks;
some steeples
are shims. Also
in people: parts
are wedges: and,
to the parts they keep
apart, precious.

The language is always simple, homely even; Ryan's 'place' is clear enough, in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; her imagery... Ah her imagery. Who but Kay Ryan would image silence in terms of Sharks' Teeth?

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.

Who else would come up with this image?

Tired Blood

Well, not tired
so much as freighted.
As though foreign objects
had invaded.
As though tiny offices
had dumped
their metal furniture
among the glossy lozenges
and platelets -
chairs that stick together,
painful cabinets.

Ryan's is a very singular imagination, full of odd angles and unexpected swerves, and it often works by a kind of reversal, as in Sharks' Teeth, as in this - The Material

Whatever is done
leaves a hole in the
possible, a snip in
the gauze, a marble
and thimble missing
from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel
on this point. The
undone can’t be
patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of
nothing that are
our gift at birth, the
lavish trains we
trail into our span
like vans of seamless
promise, like fresh
sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We
must extract parts
to do work. As
time passes, the
promise is tattered
like a battle flag
above a war we
hope mattered.

She can be funny, as in Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

And she can be strangely moving, as in Still Life, With Her Things

Today her things are quiet
and do not reproach,
each in its place,
washed in the light
that encouraged the Dutch
to paint objects as though
they were grace -
the bowl, the
goblet, the vase
from Delft - each
the reliquary
of itself.

Ryan is an exhilarating poet, offering intense and particular pleasures. Each poem feels as if it has been hewn down, drastically but with immense care, to the barest spine of essentials - but the essential is still there, intensely concentrated. There is nothing to add. Her poems do, as Keats would have it, 'explain themselves'.


'The fact was I left Town on Wednesday - determined to be in a hurry. You don't eat travelling - you're wrong - beef - beef - I like the look of a sign. The Coachman's face says eat, eat, eat. I never feel more contemptible than when I am sitting by a goodlooking coachman. One is nothing - Perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody. You must be when slice after slice - but it wont do - the Coachman nibbles a bit of bread - he's favour'd - he's had a Call - a Hercules Methodist - Does he live by bread alone? O that I were a Stage Manager - perhaps that's as old as 'doubling the Cape'. "How are ye old 'un? hey! why don't 'e speak?' O that I had so sweet a Breast to sing as the Coachman hath! I'd give a penny for his Whistle - and bow to the Girls on the road - Bow - nonsense - 'tis a nameless graceful slang action. Its effect on the women suited to it must be delightful. It touches 'em in the ribs - en passant - very off hand - very fine - Sed thongum formosa vale vale inquit Heigh ho la! You like Poetry better - so you shall have some I was going to give Reynolds.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun...

That's the joy - one of the joys - of Keats's letters. You never know what's coming next, as he slides and swerves from sense to nonsense, from his inner to his outer life, from cod Latin to a few dismissive words that suddenly introduce, in this case, his last great poem, the Ode to Autumn. There's an added frisson here, as his throwaway remarks on bowing foreshadow that heartbreaking last farewell, a little over a year later: 'I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow...'
The Ode to Autumn, in manuscript and (much revised) finished form can be found, with much else, on this fine website devoted to Keats, great poet and great man, born on this day in 1795.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Literary Editor Speaks Out!

It's good to see someone - someone in the business, what's more - pointing out one of the things that's clearly wrong with modern fiction. On the rare occasions when I've made it to the end of a recently published novel, I'm nearly always left with two thoughts: 1. So what? and 2. That was surely about a third too long. I don't suppose Claire Armitstead often concurs with 1 or she wouldn't be in the job she's in, but she seems to agree with 2 - much to the chagrin of the publishing industry, an industry which, it is clear, has only itself to blame.
Another scourge of contemporary fiction (encouraged no doubt by the 'Creative Writing' industry)is the fashion for present tense narration. Philip Pullman has called it 'a silly affectation' and he's surely right, at least in those cases where there's no good reason for it; it's a lazy short-cut to bogus immediacy and 'significance'. Worse still is the use of the present tense and the impersonal 'he' or 'she' to lend spurious mystery and yet more 'significance'. Any book that begins in such a mode is almost certain to be worthless. Unless it's this one:
'From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star's revenge...'
That's Samuel Beckett. The rules don't apply.

Friday, 29 October 2010

At Last - The Liberal Gene!

Here's a prime specimen of nonsense dressed up as science - genetics, indeed! So, 'liberals' are more disposed to 'seek out new experiences', are they? Not in my (limited, reactionary) experience. Some of the most firmly closed minds I've ever come across have been politically 'liberal' - also some of those with the least exposure to 'a wider variety of lifestyles and beliefs'. I suspect that it's at least as true that the more exposure you have to the rich variety of the world as it is, the more likely it is to turn you in a conservative direction. Many a conservative is a liberal 'mugged by reality', i.e. by wider experience of the world as it is.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Beyond the Veil

This post on Frank Wilson's blog and the interesting piece to which it links have started a lively comment strand. For myself, I've never seen the attraction of any kind of personal survival after death. Compared to the thorough extinction of 'me', it seems a hellish prospect. Imagine coming out at the other side of death, still yourself, surviving to see your life whole, to repine and regret and be powerless to change anything, to look on helplessly at the grief caused by your death, and at all that follows, including of course the gradual extinction of your memory (Nige? Who was he?) and to have no way of ceasing to be 'me'. If, however, there is no 'I' at the far side of death, there is nothing to fear, as there will be no 'me' to do the fearing, or to experience anything. Therefore I hope that if there is any survival, it is not of the 'me' I now know, it is not in any normal sense 'personal'.
The experiment described in the piece can hardly tell us anything about 'life after death', but it could throw light on the fascinating possibility that consciousness can operate independently of the brain, that 'I' am not my brain. There seems to be evidence in some forms of hysteria, hallucinations and hypnagogic or hypnopompic states (at either edge of sleep) that consciousness can roam free of the brain. Consciousness is certainly the least scientifically understood human phenomenon - and perhaps can never be scientifically understood (there's ultimately no place to stand outside consciousness from which to examine it). Meanwhile, I entirely agree with Frank that simple gratitude for being should be our focus, rather than speculation about what might come next. As the Iris de Ment song puts it, 'Let the mystery be.'

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


The Central Library of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is a very fine building. I was sitting outside it this lunchtime, on a sunny bench, when a distinguished old cove (Kensington is awash with them) sat down beside me and launched into a loud and staggeringly inconsequential conversation on his mobile phone. He was phoning A because he was under the impression that A had told him that B had married C when B and C were both working in Kabul. Was this not so? No it was not. A did not even know B and C. Distinguished cove mystified. Was it D, A wonders, the one who married E? No, cove didn't think so. F perhaps? Eureka! Got it! It was F, who married G, and it must have been H who told cove about it. Cove apologised profusely for the confusion, and in a flurry of civilities the conversation ended. That was it: cove had rung A purely to establish that B had married C, and discovered that, far from it, F had married G. It must be wonderful to have connections, I mused, admiring the library's fine facade and enjoying the sun on my face.

False Pasts

Television, that futuristic medium, is deeply in love with the past. It likes nothing more than sending people back in time to experience 'living in the past' for our delectation in 'historical reality shows' - coming very soon to a TV set near you: Turn Back Time (shopkeepers sampling retail life at various periods from the 1870s on), Edwardian Farm (sequel to - you guessed - Victorian farm), even Giles and Sue Live the Good Life (Seventies self-sufficiency, sitcom-style). That's not to mention the period dramas - ITV's Downton Abbey is currently sweeping all before it with its golden vision of the Edwardian age. But this 'past' that TV is so drawn to is of course always a partial and falsified version, viewed through the distorting lens of our present preoccupations, and wrong in so many ways. Leaving aside anachronisms of detail and (more importantly) attitude, TV just lays it on too thick; it tends to caricature the past, even the recent past. Victorian times were never that Victorian, and, as those of us who lived through them will testify, the Sixties were never that Sixties (the Seventies were far more Sixties).
David Cecil, in the Prologue to his life of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, is very good on this falsification of the past. Writing at the end of the 1920s, when the 18th century was very much in vogue, he describes the vision of that century embraced by the 1920s enthusiasts as 'not at all like the England of the eighteenth century... For one thing, their idea is too homogeneous. Only countries of the mind are so much of a piece. The past does not, any more than the present, escape that incompleteness, that inconsistency which is the essential characteristic of life as we know it, as opposed to life as we should like it to be. An historical period is not a water-tight compartment, containing only what it has itself created, sharing nothing with what has gone before and what comes after. It is a tangle of movements and forces, of various origin, sometimes intertwined and sometimes running parallel, some beginning, some in their prime, some in decay... To describe any period, then, as all of a piece is as inaccurate as to paint a picture of its streets with all the houses of the same age and style.' Precisely. The past, at any period, felt just the way the present does now - after all, it was the present.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Startling developments...

over at The Dabbler, where the fiendish Round Blogworld Quiz is launched on an unsuspecting blogosphere. Remember - points mean, er, points...

Friday, 22 October 2010

By the way...

Don't miss out on this competition - with a prize worth winning - over at the super soaraway Dabbler.

On the Desert Island...

Michael Mansfield, long-haired QC, republican, vegetarian and darling of the Left, was on Desert Island Discs this week. I caught some of it on Sunday, and found myself listening again, with fascinated horror, this morning on the train. It was everything you'd expect, as the ineffable Mansfield seized the opportunity to outline precisely how wonderful he is and in precisely how many ways. Rejecting the Bible as his Desert Island reading matter in favour of Tom Paine's The Rights Of Man, he chose as his luxury a drum kit. Michael Mansfield is in his 70th year... Like many men with no sense of humour, he is a fan of the Goons and chose them for one of his discs - but it was something else that had drawn me back to this vintage edition of DID. He had unblushingly chosen a 'rap' against 'consumerism' performed (if you could call it that) by one of his numerous brood, which was duly played. Could it really have been that excruciatingly, toe-curlingly, jawdroppingly bad? Reader, it could and was. If it had been a parody, it would have been hilarious, but no, this was serious. As I listened again, aghast, I was the only person on that commuter train laughing. So, thank you Michael - despite everything you have brightened my morning.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

'A Study Has Found'

Brit laments elsewhere that standards are falling on the BBC News website - but all's well with the world when it can still come up with stuff like this. I just love this kind of story - especially when it's so sensitively illustrated. As you scroll down through paragraph after paragraph (more crossheads would have been good), feeling your will to live slowly sapping away, ask
yourself, when you arrive just barely alive at the final sentence: What have I learnt today?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'I was the shadow of the waxwing slain...'

I've been rereading Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's something I've been doing at intervals ever since I first read that extraordinary book 40 years ago. On that first reading, I pretty much dismissed the poem at the centre of the book (John Shade's Pale Fire) as a pastiche of the kind of cosy campus poetry so brilliantly lampooned in Kenneth Koch's comic poem Fresh Air. But with each subsequent reading, the poem has come to seem better and better, its strange and moving beauty has gradually emerged, and now I would be happy to read it, for pleasure, if it was published as a separate volume - no novel attached, no critical apparatus. If it was published? It seems it very soon will be, and all hell will break loose in Nabokovian circles. This lively piece tells the story. I'd recommend reading it to the end, since it also gives an excellent introductory account of the novel, illuminates its unique appeal, and, as it goes on, makes quite clear that the overheated world of Nabokovian scholarship can be quite as mad as anything in Charles Kinbote's commentary.

Revealed at Last: TheTrue Nature of Britishness

There's been a lot of discussion about 'Britishness' in recent years - that eminent North Briton Gordon Brown (remember him?) took a suspiciously lively interest in the subject for a while. What is it, the question went, that defines British identity? Various answers were given - all of them pretty nebulous and open to question - but now, I'm happy to report, there is a solid, concrete answer. (It came up on Radio 4 early this morning in a piece about Argos having announced its latest healthy profits.) The one thing that distinguishes us Brits from lesser tribes is this: we are happy to 'shop' at Argos. We and we alone thrill to the 'retail proposition' that is Argos: pay, take a chitty, go and queue at a Generation Game-style conveyor belt till what you bought eventually emerges from the maw of the stockroom. Argos has been a big success in this country and, understandably, the company thought it would be a straightforward proposition to 'roll out' its 'business model' over half the globe - but no, whatever country they tried it in, the answer came back loud and clear: What the...? You're kidding, aren't you? Johnny Foreigner, it seems, just can't see the unique allure of the Argos experience - he doesn't get it. Well, it's his loss... Meanwhile, Britons awake! Assert your national identity - get down to Argos now!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Tender Ghosts

Patrick Barkham, who recently wrote about the Purple Emperor on the blog everyone's talking about - The Dabbler - also has a fine piece, My Butterfly Marathon, in the current issue of Butterfly, the magazine of Butterfly Conservation. This is a look back over his summer devoted to spotting all 59 British butterfly species (something some manage to do year after year, which must rather take the magic out of it). Looking back over my own butterfly year, I see that I've totted up my usual 30-something species, despite some disappointments (no purple hairstreak, no wall butterfly, no clouded yellow) and despite circumstances having often kept me from my usual haunts on perfect butterfly days. Never mind - there were memorable sightings: the Dingy Skipper in Derbyshire; that Green Hairstreak laying eggs; the heart-stopping moment when a Silverwashed Fritillary landed in my garden;a cheering profusion of Gatekeepers and others on my own doorstep; those Tortoiseshells on Buddleia in Derbyshire; and a glorious sunny afternoon among the Adonis Blues (and that beautiful pale Chalkhill)... Barkham ends his piece with a quotation from Nabokov that perfectly describes how the intensest butterfly encounter feels. I can do no better than to requote him: 'And the highest enjoyment of timelessness - in a landscape selected at random - is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants.This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern - to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal.'

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Just for the Fun of It...

Here's Australian throwback blues/jazzman C.W. Stoneking - looking rather less dapper than usual (he prefers high-waisted white trousers and short-sleeved shirt with bow tie and boater, like Governor Huey Long on a warm day) - as he sings Jungle Blues. Enjoy!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Grow Up!

Watching Autumnwatch last night (as one does, despite its annoying features - not least the chap with the long hair who keeps putting his glasses on then taking them off and sweeping his hair about and clearly fancies himself rotten and is beginning to irritate me in a big way), I was struck by how quickly and completely the word 'poo' has migrated from its rightful place in the nursery to become the neutral generic term for a substance for which, heaven knows, the English language (not to mention Latin) has plenty of words. Even the Great Attenborough has succumbed. Whereas the Attenborough of old would have talked of droppings or dung or faeces, the great man now unblushingly uses the nursery term without any indication that he's lapsing into babytalk. Will it be 'birdies' next, and moo-cows and baa-lambs? Will presenters of railway documentaries start talking about choo-choos? It seems wildly improbable, but then a very few decades ago it would have seemed equally unlikely that grown men and women would appear on TV, in supposedly scientific documentaries, straightfacedly talking about 'poo'. I believe it is called infantilisation. It's everywhere.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Over at The Dabbler...

I review another fine book available for a copper - William Maxwell's The Chateau.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Howard Jacobson has won the Booker! Last year Hilary Mantel, this year Jacobson - it's beginning to look as if the Booker might have become a meaningful prize again. Or so I thought, anyway, until I heard that The Finkler Question only won by a whisker from Peter Carey's latest unreadable slab. Oh well.
Finkler is being described as the first comic novel to win the Booker. Is it really? Surely J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur is a comic novel, or at least there's plenty in it to smile at - as there is in Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore, and Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils... But yes, Booker has been very much a prize for the big, earnest, humourless, 'ambitious' kind of novel, not for anything that might be taken as comic fiction. Which is odd, as the most vigorous tradition in English fiction is surely a comic one, from Fielding, Smollett and Sterne to Wodehouse and Waugh and even Amis pere et fils (before they discovered 'seriousness'), by way of Peacock, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Meredith and the greatest and most English of them all, Dickens. Against that joyous, tumultuous stream, the sobersided tradition in English fiction - Richardson, George Eliot, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene?, the Booker-winning set - seems a thin, sour trickle. Why did 'seriousness' come to be valued above all else? Perhaps it's something to do with Leavis's baleful influence, or with a simple failure of the imagination, a suspicion that anything that makes the reader laugh or even smile must be somehow shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Oscar Wilde (representing an equally vigorous tradition of comic drama) remarked: 'Life is far too important to be taken seriously.'

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


I was always rather fond of that medley of national tunes, woven together by Fritz Spiegl, that used to start the day at 5.30 every morning on Radio 4, and was sorry when it was axed. It was hardly great music, but very cheering, and the perfect marker of the switch from the wider world of the World Service back to dear old Blighty. Now it seems the then Controller, Mark Damazer, got rid of it by mistake. There is something so very BBC about this, isn't there?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Something I Never Thought I'd Do

The trouble with inland Norman towns in autumn is that they are shuttered up and asleep by 10 at night - even the hotels, as my brother and I discovered on the first night of the trip from which I've just returned. Having gone out after dinner to find somewhere for a nightcap - the choice was limited to two low dives, of which we chose the less low - we returned at 11.40 to find our hotel locked, lightless and dead to the world. As we had no key to get in, and as nothing we did could rouse anyone, we were driven to contemplate desperate measures. The window of our room (on the first floor) was ajar - it would just be a matter of climbing the tall, spike-topped metal grille in front of the window below, hauling oneself bodily over the sill and... Fortunately we thought better of that, and, after 40 minutes, when it was beginning to seem that a night of trudging the pavements in the cold night mist lay ahead of us, my brother's despairing bellow of 'Allo? Hotel?' led to a small high window opening, a female head popping out - a beautiful sight, believe me - and, after a while, this angel in human form (one of the staff) appeared again downstairs and let us in. I have seldom been so relieved in my life. The next morning, le patron, totally deadpan, asked us if we required the front door key. And, looking up from the street in the light of day, my brother realised that that window didn't belong to our room after all.
The next day (in company with my brother and the others) I did something I never thought I'd do - visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny. I continued to think I'd never do it when we descended from the hills, having climbed up from the valley and walked through miles of misty woods, into a village swarming with visitors, taking photographs of everything as they strolled along the (very picturesque) street and forming long queues to get in to the house, their numbers augmented by the arrival of an endless stream of coach parties. We retreated to take an early lunch, after which - by a double miracle - the sun had piereced the morning mists and was shining gloriously, and the queues had temporarily gone. Siezing our chance, we went in... I have to report that, though the place was still fairly overrun, it was ravishing. The garden on a sunny autumn day is just the kind of garden I love most - richly, abundantly planted, full of colour and interest, artifice and nature beautifully blended. The immense profusion of michaelmas daisies naturally had me looking out for butterflies, and, as well as plentiful whites, I spotted several red admirals, a brimstone and a couple of speckled woods. As for the house - yes, rather on the ravishing side too, with an abundance of fascinating and beautiful Japanese prints that I wasn't expecting. Yes, Giverny can feel like Monetworld, international HQ of MonetCorp - and yes I'm not a huge fan of Monet overall - but that house and garden somehow retain something enchanting despite the visiting hordes (who were back in force by the end of our visit). If Monet had planned the whole thing - if he'd envisaged his own global megapopularity and the pulling power of Giverny - he could hardly have got it righter. It works.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I'm off to Normandy first thing tomorrow, so there will be blog silence for a few days I'm afraid. You may entertain yourselves with visions of me scoffing bowlfuls of moules, quaffing muscadet and striding through fine Norman countryside, striking fear and wonder into the locals, hem hem.

