Friday, 28 September 2012


Tomorrow morning, if all goes to plan, Mrs Nige and I will be boarding the Eurostar and heading, ultimately, for the city of Tours. We shall be there for a few days. Au revoir, mes amis...

A Tip from Thomas Woolner

Palgrave's Golden Treasury is probably the most famous poetry anthology of them all (unless it's the rather less widely read Greek Anthology) and is certainly the best to have come out of the Victorian age; it's still - after many revisions and updates - a very handy book to have around. The man who compiled it, Francis Turner Palgrave - born on this day in 1824 - was one of those Victorians who seemed to have the energy to live several parallel lives (as poet, critic, educator, civil servant and committee man) and who knew everybody who was anybody. He was a close friend of Tennyson, and an even closer friend of the sculptor and poet Thomas Woolner, with whom he shared a house (though Woolner, it should be pointed out, was a robustly heterosexual married man and father of six). The rather fey engraving on the original Golden Treasury title page is from a drawing by Woolner. An interesting figure with a forceful, by all accounts rather 'rough' personality, Woolner was, despite his strongly classical leanings, a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - the only sculptor among them - and his temporary emigration to Australia in 1852 inspired Ford Madox Brown's doomy painting The Last of England. Like Palgrave, Woolner too was a friend of Tennyson, and provided him with the scenario for the great narrative poem Enoch Arden. But it was his friendship with Darwin that bore the strangest fruit, when the two men discussed the formation of the ear of Woolner's sculptured Puck. Darwin identified this particular formation as an atavistic feature and gave it the name of the 'Woolnerian tip'. It is now known, more prosaically, as Darwin's tubercle - and my daughter and I both have a rather more attractive version of it. We call it our 'pixie ear'.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Drugs! Live!

I caught a bit of of Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, Channel 4's much-hyped 'experiment' with MDMA, on TV last night. What a rum do - it was like stepping back into the Sixties, when recreational drugs were 'new' and this kind of thing was always going on. I kept expecting to see Malcolm Muggeridge any minute,  or that nice Michael Ramsay,  Archbishop of Canterbury.
The difference this time was that drugs are no longer 'new' and exciting (least of all Ecstasy) - but neuroscience is. That's why these unfortunate guinea pigs were undergoing their Ecstasy experiences in the confines of an MRI scanner - it's a wonder none of them went round the bend. The aim was, of course, to see what was going on in their brains as the drug got to work, though I'm not sure what this was supposed to tell the white-coated neuroscientists, or the notorious Prof David Nutt, who was one of two Profs sitting in elevated seats. Nutt was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie - a look that only works on Andy Sipowicz - and sweating rather a lot. There was talk of finding potential medical uses for MDMA, perhaps in treating depression - a funny way to go about doing the research, in a TV studio, but there you go...
And one of the volunteers taking the drug was none other than Lionel Shriver, author of one of the worst novels I have ever attempted to read (We Need to Talk about Kevin). She came across as rather sweet, in a slightly nerdy kind of way, putting me in mind of Sheldon's girlfriend Amy in Big Bang Theory. I warmed to her... But I felt my time would be better spent sleeping than watching any more of this stuff. I went to bed.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Strange Case of Max Ehrmann

Born on this day in 1872 was the American writer and attorney Max Ehrmann, one of those cases - like Joseph Blanco White - of a writer remembered for just one work. Or rather, in Ehrmann's case, forgotten, for the one work is usually described as having been 'found in Old St Paul's Church, Baltimore' and dating back to the church's foundation in 1692.
  Yes, it's the notorious Desiderata, as featured on countless posters, voiced by one Les Crane in a cringe-makingly cheesy spoken word recording that was a big hit in 1972 - and indeed recited by Leonard Nimoy in his legendary album Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr Spock's Music from Outer Space. It was only after all this had happened that authorship of Desiderata was finally asserted and the family of the long dead Max Ehrmann received some royalties.
  How had the confusion come about? Simply because Desiderata had been published in an anthology compiled in 1959 by the rector of St Paul's, Baltimore - an anthology that made much of the date of the church's foundation, 1692. Then, in 1965, Desiderata had been found by the bedside of Adlai Stevenson after his death - and he'd apparently been planning to use it in his Christmas cards. From there it a short step to the mass circulation of Desiderata as an inspirational prose poem discovered in an old (by American standards) church in Baltimore.
  Reading Desiderata again - and putting out of my mind the ghastly spoken word recordings and the calligraphic posters - what strikes me is how much sound wisdom there is in it. Yes, it's corny and hokey, it strains after the vatic tone (how did anyone convince themselves this was written in the 17th century?) and it seems at least partly tailored to the spiritual needs of a small-town American businessman - but pick the bones out of it and the message is pretty sound, isn't it? Just try not to hear Les Crane in your head when you read it...

'Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.'

Many versions of Desiderata swap 'Be cheerful' for 'Be careful', perhaps under the impression that 'Be cheerful' is restated in 'Strive to be happy'. But to be cheerful and to be happy are of course very different things.

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 3.

The sparrows are back! At least, they were this morning. I looked blearily out of the window at the dripping garden, and there was a fine male House Sparrow availing himself of the bird feeder with typical passerine gusto. A little later I looked out again and there were two on the feeder, and more waiting in the wings and fighting for access - maybe a party of half a dozen. This is surely a hopeful sign. I've been surprised how much I've missed the sparrows since they mysteriously disappeared - it felt like a real loss, a diminution of life's everyday richness. I hope that now they're back for good - I shall top up the feeders, scatter birdseed and breadcrumbs, and do all I can to make the garden a desirable neighbourhood for the discerning sparrow.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Chestertons and Humberts

I wouldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure there is only one case of an estate agent fathering a giant of English letters. Edward Chesterton, father of Gilbert Keith (G.K.), was that estate agent. He worked for the family firm, which was still trading until very recently as Chestertons. Now, I notice, it is Chesterton Humberts, a name that keeps the literary associations alive, not only via Nabokov's Humbert Humbert but by way of the oddly named Humbert Wolfe, a hugely popular poet in his day (the 1920s). His volume Requiem sold in such prodigious quantities that it is still a fixture on the shelves of charity and second-hand bookshops up and down the land. In a lighter moment, Humbert Wolfe wrote these still sadly apposite lines:
'You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
  thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
  unbribed, there's no occasion to.'
Chesterton couldn't have put it better himself.

Monday, 24 September 2012


It's always good to come across a new word, especially if it has some music in it, and depths of meaning. Today I happened upon 'quillet', which was a new one on me. Its earliest meaning is the obvious one of a small quill or something similarly tubular, but it then took off on a parallel course, Latin-derived, to mean a verbal nicety, a fine distinction, a quibble, apparently from 'quiddity' via 'quillity'. There it is in Love's Labour's Lost - 'Some tricks, some quillets, how to cheat the devil'. But from before Shakespeare's time comes the meaning of a narrow field or strip of land, the sense in which the word is still used in the West Country, especially Cornwall. There, the little sheltered fields of flowers - Cornish violets, pinks, daffodils, anemones, often grown commercially - still go by the name of quillets. This is somehow good to know. Or perhaps it's just me...

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Martins in the Rain

Trudging home from the shops this morning through steady hard rain, I looked up at the sky to see if there was any prospect of a break - there wasn't. But there were familiar shapes gliding merrily through the air up there, with the odd flutter of the wingtips and frequent looping detours. It was the house martins again - just like last year, but on a smaller scale. I saw perhaps three dozen passing over, which might have been the tail end of a larger flypast, I suppose. Oddly, they were heading roughly northeast, but this might have been to get ahead of the weather front before turning south and west... Whatever they were up to, they lifted the spirits of one sodden onlooker beneath.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Chuck Jones: Paper and Pencils

As a boy, I was forever drawing - and forever running out of paper to draw on and pencils to draw with. My brother and I were largely dependant on small bundles of scrap paper brought home by my father from that mysterious place 'The Office'. These sheets we would often divide with horizontal lines and do our drawings as a series of friezes - more pictures to the page. This chronic paper shortage has left me with a mild case of stationery fetishism (a surprisingly common condition) and a paralysing reluctance to waste good paper by actually drawing on it. The great animator Chuck Jones - whose centenary it is is today (and who is also celebrated here) - had no such problem in his boyhood, rather the reverse. His father was a businessman who was forever setting up new businesses, only to see them fail. Each time, he would buy huge quantities of stationery and pencils bearing the company name ('Acme' I hope) and, when the inevitable happened, he would hand these over to his children, urging them to use them up as fast as possible, no doubt to erase his painful memories. Thus Jones and his siblings grew up drawing at a furious rate and in great quantity, with the result that several of them went on to artistic careers of one sort or another. When Chuck was at art school, a professor told his class that each of them had 100,000 bad drawings in them, which they must get out of the way before they could possibly draw anything worthwhile. Chuck was much relieved, as he calculated that he must already be well past the 200,000 mark.

The Hardest Word

I know the whole world has seen this already, but I pass it on because (a) it's funny, and (b) it was made by the son of an old friend. He will go far, I think...

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Bad Land

Earlier this year I read Willa Cather's great novel of prairie life My Antonia - and was amazed, a little later, to discover a crossover with the life and work of the quintessentially English J.L. Carr. All is explained here...
Shortly after, someone recommended that, if I was interested in the settlement of the prairie (and who would not be after reading My Antonia?), I should try Jonathan Raban's Bad Land. I'm sorry to say that I can't recall - and seem to have no record - who that recommender was, but I now send heartfelt thanks their way. I've just finished Bad Land, and it is a wonderful book. Mixing history with reportage, travelogue, reconstruction and personal narrative, Raban tells the story of the homesteaders who came to settle on the all but unpopulated prairies of Montana in the teens of the 20th century. Encouraged by government incentives, the blandishments of the railway companies and the spurious science of 'dry farming', they came out in high hopes, and the weather gods initially smiled on their endeavours with a rare succession of rainy years. Lulled into a false sense of security, the homesteaders began to spend and borrow and expand - and then, in the Twenties, normal weather resumed, farming became all but impossible, homesteads were abandoned and the disillusioned settlers trekked west in search of work and water...
Raban tells the story through the histories of individual families, whose later members are his guides around the abandoned lands and into their still recent ancestral past (Raban's book dates to 1996). He also focuses on such remarkable characters as the pioneering photographer Evelyn Cameron (a shame my paperback edition had no illustrations, but there's plenty of Cameron's work online). As he returns to the present, Raban also traces the ominous lines from the great 'betrayal' of the homesteaders to their 'bad-blood descendants', the paranoid survivalists, the militias and bombers.
Bad Land is an impressive feat of vivid and hugely readable storytelling, infused with affection and respect for the people whose story it is. Though himself irredeemably urban and liberal, Raban is clearly stirred and moved by the land and the people he encounters and by their extraordinary history. He does them proud.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

'as a roaring lion...'

'Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith...'
  These stern words popped into my head unbidden the other day. They are from the evening Office of Compline, which begins 'The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end' - I'd remembered that too. Why? These fragmentary memories are certainly not the product of a lifetime's churchgoing or a lifetime's private devotion, but of a lifetime's listening to the radio. I grew up in a time when Compline was broadcast regularly (even daily?) on the radio - quite early in the evening at one time, I think (I seem to remember listening as a child), and latterly a little before midnight. It was still in the Radio 4 schedules in the early Nineties. Another age.
  Similarly, my mind is awash with fragments of hymns (often all but complete versions) that I know only from years of school assemblies, and passages and phrases from the Bible (King James version) that again I know mostly from school and from some private reading, rather than from church attendance. Previous generations had heads very much fuller of the Bible and of sacred songs that mine ever was, and succeeding generations will have less and less, until - quite soon now, I fancy - there will only be the biblical phrases that have embedded themselves most completely in the language, and perhaps a few well-worn hymns and carols. This cannot be good for the language - can it? 

20 Per Cent More Creative

On the Today programme this morning, Jon Humphrys interviewed the new BBC Director General, one George Entwistle - the latest deeply uninspiring DG, this one apparently given the top job as a reward for presiding over the Jubilee River Pageant omnishambles; such are the ways of the BBC. His declared aim is an increase of 10 to 20 percent in 'creativity'. Now, Humphrys fired a few well-aimed (and well-merited) potshots Entwistle's way, but at no point did he ask the obvious question. What does he mean by 'creativity', and how would he know when he had achieved his 20 per cent increase in it? I ask because I genuinely have no idea. Does he simply mean productivity - i.e. creating more programmes? Or more programmes of a kind labelled 'creative', so that, say, turning out more dire dramas and crass sitcoms would tick the box? Does he mean being creative in coming up with new ideas or smarter ways of using resources? Creative accounting? I've no idea. Presumably he and the other grandes fromages at the BBC know what they mean, but I wish Humphrys had at some point asked him.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ivy When Wrong

On this day in 1643 was born Gilbert Burnet, the eminent divine and church historian who, among many other accomplishments, rose to be Bishop of Salisbury. In my own limited mental world, which seldom extends far into 17th-century church history, he features only as the man who achieved the wellnigh miraculous deathbed conversion of the wicked John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester - and as the supposed illustrious ancestor of Ivy Compton Burnett. The ineffable Ivy [search in the box above for more of her] asserted, and very probably believed, that the good Bishop was an ancestor, and in the Kensington mansion flat where for many years she lived and reigned, a portrait of Gilbert Burnet held pride of place. This dubious lineage was, however, destined to be one of the many elements of the ICB myth put paid to by Hilary Spurling in her brilliant biography, Ivy When Young. There was not, in point of historical fact, the slightest chance of any family connection between Ivy and the illustrious Bishop.
  However, there is another trail that links Gilbert Burnet to English literature. His daughter Elizabeth married the distinguished lawyer Richard West, and their son, also Richard, was the friend - and much more - of the poet Thomas Gray. He is the subject of one of the most heartbreaking - or rather heartbroken - poems in the language, Gray's Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West -

'In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And redd'ning Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join;
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire:
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require:
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men:
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain:
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more, because I weep in vain.'

The story of Gray's doomed love for West is beautifully told in David Cecil's Two Quiet Lives, which I recommend.

Monday, 17 September 2012

A Very Good Picture

Strolling about among the Dutch paintings in the National Gallery yesterday, I came across this one - which is not Dutch at all, but is, it seems to me, an absolute gem of a picture, It's by Chardin and titled La Fontaine (The Water Cistern).
The Dutch influence is apparent enough. It's a quiet domestic interior, a simple scene in which a routine task is under way. As with the great Dutch painters, the real 'subject' is the fall of light across domestic space and surfaces. The picture captures an ordinary moment in time and imbues it with a quality of profound stillness and mystery. It's one of those paintings that invites the eye to linger and roam, checking out foreground and background, dark and light, the way the various materials - copper, wood, stone, textiles, skin - respond to the fall of light. So far, so Dutch - but what sets La Fontaine apart is the wonderfully assured loose brushwork in Chardin's painting of the maidservant's cap and blouse. Sadly it doesn't really show up in reproduction, but it makes the whole picture sing - and marks it as something very special, and distinct from its Dutch companions.
Next time you find yourself in the National Gallery, seek it out - it's in Room 27.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Strange Fate of a Very Bad Picture

This evening on BBC1 a new series of Fake Or Fortune? begins. This has its irritating features - especially for those of us who belong to the tiny proportion of viewers who are not fans of Fiona Bruce (who presents this as well as the great Antiques Roadshow) - but it's always watchable. It follows the fate of works of art that have been written off as fakes but might just be 'sleepers', i.e. the real thing. The story that's told in this evening's show was presented as a news item on Friday's Ten O'Clock News (presenter Fiona Bruce) - and on the BBC News website - giving away the outcome and thereby robbing the programme of all tension.
  Me, I watched this edition of Fake Or Fortune? some days ago, not knowing the outcome, and it left me with my jaw hanging some way down my chest. It seemed a painfully vivid example of the terminal insanity of the art market. A very bad picture - ugly composition, clumsy execution - had somehow spent many happy years as a 'Degas'; then someone had taken a closer look and declared that nothing that bad could really be a Degas and it had been officially declassified. The value of the very bad picture thereby plummeted to almost nothing.
  Enter Fake Or Fortune?, its team of experts and its TV budget, to investigate further, with the clear aim of getting the very bad picture reclassified as a 'Degas'. Not a chance, thought I, once we'd been show just how bad the picture was - but I was reckoning without the combined power of Provenance and Forensics. The experts seemed to establish rock-solid provenance, then proved there was nothing 'wrong' with the forensics. Their findings were presented to the keepers of the Degas catalogue - and, amazingly, they changed their minds. Provenance and forensics have trumped connoisseurship - the evidence of the eye - and the very bad picture is once again worth hundreds of thousands.
  But it's still a very bad picture - if it's a Degas, it's barely even a sketch and he surely wouldn't have signed it (the signature also looked dodgy to the connoisseurs, but what do they know?). As I say, I was totally aghast at this outcome - but I suppose that's what the art market is like these days. A mad world. You can see the programme at 6.30 this evening - judge for yourself.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 2

There are more breweries in the UK now than at any time since the Last Spot of Bother - surely a reason to be cheerful, especially for those of us who began our drinking lives in the dark days before the Real Ale revival. I was fortunate, as I did most of my early drinking in Young's and Fuller's territory - good independent brewers who managed to stay in business and buck the trend for fizzed-up keg pseudo-beers. In the big brewers' extensive domain, nothing resembling real ale could be found (on draught anyway), and beer drinkers had to make do with the likes of Watney's Red Barrel - and, when it was party time, the notorious Party Seven, a monstrous seven-pint can that had to be attacked with hammer and chisel and was guaranteed to spray the kitchen ceiling with vile gaseous liquid. Happy days...
  Not many things have improved in my lifetime, it seems to me, but here is one that undoubtedly has. It is now almost routine to walk into a pub and find four or more real ales lined up at the pumps, half of which you've probably never heard of. And - another change for the better - chances are you'll be able to get something decent to eat (and, if you're in that kind of mood, decent coffee). And yet pubs are closing at an alarming rate - and that is definitely not a reason to be cheerful. Why is it? When pubs were really bad, they thrived - now they're so much better, they're going out of business. Surely that doesn't add up. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


A wonderfully anodyne Thought for the Day on Radio 4 this morning. I didn't catch who it was - let's just call him the Rev J.C. Flannel. Anyway, he was keen to lash his Thought  to the recent victory of the Scots slugger Andy Murray in the US Open. His theme, then, was persistence - the kind of persistence and dogged determination that Andy had shown in fighting his way through all setbacks to secure his final triumph. Various biblical injunctions to persist and keep going were cited, along with scriptural examples of persistence, endurance and determination. At no point, it seems, did it cross the Rev's mind that there might be some rather important differences between persistence in faith, in doing good to others, in trying to live the good life, in enduring suffering in a good cause - and persistence in whacking a tennis ball about with the sole aim of personal gratification and fame, and to no one's benefit but the ball whacker himself. Only on Thought for the Day. And, no doubt, in a fair few Anglican pulpits this coming Sunday.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Jeans: 'like a great thought'

Born on this day in 1877 was the physicist, astronomer, mathematician and thinker about science James Hopwood Jeans. The name is very familiar to me from a plaque on what remains of a rather grand and elegant house in Westhumble, the village at the foot of Box Hill, where Sir James (as he was by then) lived for some years with his second wife, the organist and musicologist Suzanne Hock (34 years his junior). The house was bequeathed by Lady Jeans to the Royal School of Church Music, but when the college moved out the whole complex was controversially remodelled into an upmarket housing development - very nice of its kind, but most definitely not what Lady Jeans had envisaged...
  Anyway, back to Jeans. I was very struck by some remarks of his, dating back to the 1930s, that seem to me wise and prescient: 'The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.' As the philosophers would put it, mind might be the phenomenon, matter an epiphenomenon. This is from a book aptly called The Mysterious Universe.
  Jeans also likens the universe to a work of art, a painting: 'Travelling as far back in time as we can brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility.'
  This kind of thinking I find very attractive, not least because it comes so much closer to the way it feels to be a living being in the world than more mechanistic models of the universe do. And, essentially, it lets the mystery be.

The Lawson Question

The progressive mindset strikes again. Last night, in a moment of inattention, I found myself listening to Radio 4's Front Row, where Mark Lawson - radio's answer to Will Gompertz - was talking to a critic about the new Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain, the one that stresses the radicalism of the movement. Poor Mark was genuinely bewildered - How, he inquired plaintively, can a movement that looks back to the past be described as radical? Well, er, wasn't looking back to the past exactly what Victorian radicalism did - from Pugin's radical medievalism to the civilising fantasies of Ruskin and Carlyle (not to mention Wm Morris)? Even the giants of modernist literature - Eliot, