Thursday, 31 May 2012

Moving Stuff

It's not every day you see a quotation from Groucho Marx on the side of a removal van - but there it was, large as life (and unattributed), in the space where you'd expect to find the company's slogan or statement of intent:
'Humour is reason gone mad.'
Not exactly a zinger by Groucho's standards, but it does have the distinguishing feature that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the business of moving people's furniture from place to place in a large van. Why was it there? I imagine the proprietor of the company was trying to demonstrate that he is that terrible thing so valued by the English - a 'character' - and that he has, what's worse, a 'sense of humour'. If removal companies must have slogans, they should follow the example of plain-speaking Kiwi Removals, whose vans bear the stark legend 'We move stuff'. It is sufficient to know that.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Social Mobility: A Tsar Reports

Alan Milburn, a socialist who is now the coalition government's 'social mobility tsar'(!), has published a report, and was on the radio this morning talking about it. Deploring the very high proportion of privately educated people in various top jobs, he said that it looked like the product of 'social engineering on a grand scale'. He's dead right there: it's the product of that grand social engineering project that effectively swept away the grammar schools and replaced them with comprehensives. The grammar schools were the most effective engine of social mobility this country ever had - a route to the top that was open to all with ability, that created five successive Prime Ministers and propelled the likes of me to the 'top universities'. The comprehensive system has proved itself unable to deliver social mobility at all (except in a reverse direction), with the dismal results that we see today - the posh, the rich and the well-connected firmly back on top. I don't suppose that was the intention - or that this was the 'social engineering on a grand scale' that Milburn had in mind. Funny old world...

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Speaking up for the Gutter

We are all in the gutter, quipped Oscar Wilde, but some of us are looking at the stars. As if there were some virtue in looking at the stars. Personally, when I raise my eyes to the starry heavens, I feel much as Pascal did about the eternal silence of those infinite spaces. I would rather not know that what I'm seeing is the faint emanation of meaningless events occurring at unimaginably remote distances in space and time. There are better, more heartening things to be seen by looking down, even in the gutter. This morning, as I strolled along my road, I spotted - in the gutter - a small clump of rather beautiful yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers happily growing there (despite the best efforts of the municipal weed exterminators). I think they are some kind of Monkey Flower (pictured). How they got there heaven knows - presumably as a garden escape - but if I hadn't had my eyes on the gutter, I'd never have seen them, and my morning would have been the poorer. 

Monday, 28 May 2012


With the Leveson inquiry still grinding on and on, hats off to the talented young fellow behind this video for livening things up. As he happens to be the son of an old friend of mine, I suggest you all find ways to send him large sums of money and make him rich.

Cut Grass

'Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.' 

At the weekend, I performed, after long delay, the gardener's grand transmogrifying task - mowing the lawn. Inevitably my mind turned to Philip Larkin's beautiful little poem - it always does - but this time, as I tried to say it in my head, I realised how shockingly little of it I actually knew. My once retentive memory is woefully unreliable these days. When I had finished mowing, I read it again, all 12 lines of it. Surely, I thought, even I can get this one by heart. I read it through a few more times and I had it. What's more surprising is that I still have it by heart today (I checked) - will I, this time, hold on to it for good?
Cut Grass is set in 'young-leafed' June - it was written in fact on the 3rd of June, in 1971 - but the Lilac is still in bloom and the May in the hedgerows at its snow-like peak. Clearly this is the North of England - presumably somewhere near Larkin's Hull home - as the Lilac and May would be as good as over in the South country. What of those chestnut flowers? Too early, even in the South, for Sweet Chestnut, so these must be the candles of the Horse Chestnut, still in flower in the North, at least in Larkin's time. Since then, the Little British Warming (aka  'climate change') has brought everything a little forward - and nothing more so than the Horse Chestnut, but that is largely in response to attack from the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner and a fungal pathogen. The Horse Chestnuts come into leaf, flower and fruit earlier each year as they race to get the whole process over with before the attackers gain the upper hand.
At the end of the week, I shall check and see if I still have Cut Grass by heart. I do hope so - it beats This Be The Verse, which stays stubbornly embedded in my memory banks.

A new National Treasure

Over on The Dabbler, there's a new post by me on a mighty painting in the National Gallery...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Peerless Unreadability

Today would have been my father's 103rd birthday (long generations on that side of the family - his grandfather was born before Waterloo and the last of said grandfather's many grandchildren in the 1930s). But today was also the birth date, in 1803 - before even my great-grandfather - of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a hugely successful novelist in his day, now all but forgotten and unread, remembered only for incidentals. He coined the phrases 'the Great Unwashed' and 'the almighty dollar' as well as the proverbial 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. He is also the man who persuaded Dickens (a friend) to revise the original ending of Great Expectations, bringing Pip and Estella together in a reader-friendly happy ending - and the originator of the 'vril' in Bovril (taken from his science-fcition novel, Vril, The Power Of The Coming Race). And he came up with the famously 'bad' opening line (to a novel called Paul Clifford), 'It was a dark and stormy night'. Actually there's nothing wrong with that - it's only as it painfully unfolds that the sentence reveals Bulwer-Lytton's limitations as a prose stylist:
'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.'
That is bad writing at its baddest.
One of the strangest book finds of my life was of a Bulwer-Lytton. For reasons of research, I needed (or fancied I needed) one of his more obscure titles, Lucretia. This was back in the days before the internet, let alone AbeBooks or Gutenberg, and it proved impossible to track Lucretia down. Then, on a summer walk in rural Suffolk, I was passing a cottage when I noticed that a few tatty old books had been scattered on a small trestle outside, like so many unwanted vegetables, for anyone who cared to take them away. One of these volumes was a sturdily bound, if mouldering, copy of Lucretia. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial.
Naturally I took it away, then made the mistake of trying to read it. Twice I took a run at the opening chapter, but twice I was obliged to pull up halfway through. Bulwer-Lytton's prose is of such peerless unreadability that the reader feels like one lost in a steamy jungle, hacking away with a machete in the fading hope of stumbling upon a clearing. And yet this man was one of the top-selling authors of his day. It goes to show how, for the most part, the bestsellers of every age become unreadable to later generations (a heartening thought as one scans the bestseller shelves in W.H. Smith). Truly, the past is another country; they read differently there.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bob and Christine, Sitting in a Tree...

Christine LaGarde, the permatanned head of the International Monetary Fund, has, I am told, a powerful erotic effect on certain susceptible men. One such would appear to be Robert Peston, who yesterday was in such a lather after meeting her that he had even more difficulty than usual in getting his words out  (and that's saying something). I'm afraid it was all over for Christine and me when I spotted this in Private Eye a while back. It's an image I'm quite unable to shake - it might even cool Peston's ardour...

In the Garden with T.E. Brown

At last the weather has relented, the sun is out, the air is warm, and last night I was able to enjoy that supreme expression of the suburban idyll - sitting out in the garden in the cool of the evening as dusk comes on, watching the wheeling swifts and enjoying the song of the blackbirds. The swifts have finally taken possession of the skies again, after a long hesitant period when they must have been wondering if they'd overshot and ended up somewhere near the Arctic Circle - and the blackbirds were in fine full-throated voice. How we'd treasure the blackbird's song - and indeed the beauty of the bird - if it was more of a rarity, like the nightingale, instead of a familiar of every garden... At some point in these garden evenings, one of us - I or Mrs N - is always liable to come out with the line, 'O blackbird, what a boy you are! How you do go it!' A regular presence in older editions of the ODQ, it comes from a poem called Vespers by T.E. Brown, the 'Manx national poet':

'O blackbird, what a boy you are!
How you do go it!
Blowing your bugle to that one sweet star -
How you do blow it!
And does she hear you, blackbird boy, so far?
or is it wasted breath?
'Good Lord! she is so bright
The blackbird saith.'