Messages from Another Life

The eventful life of my trusty old Siemens A62 mobile took another turn the other day when I fumblingly dropped it on a hard pavement. At first it withstood the blow with commendable fortitude - but not for long. Soon it was behaving very strangely, and all my attempts to fix it (including a degree of bashing and shaking)having failed, I realised the poor old thing was nearing its last gasp. I promptly ordered another Siemens A62 ('A design classic' - Nigeness) off eBay (£6.99, with charger) and it arrived, in the nick of time, today, in full working order and raring to go. As ever when swapping a SIM over into a new phone (at least at this low-tech level), it brings with it a seemingly random smattering of what was on it in the old phone. My phonebook seemed to be intact, but with additions I didn't recognise, left over from the phone's previous owner, a man with extensive contacts in the building trade. Having cleared those unwanted numbers out, I checked the SMS inbox and discovered that virtually all my messages had been lost, and what was left was intermingled with messages to the man with extensive contacts in the building trade. These messages, however, were not from builders. As I identified and deleted them one by one, it soon became apparent that this was a married man with a girlfriend with whom he was on, er, visiting terms and who was seldom entirely gruntled - who can blame her? The messages made oddly compelling - and guilty - reading, of a kind that, I suppose, is only possible in this mobiled-up age. In earler times, the nearest thing would have been chancing on someone else's private letters - but letters are very different things from text messages... What if, instead of these texts, I'd come across messages suggesting that two people were conspiring to kill someone or commit come other major crime? There must be a detective thriller in that (no doubt it's been done). Being me, of course, in those circumstances I'd hand it in to the police - and then where would I be? Back on eBay looking for another Siemens A62, of course - story of my life.

Derbyshire to Surrey

Returning from a delightful day in Derbyshire, I see that my piece on the Surrey Style is in Dabbler Country.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Through the Year with Kingsley

Browsing in a local charity shop today, I came across a curious item - a Charles Kingsley Year Book, published by his widow in the 1890s. A handsomely produced volume, it has for each day of the year a quotation from Kingsley's works and, on the facing page, a space for a personal note. In this copy, touchingly, there were pencil-written entries noting 'My wedding day 1913', 'Mother died' etc. Books of this kind were a common form of literery tribute at one time - I remember once coming across an Arthur Wing Pinero(!) year book - and they now serve as a reminder of how hugely popular certain writers were in their day, how big a thing literary fame once was, and, usually, how steeply a reputation can decline in the decades after death. Leaving aside The Water Babies - which lives on as one of those 'much-loved classics' that is seldom actually read in its original form - Kingsley is one of the forgotten Victorians, and his writings for adults are surely unread outside academe (if there). I did once, for some reason, read his Chartist novel, Alton Locke, but it was long ago and I wouldn't recommend it. Yet so popular was Kingsley's Westward Ho! in its day that it gave its name to the Devon town (the only English town with an exclamation mark in its name). There was a hotel there named after him - which he opened himself - and even another Kingsley Hotel in Bloomsbury. I wonder, too, if they had Charles in mind when Mr and Mrs Amis christened their bonny boy Kingsley...
Anyway, I resisted the temptation to buy this curiosity - especially as I had spotted on the same shelf David Cecil's The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper, in the modestly handsome 'Crown Constable' edition (1933), complete with ligatured 'ct's and 'st's. They don't make books like that any more - nor are we ever likely to see a Kingsley Amis Year Book (though it mightn't be such a bad idea, come to think...).

Things You Don't Often See...

The other day I found myself sitting on a train with, in front of me across the aisle, a delightful and very happy toddler being entertained by - and entertaining - her mother. Behind me was another delightful and very happy toddler being entertained by - and entertaining - her parents and older sister. There should be nothing remarkable in this, but sadly there is (which made it all the more cheering to see). Far more often when there's a toddler on a train, the child is being entirely ignored until, in a desperate bid for parental attention, s/he does something disruptive - at which point the parent shouts at the child and forces him/her to sit down and stay still and silent, on pain of punishment. The parent then resumes the far more important business of reading a magazine or doing something ferocious on a mobile phone. What is it with us Brits (not you, Brit!) and children? Compared to most other countries, we just don't seem to get it - to grasp that, despite the difficulties and demands of parenting, children are essentially a joy and a consolation. Too many of us seem determined to deny ourselves that joy and consolation, to make parenthood part of our unhapppiness, another burden to be borne. And this is not a class thing - it's perfectly commonplace for 'professionals' to regard children as a problem to be solved, to be somehow fitted in around the important business of life, i.e. Work (a word that never seems to be applied to the very much harder and more useful business of raising a child) and professional advancement, not people to be valued and enjoyed for themselves. Ah well, we in this country have always been notorious for not much liking children, and it seems this aspect of the national character is proving stubbornly resilient.