Tuesday, 31 July 2012


The word is that the swifts are leaving early this year, which is sad news. The departure of these magnificent birds always brings home the passing of summer - high summer, which this year was all but non-existent; indeed the swifts, wheeling and sickling through the air undeterred, were one of the few signs that it was indeed summer, despite all indications to the contrary.
 The swifts were very lively over my road on Friday evening, circling and screaming and feeding up - and then, the following morning, not a swift in sight, and only a couple to be seen, later, from the train window. On Sunday - a wonderful surprise - a dozen or so were circling lazily over the garden, and yesterday perhaps half that number. This evening there were only two stragglers - but I saw half a dozen from the train on the way home. Perhaps there will be a few more days before these mysterious beautiful birds fly off. Here's hoping...

Monday, 30 July 2012

Book Reviewing the J.L. Carr Way

Born on this day in 1898 was the celebrated sculptor Henry Moore, whose large outdoor bronzes seem these days irresistible to metal thieves. He was educated at Castleford Secondary School, where the headmaster - a remarkable and eccentric man - recognised and encouraged his talent. And where, some years later, our old friend J.L. Carr was sent, as a fee-paying day boy, by his despairing parents - and it was the making of him. The head, Thomas Robert Dawes, impressed and influenced him as few, if any, men did - whereas, by contrast, Dawes's most famous pupil, the 'Greatest Living Englishman' Henry Moore, cut no ice with Carr, who took a dim view of the sculptor's works.
  Seizing his moment, Carr in 1986 wrote what Byron Rogers (in The Last Englishman) calls ' the most extraordinary book review I have ever read'. Ostensibly reviewing for The Spectator the volume titled Henry Moore: My ideas, inspiration and life as an artist, Carr devoted his entire piece to praising Moore's headmaster, Dawes - who is not once mentioned in the book. The review ends, 'It may be a sign of the times that this extraordinary man passionately urging resistance to believing only what one is taught to believe, repeating what one has been taught to say, doing what we are expected to do, living like clockwork dolls, should be unrecognised, half-forgotten. And unmentioned.' Indeed. Job done, and Henry Moore put firmly in his place - at least, in Carr's entirely unique scheme of things.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder

It was the poor old Queen I felt sorry for - obliged to participate in that puerile James Bond stunt, then sit through yet another dreary pop concert and an endless parade of grinning athletes. You could see she wasn't really enjoying it, not the way she enjoyed the Jubilee flotilla - or Epsom, come to that. She must have been thinking wistfully back to the 1948 Olympics, and wondering where it all went wrong...
  As for the content, such as it was, of Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony spectacular, this came across (to me at least) as little more than a sentimental, politically correct primary school History lesson - appropriately enough for a Games whose logo was clearly the product of a primary school design project. Yes, the Boyle extravaganza was bold, brash, bizarre, bonkers, and a truly astonishing technical achievement. But to me it all had a weirdly post-apocalyptic feel, as if the survivors of some great collapse had come across a machine whose levers they could press to make it work - but they no longer knew what it was for, what it meant. It seemed the expression of an absence, a loss - but executed in the most extravagantly triumphant and positive terms. Very very strange...
  But never mind all that. This morning, as I was walking through the subway that links the platforms at my railway station (where, as throughout London, most of the staff are wearing nasty purple-pink jerkins to remind us that the IOC's in charge for the duration), I spotted at head height on the tiled wall what seemed to be a pair of dead leaves, perhaps snagged in a bit of spider's web. But no, it was a resting Poplar Hawk moth, like the one in the picture - a bit more faded, and a little ragged, but still beautiful.  Life, in all its random wonder, goes on.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Taking Flight

The story of the 11-year-old boy who took off and flew to Rome, without ticket, boarding pass or passport, reminded me of the time my own son, at a similar age - hats off to him - took a day trip to France with a friend, similarly sans tickets, boarding passes or passports. They took the train to Dover (ticketless), boarded the ferry without difficulty, enjoyed the crossing, disembarked at Calais for a restorative dish of moules frites (and no doubt a few beers), boarded a return ferry and arrived back in Blighty without any impediment - and without their parents having a clue what had been going on; they had a perfectly conceived cover story, and we only found out some while after the event that any of this had occurred.
There are two lessons to be learned here: one, don't ever kid yourself you know what your children are up to - you don't, though they might possibly tell you about some of it long after the event. And two, no system can be said to be secure until it's been tested against the ingenuity, determination and sheer nerve of an 11-year-old boy.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Small World 2