More of an exclamation than a poem perhaps, Vespers has a certain robust charm - at least it avoids the vapid lyricism of many Victorian apostrophes to our feathered friends. Despite his status as Manx national poet, Brown, a considerable scholar, spent most of his working life as a much-loved master at Clifton College, before retiring back to his island home. He died on a return visit to Clifton, having just mounted the podium to address the boys. T.E. is also responsible for this effusion, titled My Garden:

'A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot--
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not--
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
'Tis very sure God walks in mine.'

Hmm. The first line of this can also be rendered as 'A garden is a lovesome thing? God! What?!'  

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Olympian Glimmers

Some glimmers of heartening news from the Nazi torch relay, as it makes its tortuous way from Cornwall, to widespread spectator disappointment. Firstly, the 'eternal flame' is periodically going out (owing to a 'malfunctioning burner' - who'd have known?), providing a little comic business along the way. And then there's the glorious news that several of the torchbearers have been so overwhelmed with the 'honour' bestowed on them that they've coughed up the 200 sovs to buy their torches and whacked them straight onto eBay at prices up to £100,000. This surely is a sign that, even as this once proud nation bends to the IOC yoke, we have not entirely taken leave of our senses.

Dabbler alert...

Over There, I'm celebrating the silvery Wandle.

Monday, 21 May 2012

When Paradigms Collide...

One news story over the weekend that really made me laugh was this. It's the juxtaposition that does it - 'Go to anger management classes or get shot.' A wondrous collision of worlds is  evidenced here - the world where 'therapy' (i.e. counselling) is the solution to every problem, and the world where shooting out someone's knees is deemed equally effective. When even the kneecappers are invoking anger management as a viable alternative to their traditional methods, Therapy has surely conquered the world. 'You appear to have issues around managing your anger and we would advise you to seek professional help in addressing them. Or we'll blow your knees off. In a caring, non-angry, non-judgmental way, of course.'

Friday, 18 May 2012

Botanising on the Asphalt

Talking of flaneurs, I've just finished reading the chapter titled Paris, or Botanising on the Asphalt in Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She's good on Paris, and this chapter takes us through the transformations of the city - 'now a landscape, now a room' - and its immense walking possibilities (now curtailed by car domination) by way of the obscure Restif de la Bretonne, the more familiar Buadelaire and pals, the Surrealists, Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, and on to such faintly absurd figures as Christophe Bailly with his talk of  'une grammaire generative des jambes' (please!). And through it all strolls the archetypal but elusive flaneur...
It's one of the better chapters in a patchy book that tends to veer into academic waffle, journalese and right-on political attitudes. I bought it because it practically threw itself at me. Spotting it in Foyles at St Pancras, I turned it over in my hands and thought Hmm this looks interesting... but I didn't buy it. Then, a week or two later, there it was again, in dubious company on a shelf in my local Oxfam. Clearly, this time, I had to buy it... When Solnit settles down and gets immersed in her subject (as with Paris, as with Wordsworth and the romantics), she can be very good, but there are whole areas of walking that she barely touches, e.g. the strange history of pedestrianism, the epic walks of medieval travellers, walking 'fugues'. Iain Sinclair's reflections on walking in London Orbital and elsewhere are more rewarding (and better written). However, Wanderlust  is full enough of nuggets of information and choice quotations to keep me reading. For example, there's Hazlitt on Wordsworth: 'He sees nothing but himself and the Universe.' And Dickens on his compulsive walking: 'If I couldn't walk fast and far, I should explode and perish.' I know the feeling, though I have seldom walked as fast or as far as Dickens, who had the happy knack of falling into a kind of waking slumber while his legs carried him along through the night at a steady four miles an hour - which, for a man of his height, is fast indeed.
The picture, by the way, is R.B. Kitaj's The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin). The phrase 'now a landscape, now a room' is Benjamin's.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Utility of the Flaneur

Yesterday evening, I was strolling through the expensive back streets of Kensington in the direction of the underground railway when I noticed, on the other side of the road, a small boy - a very small boy - blithely scooting his scooter across the road at a T junction. Fortunately there was no traffic and I assumed anyway that a parent or nanny was close at hand and had given the go-ahead. But no. I looked around and was alarmed to discover that there was no one in view who had anything to do with this child. He was probably three years old - barely taller than his scooter's handlebar - and apparently quite on his own. I watched in mounting alarm as he scooted on to the next junction, apparently with every intention of crossing it. By this time, happily, I'd caught his eye and mouthed and gestured at him to halt, which he did. Still no sign of anyone in charge of him - and the amazing thing was that no one else had noticed this tiny boy on his own. A young woman passed within a foot of him but was too absorbed in her mobile phone and whatever was coming out of her earphones to see him, or anything. Two businessmen passed by, talking and equally oblivious. Another woman appeared and scurried off around the corner having noticed nothing. By this point I was beginning to think I'd have to go over and take charge of the boy myself, and no doubt get arrested for my pains - but then I spotted a sensible motherly looking woman coming my way (equally unaware of her surroundings). I roused her from her reverie, and together we crossed to the small boy. He gave his name and told us that he lived 'here', but was keener to talk about his 'skateboard' (i.e. scooter). At this point, the story turns anticlimactic, because at last a woman - presumably his mother - hoved into view, approaching at an unconcerned saunter. I exchanged a roll of the eyes with the sensible woman, thanked her for her help, and went on my way.
You can say what you like about us flaneurs, I thought to myself as I flaned along, but we seem to be the only ones on the street in these days of electronically enhanced self-absorption who are actually looking around us and noticing what's there.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

At Last - A Quiz about Sandwiches...

As lunchtime approaches, my mind naturally turns to sandwiches. Tragically, I did rather badly in this quiz - a mere 3 out of 7. And me something of an authority on sandwiches - or so I thought...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

1816 Again?

Mid-May and, after the weekend's teasing taste of something sunnier, Mai, Lieber Mai has swept back in with heavy rain and Arctic winds, driving me back into my winter coat and scarf. Yes, mid-May - the season evoked in the Ode to a Nightingale with images of  'White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover'd 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.'
Could we be in for a repeat of the Year without a Summer? This was 1816, when Europe and North America suffered incessant rain, cold and crop failures. In the West of England, it rained on 142 out of 153 days, there was snow in the Lake District in July, London's average 'summer' temperature was 13 degrees C, and soaring food prices led to riots. The principal cause of all this seems to have been the eruption of Mount Tambura on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, and the airborne ash from this event produced unusually spectacular sunsets - which are said to have inspired some of Turner's most striking images. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the holidaying Shelleys and their friends, driven indoors by the relentless rain, competed to write the most frightening story, and the result was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As for Keats - newly qualified as an apothecary - he spent the summer with his brother Tom in Margate (also a favourite resort of Turner's).
There have been no volcanic eruptions to account for the cold wet summer we're having now, so I guess we'll just have to put it down to global warming.


over on the Dabbler I salute the genius of Fred Astaire.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Preaching on the Platform

Yesterday's sunshine had me heading for the Surrey Hills (where butterflies were sadly few - I might have missed the Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper this year, thanks to the vile April-May weather). On the station platform as I waited for my train, I noticed an unhappy-looking middle-aged man wearing a windcheater and clutching a Bible, from which he was reading to the two men within earshot, with exhortations of his own thrown in at intervals. The gist seemed to be that we are all bound for Hell unless we resist the snares and wiles of Satan. Those of us not actively on the Lord's side are doing the Devil's work and it's a poor lookout all round. His audience was not receptive to this harsh eschatology, alternating between studiously ignoring him and asking him to pipe down. Undeterred, he pressed on with what was clearly to him an urgent mission...
As I got on the train, I assumed that that would be the last I saw of him - but no. At the end of my walk, there he was again on the station platform, as I waited for the train to take me home. He did not look as if he'd been enjoying a ramble in the Surrey Hills, but rather was still about the Lord's work, addressing a young woman with a trail bike, who was proving unreceptive. I walked to the far end of the platform and admired the view.
Whenever I come across one of these freelance street preachers, I think of the poet Christopher Smart (remembered today chiefly for his cat Jeoffry), whose religious mania led him to exhort passers-by to fall to their knees and pray. Smart was overwhelmed by his sense of the love of God - surely the best form of religious 'mania' to have - and was for a while confined in an asylum. Samuel Johnson was touchingly sympathetic: “I do not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.” Indeed.

Friday, 11 May 2012


The area of part-cleared woodland turned over so vigorously by the first of the Holland Park pigs is a glorious sight at this time of year, a tribute to their wonder-working snouts. Queen Anne lace, campion, alkanet, Jack-by-the-hedge and St John's wort are all abundantly in flower, with (still) drifts of bluebells, not to mention green nettles and goosegrass... This lunchtime, for a wonder, the sun was briefly out, and the pig-made flower meadow was quite startlingly beautiful, the greens very bright and green indeed after a month of rain, setting off the colours of the flowers to perfection - and the sun, brief though it was, brought out the butterflies. Whites small and Large (the latter, surprisingly, my first of the year) were flapping around, Holly Blues darting busily about, a Speckled Wood basking in a sunny patch, and bright Orange Tips exploring the possibilities of the meadow. After such a dismal April, it was a joy to see them again. Let's hope there's more sun on the way.

Wicked Men

I wasn't paying much attention - it was Thought for the Day after all - but on the radio this morning that glum Scotsman called 'John Bell of the Iona Community' airily lumped together terrorist leaders, paedophile gangs and those of us who have our doubts about Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change (CACC). This seemed a little harsh, but then, as I say, it was Thought for the Day, so I don't suppose anyone noticed. He was lumping these strange bedfellows together as examples of distinctively male-dominated fields of heinous activity - paedophilia, terrorism, climate change scepticism... I can't imagine why: in my experience, both sides of the CACC debate are overwhelmingly male, as strident debates tend to be, women having more sense and better things to do. As far as I've noticed among the people I know, there's no particular tendency in either direction among men or women.
Anyway, on the way to the station this morning, a small nondescript bird that I'm sure must have been a Cetti's Warbler was warbling away merrily from an elder bush. Probably a sign of climate change.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A Little Immortality

Yesterday I caught an episode of Neil MacGregor's excellent Radio 4 series Shakespeare's Restless World. It focused on the plague outbreak of May 1603 - the worst to hit London since the Black Death. If Shakespeare had died in that epidemic, we would surely be living in a different world - one without Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest (to name only the highlights). But Shakespeare also survived a major outbreak of plague in 1592. Had he died then, we would know him only as the author of Henry VI, perhaps the Comedy of Errors, Richard III, Venus and Adonis - little more than a footnote in the history of English literature... And then I heard the news of Maurice Sendak's death, which (rightly) got extensive coverage on radio and TV. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis was very much on Where the Wild Things Are. What if - heaven forbid - Sendak had died before he wrote Wild Things (not to mention In the Night Kitchen, Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Outside Over There)? Well, he wouldn't be such a giant figure, but he would surely have been remembered for those little masterpieces The Nutshell Library (Alligators All Around, One Was Johnny, Pierre and - my favourite - the lovely Chicken Soup with Rice). And, by that early stage of his career, Sendak had already written The Sign on Rosie's Door, and illustrated, beautifully, the Little Bear books of Else Holmelund Minarik. Enough there, surely, to achieve a little immortality.

La Tristesse de Clegg

Why does Nick 'Capability' Clegg always look so sad? Even at yesterday's touching ceremony in which he renewed his vows with Squire Cameron, he looked as if he was about to burst into tears, Is he nursing a secret sorrow, or just trying to give the impression of un homme serieux and man of destiny, rather than Cameron's 'favourite political joke'? This ridiculously entertaining website (which had me chuckling at length) has come up with an ever increasing range of inspired explanations for Clegg's enduring tristesse. Enjoy... The other mystery about Clegg is that he can't wear a suit - he always looks like a schoolboy in his first suit, bought off the peg from the 50 shilling tailor. Suits never hang right on Cleggy - perhaps it's all those concealed pockets stuffed with his latest plans for Squire Cameron's park?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

'Dear Friend...'

I got back to work this morning to find a message from Allah in my inbox - which doesn't happen every day.
Allah addresses me as 'Dear Friend' and goes on: 'Your email was suggested as someone  who may have heard of God (Allah) [yes, the name does ring a bell] and it was suggested I reach out to you, personally. I am God Allah and looking to people for purposes previously explained by the church or mosque, i.e. The Resurrection. If you'd like to help get something started, email Me [I like that upper-case M] back. Emergency Message, Allah'.
Allah supplies two email addresses: and - and a PO Box number in San Mateo, California.
Call me Mr Infidel, but I don't feel inclined to respond...
Meanwhile, over on the Dabbler, I ponder Kingsleys.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Robert Browning, 200 Years Old

Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Browning, an occasion doomed to be all but unnoticed in the blaze of celebration surrounding 2012's other literary bicentennial boy, 'the Inimitable', Charles Dickens. I suppose Browning was never popular in the way Dickens was, despite a clutch of well loved poems - and with the passage of time, he has become more of a writers' writer, enjoyed by a discerning few. The sheer volume of his output, and the length of many of his best poems, is in itself off-putting, but he's worth the effort - at least the poetry of his prime is, and in particular the great dramatic monologues. This was a form he more or less invented, and he brought it to a high pitch of perfection. Here is one of the best, in which the Florentine painter Fra Lippo Lippi (that's a self-portrait - probably - above) is caught in an embarrassing position and, after talking himself out of trouble, launches into a wide-ranging, supple, vividly worded meditation on Life and Art, God and the nature of Beauty. It's long, but hurl yourself in and keep going - reading it, as with so much of Browning at his best, is a bracing, cheering and enriching experience...
'If you get simple beauty and naught else,
You get about the best that God invents.'

Sunday, 6 May 2012

My Thoughts on the New England Manager

There's a heading I never thought would appear on this blog. And I must confess that when the dazed, owlish features of Roy Hodgson, England's new football manager, first swam into my ken, I thought Ah here we go again - a home-grown dunce to lead 'the lads' through their latest cycle of well-merited humiliation - and went back to sleep. Since then, however, I have learnt that Hodgson is a cultivated polyglot, widely read in European and English literature - the kind of man who knows and loves Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, and whose favourite books include Josef Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls. And this cultivation is not the product of a university education but of endless curiosity about the world and all that's in it (precisely the kind of curiosity that a university 'education' can kill). None of this will make any difference to the inevitable failure of his England management career - the overpaid, undertalented primadonnas of the Worst Team in the World will continue to lose - but at least Hodgson (unlike almost anyone else in English top-flight football) will have some perspective, and a rich cultural hinterland to fall back on. And he is confirmed in my personal pantheon of Sporting Heroes by another Hodgson fact I've just found out: back in the mid-Seventies, he played full back for Carshalton Athletic (my local team, if I had one). On the team's fan forum, one follower recalls that 'Roy took near-post corners that occasionally worked but were very frustrating when they didn't'. That sound like excellent preparation for his new job.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Sleep Writing

I do a lot of verbal composition in my sleep (we'd noticed - Ed.). On a bad night, this involves an endless round of rewriting and an ever more labyrinthine pursuit of an ever escaping subject - exhausting and frustrating, like far too much of my dream life. However, on rare occasions, I wake with something finished (though not necessarily making any sense). It happened today, when I awoke with this new-minted clerihew about a revered children's writer:
'Michael Morpurgo
Was born under Virgo,
Which might well explain
Why he's so very vain.'
This puts me in mind of the time Dorothy Parker awoke thinking she'd had a profound insight into the human condition and jotted down the lines, 'Hogamus higamus, men are polygamous. Higamus hogamus, women monogamous.'
My clerihew is nonsense of course - Morpurgo is not a Virgo.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Mai, Lieber Mai

As this grim May continues cold, grey, dank and cheerless, here's a little reminder of what this time of year ought to be like, as evoked in sound in this charming little piece by Schumann. In my piano playing boyhood, I used to be able to manage this one, albeit at a rather slower pace (and with a lighter touch).

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

First Swifts

Yesterday - May Day - evening, I was cheered to see my first swifts of the year. One was just a glimpse, from the train as I neared my station, but the second was a proper sighting - a solitary swift circling busily over the houses at the end of my road. Last year's first swift was several days later, though the weather was far more inviting. It seems that even this cold wet April hasn't put off these most welcome of visitors - and, despite appearances, summer is truly on its way.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Geoffrey Hill, Laureate of Rain

With rain continuing to lash much of the country, my mind turned to the poetry of rain - and thereby to Geoffrey Hill. Our Greatest Living Poet is a veritable laureate of rain. Rain is his res, his thing; no one writes better about English rain in its various moods, its coming and going, its effects on light and leaf and landscape. Skimming through the Selected Works, I compiled this mini-anthology of Hill on Rain, some poetical succour for these drenched days...

'But leave it now, leave it; as you left
a washed-out day at Stourport or the Lickey,
improvised rainhats mulch for papier-mache,
and the chips floating.
Leave it now, leave it; give it over
to that all-gathering general English light,
in which each separate bead
of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands
as revelation.'
[From The Triumph of Love, which begins and ends with the glorious line 'Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp']

 'Memory worsening - let it go as rain
 streams on half-visible clatter of the wind
                lapsing and rising,
 that clouds the pond's green mistletoe of spawn,
 seeps among nettle-beds and rust-brown sorrel,
 perpetual ivy burrowed by weak light...'

'First day of the first week: rain
on perennial ground cover, a sheen
like oil of verdure where the rock shows through;
dark ochre patched more dark, with stubborn glaze;
rough soggy drystone clinging to the fell,
broken by hawthorns...'
[from Speech! Speech!]

 'Two nights' and three days' rain, with the Hodder
 well up, over its alder roots; tumblings
 of shaly late storm light; the despised
 ragwort, luminous, standing out,
 stereoscopically, across twenty yards,
 on the farther bank. The congregants
 of air and water, of swift reflection,
 vanish between the brightness and shadow...'
 [from The Orchards of Syon]

 'Sage-green through olive to oxidised copper,
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossom comes off in handfuls; the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.
Every few minutes the drizzle shakes itself like a dog...'
 In Ipsley Church Lane, 2]

 'For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
 admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
 stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light...'

 'When to depict rain - heavy rain - it stands
in dense verticals diagonally lashed,
chalk-white yet with the chalk translucent;
the roadway sprouts a thousand flowerets,
storm-paddies instantly reaped, replenished,
and again cut down:
the holding burden of a wistaria,
drape amid drape, the sodden
copia of all things flashing and drying:
first here after the storm these butterflies
fixed on each jinking run,
probing, priming, then leaping back,
a babble of silent tongues;
and the flint church also choiring
into dazzle...' [Broken Hierarchies]

 There - feels better already, doesn't it?

Annals of the Parish!

Radio 4's Book at Bedtime has done it again. I've remarked before on BatB's habit of occasionally punctuating its dreary succession of emotionally (and politically) correct contemporary novels with a quite bizarre blast from the past. A while back, it was (of all things) The Ingoldsby Legends. This time, it's the equally improbably Annals of the Parish by John Galt. This quietly humorous chronicle of small-town Scottish life was published in 1821 and much praised by, among others, Coleridge. The story is told in the words of the minister, Rev Micah Balwhidder, and gets off to a lively start when he arrives as the new incumbent and finds himself locked out of his own kirk and obliged to climb in through a window. I shall certainly be listening to this with more interest - and less exasperation - than to most of what turns up on Book at Bedtime. Like The Ingoldsby Legends, Annals of the Parish is one of those books that was once very popular and is now unread, living out a long afterlife on the shelves of charity bookshops. It can only be a matter of time before Radio 4 selects The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table for our bedtime listening pleasure... Meanwhile, over on The Dabbler, I reread J.L Carr's A Month in the Country.