The last book I read before starting The Last Englishman (see below, Small World) was Willa Cather's great and beautiful novel of the opening up of the American prairie, My Antonia. Surely nothing could be farther from the provincial English world of J.L.Carr... could it?
  Well, The Last Englishman is a biography full of surprises, and one of them is that, in the late 1930s, Carr found himself teaching in the small prairie town of Huron, South Dakota, a place giving a pretty convincing impression of the Middle of Nowhere. Once there, Carr amazed the locals by taking an interest in their history, and from his researches put together a book of their memories succinctly titled The Old Timers: A Social History of the way of life of the homesteading pioneers in the Prairie States during the first few years of settlement, as shown by a typical community, the 'Old Timers', of Beadle County in South Dakota. Written in Huron, South Dakota, by J.L. Carr of Kettering, the United Kingdom, as a service to the people of the Prairie States and to perpetuate such history from generation to generation. He completed the book on a return visit in the 1950s, and ran off 50 copies on a duplicator. It is now an extreme rarity, with just one known copy, in the Pierrepoint Morgan Library in New York.
  'In it,' Rogers writes, 'the pioneers spoke of a time just sixty years before... Some could remember huts built of earth clods and one of them a cave... And some spoke from a time even before this. An old lady remembered the prairie grass in 1882, when this, in an empty land - the Sioux and Dakota having moved, or been hounded, on - was as tall as a man on horseback.' This is, precisely, the world of My Antonia, suddenly opening up into the world of a displaced English schoolteacher. 'Carr... came on three graves beside a dirt road, one to John P. Dixon, 1883-1903, and a second to James Dixon, 1854-1895. On the third grave, that of a child, there was no name. After one great blizzard, he was told, the dead had to be put in water barrels to thaw and lose their rigidity before they could be put in coffins.'
  Carr recorded tales of prairie fires and tornadoes, and 'a Scotsman called Nielson, driven mad by lawyers and the loss of a long court case, [who] shot four people dead in 'Section 11 of Valley Two'... then begged his wife to kill him, and when she refused, killed himself. Six men from Huron rode out to his homestead with the intention of hanging his corpse, but were informed by a neighbour that if they so much as laid a finger on him, they would ride back to town at least one man short.'
  When Carr left Huron, he found himself developing 'a violent nostalgia for those long miles of faded grass' - but by then he was off on another journey - around the world. That journey, Rogers notes, makes him probably the only late 20th-century English novelist to have circumnavigated the globe without once taking to the air. As I said, this is a book - and a life - full of surprises. I fancy there will be more.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Modern Spem

Thomas Tallis's glorious 40-part motet Spem In Alium, performed by the Tallis Scholars, is currently riding high in the classical charts, especially the iTunes chart. Good news? Well yes - certainly for the estimable Tallis Scholars - but this success is not the result of a sudden surge of interest in Tudor polyphony but of the all-consuming success of the 'erotic novel' Fifty Shades of Grey. This, I understand, is an account of a 'submissive' relationship, bound by (among other things) elaborately-drafted contracts, between an utterly wet young woman and a creepy, megarich control freak and all-round arse called Mr Grey. One of Mr G's controlling mechanisms is a clunky display of his genius-level grasp of High Culture. His very first gift to his young victim is a first edition (natch) of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and his discourse is punctuated with improving mini-lectures on a variety of educational subjects - how could any woman resist (hem hem)? As for Spem In Alium, I gather from a reader's online commentary that Mr Grey puts it to 'a VERY interesting use' towards the end of the novel - don't ask, I didn't...

Tube Reading

Sitting opposite me on the Tube this morning was a young woman intently reading a book whose title I couldn't make out. She was reading with furrowed brow and intense, almost anguished concentration. What dark, knotty text was the poor woman wrestling with, I wondered? As I got off the train, I glanced across and saw what it was - The Diary of a Nobody! I guess some people just don't see the funny side... Meanwhile, over on The Dabbler, I'm writing about a man who most definitely did see the funny side.

Monday, 23 July 2012


Yesterday's sunshine - summer sunshine, the real thing, at last! - had me heading as soon as I could for the nearest place I know where White Admirals and Silverwashed Fritillaries might be flying. But would they, or would this dreadful butterfly year have another disappointment up its sleeve? No, happily, it was not long until the first Silverwashed Frit came swooping down impressively to let me know who was in charge in this neck of the woods. Soon afterwards a White Admiral glided down, in a friendlier and more relaxed spirit, landed at my feet and spread its wings briefly before taking off and sailing elegantly away into the trees. There were to be many more, of both Admirals and Frits - a glorious beautiful glut after such meagre times - with the Fritillaries in the end outnumbering the White Admirals.
But the high point of it all was when a Silverwashed Fritillary of the beautiful variant form called Valezina flew down to entertain me - well, that is how it seemed, as if she (this form is invariably female) was there to entertain and instruct me. Unlike all the others I had seen, she settled repeatedly at close quarters, letting me enjoy the muted beauty of her wings, with their greenish metallic sheen and unexpected blue and pink tints. I'd seen Valezinas before but never appreciated quite how subtly beautiful they are. And at one point she flew up to inspect me even more closely than I was inspecting her, coming within an antenna's breadth of settling on me...
My father, in his butterfly-collecting boyhood, once netted a Valezina, thought it was an old Silver-Washed that had lost its coloration, and discarded it - good news for one Valezina, but a 'D'Oh!' moment for one butterfly-obsessed boy. He never forgot it... The great butterfly man F.W. Frohawk, whose coloured drawings of all the life stages of our butterflies have never been bettered, was so enamoured of Valezina that he named his third daughter after her. In 1996, fifty years after her father's death, Valezina, then Viscountess Bolingbroke, unveiled a commemorative sign in the New Forest marking the 'Frohawk Ride', a haunt of the Silverwashed Fritillary in both its forms. To mark the occasion, a Valezina was released from a box. She circled once, flew down, and settled for some minutes on her human namesake.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Small World

Well, I'll be... There I was this morning, enjoying Frank Key's Dabbler post on the Muggletonians - and there I was, a little later in the day, reading Byron Rogers' The Last Englishman: The Life of J.L. Carr, when I came across this:
'When I called to interview him for the Telegraph magazine, Mr Carr talked about Ludowicke Muggleton, an industrious local nutter and the only man to be given the job description heresiarch by the Dictionary of National Biography. In the seventeenth century Muggleton held that the sun went round the earth and that heaven was a room six miles up in the sky, where women became men as soon as they entered. This, according to Jim Carr, accounted for the number of his female converts. The last Muggletonian was still alive, he volunteered, though when he came to write his last novel, he said the man had died in Chichester in 1943. He urged me to find him, for we all had to make a living, he said...'
Rogers continues: 'After lunch there was the statutory guided tour of 27 Mill Dale Road [Carr's home in Kettering], meaning I was shown the back bedroom from which I was allowed to view the garden. He told me he opened this to the public on one day a year, which I found astonishing, as the garden seemed to consist entirely of undergrowth out of which small stone totems appeared and into which paths disappeared. But I did not have much time to look, for the tour of the back bedroom was under way. This was the size of a large larder and housed, he told me, his accounts department, his editorial offices and acted as his warehouse...'
I've only just started The Last Englishman, but already I have laughed aloud several times. This doesn't often happen with a biography. I think I'm going to enjoy this one...

Thursday, 19 July 2012


'Huge spam botnet is taken down,' said the headline on the BBC News website. Do you sometimes get the feeling you live on an alien planet?

In Hope

A rare taste of something convincingly like sunshine and warmth this morning had me looking about me with renewed hope as I strolled to the station. When something smallish and brownish fluttered up from the Traveller's Joy beside the path, my heart leapt, as it looked very like being my first Gatekeeper of the year. However, when it settled on a leaf, I realised the markings were wrong - not nearly enough tawny orange on the wings, not enough in the way of beady little eyes around the margins. No, it was an undersized Meadow Brown - one of the few species to be seen at all regularly over recent weeks, along with gratifying numbers of those dark beauties, the Ringlets. I think conditions have been so harsh this dreadful summer that they're stunting the growth of many of our butterflies. In fact, that might explain why I seem to have seen so few Large Whites, relative to Small Whites - perhaps some of those Smalls are in fact undersized Larges. It's a funny old butterfly year.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Inactivity: The Way Forward

So now we know - there's a 'pandemic of inactivity' sweeping the globe, and it's 'as deadly as smoking'. Well, quite. Clearly Something Will Have to Be Done about it. Here's how we could make a start...
  Inactivity must be banned in all enclosed public spaces. All cinemas, theatres, churches, meeting halls and workplaces must replace all seating with individual treadmills to stamp out inactivity. Basic seating can be provided in exposed outdoor spots for those unable to curb their craving for inactivity.
  Meanwhile, all advertising for armchairs and three-piece suites should be banned, and all armchairs sold should carry a prominent warning, 'Sitting Kills', in the form of a fixed antimacassar.
  These are just a couple of ideas by way of making a start - clearly much more will have to be done to end, once and for all, the deadly scourge of inactivity, thereby enabling millions more people to live long enough to find themselves obliged to sell their house to fund many more years of sitting around in a care home... Wait a minute - isn't that inactivity? Something Will Have to Be Done...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Over on The Dabbler...

I celebrate Geoffrey Hill's life-long love affair with rain.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Rain, Runoff, Poppies and Ginger

In Herefordshire the effects of this summer's relentless rain have been terrible, with flash floods in Ross-on-Wye and elsewhere, landslips, and spectacular runoff from all those fields of soft red earth. Back roads are covered with silt and water pours down from the hedgebanks, even when it's not actually raining. The weather means that, unfortunately, the farmers are spraying their fields more than ever, as most of each spraying gets washed away by the latest downpour - so that runoff must be pretty unhealthy stuff... However, the upside of that particular losing battle of farmer vs rain is that many more poppies than usual have survived the sprays and have flourished quite spectacularly this year - an effect which was gloriously noticeable in Norfolk the weekend before last.
And talking of upsides, today is Ginger Rogers' birthday - she'd be 101 today, had she lived (and who knows, she might have done if she hadn't been a Christian Scientist). Here's the incomparable Ginger in action - and showing off those legs - in a number that would surely lift anyone's spirits, however sodden (and look out for Eric Blore).

Sunday, 15 July 2012


Where is this, do you think? Somewhere in Italy? France? No, it's in Herefordshire, and I was there at the weekend, church crawling again among its bosomy hills and fertile wooded valleys. The church is St Catherine's, Hoarwithy, the work of the archtitect and designer J.P. Seddon, under whom Voysey trained. The picture shows the cloister that runs along the south wall of St Catherine's, which sits on a hill above the village of Hoarwithy, its Italianate campanile rising above a plain basilica-plan church (in local stone) that reveals itself gradually as you climb the sloping path to it. I must admit that at first glance the belltower didn't inspire a lot of confidence, and I was half expecting a heavy-handed Victorian pastiche - but at the first sight of that cloister I realised I was in for something very special. And so it proved; the interior is quite as extraordinary as the cloister, with its breathtaking Byzantine-Italian East end making beautiful use of coloured marbles, and a glittering mosaic of Christ Pantocrator over all. The hanging lamps are copied from ones in St Mark's, Venice, the choir stalls are carved with scenes from the life of a local saint, Dubricius, and at the apex of the West window is an Angel of Doom by Morris and Burn-Jones, a glorious blaze of red, blue and gold.
 As if this altogether extraordinary - not to say unique - church was not enough, there was more to come, notably the great Arts and Crafts church of All Saints at Brockhampton... But that's enough churches for now - and don't worry, I shan't be going church crawling again next weekend. That's Brockhampton below, and it really has to be visited - no photographs, especially of the interior, really do it justice. Incredibly, a replica of Brockhampton church has been built on the 21st floor of a building in Osaka, Japan, where it's a very popular wedding venue. Funny old world.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Over there...

On The Dabbler, there's my review of The Book of Ebenezer LePage. Oddly enough, I'm off this very weekend to see the old friend who originally recommended it to me.


The Grandson has a name - Sam! Or in full Samuel.
This is a very fine name indeed and, in addition to all his natural advantages, young Sam has the best literary antecedents in Sam Johnson and Sam Beckett, not to mention Dr Seuss's Sam I Am - and Dickens's Sam Weller...
When Sam Weller made his debut in chapter 10 of the Pickwick Papers, he caused a sensation, transforming a serial publication that had till then been selling steadily into a bestseller on an unprecedented scale, with pirated editions and all manner of unauthorised Sam Weller spin-offs proliferating. Here is Sam in full flow in his first speech of any length, warning Mr Pickwick against marriage licence touts:
'My father, Sir, wos a coachman. A widower he wos, and fat enough for anything--uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies, and leaves him four hundred pound. Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt--very smart--top boots on --nosegay in his button-hole--broad-brimmed tile--green shawl --quite the gen'l'm'n. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money--up comes the touter, touches his hat--"Licence, Sir, licence?"--"What's that?" says my father.-- "Licence, Sir," says he.--"What licence?" says my father.-- "Marriage licence," says the touter.--"Dash my veskit," says my father, "I never thought o' that."--"I think you wants one, Sir," says the touter. My father pulls up, and thinks a bit--"No," says he, "damme, I'm too old, b'sides, I'm a many sizes too large," says he.--"Not a bit on it, Sir," says the touter.--"Think not?" says my father.--"I'm sure not," says he; "we married a gen'l'm'n twice your size, last Monday."--"Did you, though?" said my father.--"To be sure, we did," says the touter, "you're a babby to him--this way, sir--this way!"--and sure enough my father walks arter him, like a tame monkey behind a horgan, into a little back office, vere a teller sat among dirty papers, and tin boxes, making believe he was busy. "Pray take a seat, vile I makes out the affidavit, Sir," says the lawyer.--"Thank'ee, Sir," says my father, and down he sat, and stared with all his eyes, and his mouth vide open, at the names on the boxes. "What's your name, Sir," says the lawyer.--"Tony Weller," says my father.--"Parish?" says the lawyer. "Belle Savage," says my father; for he stopped there wen he drove up, and he know'd nothing about parishes, he didn't.--"And what's the lady's name?" says the lawyer. My father was struck all of a heap. "Blessed if I know," says he.-- "Not know!" says the lawyer.--"No more nor you do," says my father; "can't I put that in arterwards?"--"Impossible!" says the lawyer.--"Wery well," says my father, after he'd thought a moment, "put down Mrs. Clarke."--"What Clarke?" says the lawyer, dipping his pen in the ink.--"Susan Clarke, Markis o' Granby, Dorking," says my father; "she'll have me, if I ask. I des-say--I never said nothing to her, but she'll have me, I know." The licence was made out, and she DID have him, and what's more she's got him now; and I never had any of the four hundred pound, worse luck. Beg your pardon, sir,' said Sam, when he had concluded, 'but wen I gets on this here grievance, I runs on like a new barrow with the wheel greased.' Having said which, and having paused for an instant to see whether he was wanted for anything more, Sam left the room.'
Sam's father, Tony, becomes a great comic character in his own right, full of wise advice for his 'Samivel'. His marriage comes under strain when Mrs Weller falls under the spell of the Rev. Stiggins of the Brick Lane Temperance Association, whom Tony eventually exposes as a flagrant hypocrite. Here are Mr Weller Sr's rueful words on the subject of matrimony, in which he employs the turn of phrase ('as the .... said when he ...') that become known as a 'Wellerism':
'When you're a married man, Samivel, you'll understand a good many things as you don't understand now; but whether it's worth while going through so much to learn so little, as the charity-boy said when he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter o' taste.'
I shall try very hard never to call the grandson 'Samivel'.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Buddleia: Weed of Concern

This is the time of year when the Buddleia (correctly, believe it or not - Buddleja, as ruled in 2006 by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) is coming into full bloom. The sight of that glorious abundance of purple (or lilac or white) flowers on every patch of waste land, beside every railway line, in woods and hedges and gardens - and indeed pretty much anywhere, even high up on buildings - reflexively gladdens the heart of the butterfly fancier. Those nectar-rich blooms are famously attractive to butterflies, not to mention bees and moths - but in this terrible summer the Buddleias are not likely to be having many callers. If not born to blush unseen, they will, I fear, be wasting their sweetness on the desert air...
Buddleia is, according to one of many websites advising on its 'control', 'now undergoing a reputation reconstruction' (not with me, it isn't), as it becomes increasingly notorious for its invasive properties. Like many an imported plant, once it has got over the garden wall it has gone, well, wild, even 'rampant'. Originating on the scree slopes of Tibet and mountainous China, Buddleia found itself perfectly at home on thin-soiled waste ground, roadsides and, in particular, railway verges - where, conveniently, the breezes generated by passing trains spread its millions of seeds along the tracks and up into the air, to lodge wherever there was a foothold. The railway companies fight a never-ending, always-losing battle against Buddleia, and every year it comes out on top. If ever the railways are abandoned and left to nature, they will become one great network of Buddleia highways in no time... In New Zealand, where Buddleia is classified as a 'weed of concern', they're trying biological control with Chinese weevils. Let's hope that doesn't go wrong and they end up with 'weevils of concern'

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

God: The Latest

Just to keep everyone in the loop - and to spread the good news - I've had another email from God, or, as He now styles himself, God Allah.
God is now based in San Mateo, California, from where He announces 'His Official Millennium Arrival and The Resurrection'.
His statement continues: 'I am pleased to update you on My Successful Arrival. I am seeking sponsors, e.g. businesses, organizations, communities, etc. to further the cause of The Resurrection. I want the world to know I love you and am here amongst you. I thank you for your prayers and issue My Press most expediently. I believe although this is an emergency, I advise you to stay calm, pray and welcome Me unto you so I may help you.'
So there you are - keep calm and carry on. Oh, and dig deep for The Cause...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Hosepipes and Lords

Much rejoicing down my way at the news that, surveying the drowned world around them and the rain-black skies above, our local water company has finally withdrawn its hosepipe ban. We were going to have a garden party to celebrate, but it was rained off.
However, there was no restraining the outbreaks of spontaneous celebration when the news came through that the government is taking steps to reform the House of Lords. People poured from their houses, dancing and hugging each other in the street, pensioners joining hands with teenagers in sheer joy - at last, the government is listening to the people and heeding their incessant clamour for reform of the second chamber. At last they are doing something about a situation that has been choking the life out of this once-great nation, etc, etc...
(Actually, speaking for myself, I'm all for Lords reform - I'd pack the place with hereditaries. The proposed reforms - which involve large numbers of party deadbeats 'elected' for 15-year terms - look to me like another example of fetishising Democracy as an end in itself. Democracy is pretty meaningless without accountability and the institutions to sustain it, as recent events in the Middle East - not to mention the post-colonial history of most of Africa - demonstrate all too clearly.)

Monday, 9 July 2012

Also in Norfolk...

Wandering in the grounds of Blickling House, we kept coming across signposts mysteriously pointing the way to something called a 'Sitooterie'. What could this be? Perhaps some Dutch garden landscape feature? 'Maybe' I quipped, 'it's a place to sit oot in.' How we roared... Picture our amazement, then, when the Sitooterie turned out to be precisely that. It seems (to judge from a quick Google search) that these Sitooteries are all the rage. The Blickling one is excitedly described here. I have to say that in reality it is decidedly underwhelming.

Doubled Angels

Well, I've seen a thing or two this weekend - of which perhaps the most breathtakingly beautiful was this - the angel roof of Cawston church in Norfolk. I've always been a sucker for an angel roof, but this one, with its doubled angels, standing on the hammerbeams and lining the cornices, is, I think, the loveliest I've ever seen. As well as its amazing roof, Cawston also has a rood screen of rare beauty - there's more about it all here - so visiting this church for the first time was quite an experience. And then there was Salle, and South Creake... Yes, I've been church crawling - and dodging torrential rain and enjoying brief sun, and eating and drinking very well, and enjoying the birdlife and the occasional Ringlet and Meadow Brown - with Bryan (lately one of the principal ornaments of the blogscape). We also spent a good deal of time comparing ailments, bemoaning the general state of things, and staring into the middle distance in companionable silence. That's what old friends are for. Peter Porter wrote a fine, grief-infused poem about another great angel roof (in Suffolk), where the serene angels fly in line, wings outspread, along the ridge beam of the nave...

Thursday, 5 July 2012

More Boson

The trouble with the Higgs Boson discovery - if that is what it is - is that, as someone on the radio this morning put it, rather eloquently, it completes a building that has no windows. That is to say, if it does indeed confirm and complete the Standard Model of the Universe, there may be nowhere left to go without stepping outside that model altogether - which, if it is indeed true, cannot (by definition) be done. Stephen Hawking was surely right to say, having hailed the breakthrough, 'It is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics came from results we didn't expect.' Well, quite. And as the Standard Model apparently has nothing to say about the 96 percent of the Universe's matter that we cannot apprehend, let alone comprehend, this doesn't seem a very satisfactory state of affairs. Is it time, I wonder, for a paradigm shift? Not that I'm volunteering...

Joyous news

You'll have to excuse me if I'm a little distracted today. Earlier this morning, I had the joyous news from New Zealand that our daughter has given birth to a fine big baby boy (8lb 8oz). All is well, and she sounded very very happy, as are all of us. Ich bin ein Grandpapa!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Is It the Boson?

So, the Higgs Boson, the (ridiculously)  so-called 'God particle', has been discovered - or has it? Reading this, I can't say I'm much the wiser, but it does put me in mind of the closing lines of The Hunting of the Snark...

'“It’s a Snark!” was the sound that first came to their ears,
   And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
 Then the ominous words “It’s a Boo-”

Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
 A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like “-jum!” but the others declare
 It was only a breeze that went by.

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
 Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
 Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
 In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away —
 For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.'

Suzanne Lenglen: Tennis As She Was Played

With Wimbledon in full swing, let's take a look back at one of tennis's greatest stars - the glamorous, exuberant French player Suzanne Lenglen, who died on this day in 1938, aged just 39. She died of pernicious anaemia, having been diagnosed with leukaemia and lost her sight shortly before her death - the culmination of a lifetime dogged by illnesses, everything from jaundice to whooping cough to chronic asthma. And yet, through it all, she dominated her game as no woman had before, and brought women's tennis firmly out of the shadows.
 Her dominance of Wimbledon, in particular, was complete: she won the women's singles title every year from 1919 to 1925, except 1924 when ill health forced her to withdraw. (To put this in perspective, the next Frenchwoman to win Wimbledon was Amelie Mauresmo, 81 years later, in 2006.) And it wasn't only her brilliant play that attracted attention - her style of dress, with bare forearms and calves, was considered decidedly 'fast', as was her endearing habit of taking sips of cognac between sets. Lenglen seemed certain to win her seventh Wimbledon title when, owing to a misunderstanding, she kept Queen Mary waiting in the Royal Box for her appearance. When she realised her mistake, Lenglen fainted clean away, and withdrew from the tournament. Ah those different times...
 Happily some footage of La Langlen survives, including this not entirely satisfactory account of her great match against the young American Helen Wills at Cannes in 1926. More interesting perhaps is this little film, How I Play Tennis, which not only illustrates her technique but also shows the almost balletic grace and elegance with which she played. Though she was no great beauty off-court, in play Lenglen was clearly something else, something exhilarating and really rather beautiful.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Dabbler Alert

I see I've popped up on The Dabbler again.

Armless Fun

With the unspeakbly grim English non-summer rolling on into another month, it's time to lift the spirits with a bit of harmless fun...
On Radio 4's 'antidote to panel games' the other day, there was a round in which the teams were invited to come up with song titles from which one letter had been dropped, thereby changing everything - e.g. Boiled Bee and Carrots, My Grandfather's Cock, Bras in Pocket, etc. Surely this could profitably (profitably?) be extended to the titles of novels.
Thus we could have Henry James's Portrait of a Lad (not to mention The Golden Owl). Or Proust's In Search of Lost Tim (illus. Edward Ardizzone). Edith Wharton spraying the jokes around with The Hose of Mirth. Then there's Ford Madox Ford's invaluable handbook The Good Solder (aka The Saddest Tory). Graham Greene's entertaining Travels with My Ant. And of course Philip Roth's touching profile of Britain's leading Richard Madeley impersonator, The Human Stan...
Now I must take my medication and have a lie down. Over to you - there must be many more...

Monday, 2 July 2012

One for Mr Piper

Also on the Kentish walk was this fine ruin of a church - St Mary, Eastwell. It was largely demolished in the Fifties after the nave roof fell in, probably as a result of tank manoeuvres in the adjacent landscaped park. What remains has the kind of striking romantic beauty that would surely have had John Piper setting up his easel, had he happened to pass this way.
Piper, he of the dark dramatic washes and turbid skies, once painted some characteristic views of Windsor Castle, which George VI looked over and remarked amiably: 'You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.'
Anyway, St Mary, Eastwell, is a Piper crying out to be painted. Some enterprising computer type should develop an app to Piperise your photographs, turning your snapshot of a country church into something along these lines. It would liven up those holiday snaps no end...

Sunday, 1 July 2012

From Painted Faith to Millennium Mural

And then there was the Kentish walk. This was a fine ten-mile church crawl around the Stour Valley, between the North Downs and Ashford, and the walk was bookended with suites of wall paintings that could hardly have been more different.
 The medieval paintings in the chancel at St Mary's church, Brook (left) are still impressive, though little more than a shadow of their 13th-century multicoloured glory, a remnant of a lost world of painted faith.
 Having begun at Brook, the walk ended at the isolated church of St Cosmas and St Damian at Challock. Here, amazingly, are three sets of 20th-century wall paintings. In the 1950s, in response to the loss of the church's stained-glass windows to wartime bomb damage, two art students, Rosemary Aldridge and Doreen Lister, painted the north chapel with cheery, vapid rural scenes and episodes from the lives of Cosmas and Damian, and a couple of years later the up-and-coming John Ward was invited to paint the chancel with scenes from the life of Jesus. On display in the church at present is a letter in which he fondly remembers how, with his friend and fellow artist Gordon Davies, he enjoyed the summer painting at the remote church, sleeping in the sexton's hut and relying on the nearby farmhouse for supplies (shades of J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country).
 Then, in 1999, Ward was invited to paint a Millennium mural on the north wall of the nave, facing the door. This depicts Christ - looking rather like a gaucho in his wide-brimmed hat - riding casually into, er, Challock. As with the gospel scenes in the chancel, the action is set in the local landscape, with the villagers looking on, participating, or going about their business. The overall effect of these 20th-century murals - there are some images here - is agreeable enough, but to compare them with the medieval paintings at Brook is to realise just how world-changingly far the Sea of Faith had receded in the course of the intervening centuries. For good and ill.

What I Did on My Holidays, by Nige

Up in Derbyshire the other day, I was strolling with my cousin when the subject of R.S. Thomas came up, and I related (hazily) what happened when the craggy poet met the undulating Liz Taylor ('And have you tried plaice?'). Now, back home after my too short Derbyshire sojourn, I find my original post on that bizarre encounter reissued in The Dabbler. There's a nice piece of synchronicity.
   High point of my latest visit to God's Own County (no protests from Yorkshiremen, please) was a walk along Lathkill Dale in glorious unexpected afternoon sun. The dale is one of the most variously beautiful of them all, with grand hanging woods, riverside lawns and slopes of flower-rich pasture. After much hopeful scanning of the sunlit pastures, we spotted numerous lively Common Blues, a single Large Skipper on a grasshead, and a tattered and faded Dingy Skipper (increasing by three my meagre species tally).
  And of course I had a look around the Best Bookshop in the World (aka The Bookshop, in Wirksworth), where, after a slow start, I found Stefan Zweig's novella Chess, Auden's For The Time Being (with The Sea and the Mirror), Iain Sinclair's booklet on the Millennium Dome, Sorry Meniscus - and The Last Englishman: The Life of J.L. Carr by Byron Rogers, the same Byron Rogers quoted in When R.S. Thomas Met Liz Taylor. Synchronicity again.
  The morning after that sunny afternoon in Lathkill Dale came the headline-making electric storms that swept the North and, to a lesser extent, the East Midlands. Lesser but quite enough, thank you. We revisited the fine permanent display of Joseph Wright's paintings in the Derby County Art Gallery. That's a Joseph Wright above - his charming alfresco portrait of The Hon. Brooke Boothby (which lives at Tate Britain) - not, in case you were wondering, me on my holidays. You wouldn't catch me with a volume of Rousseau.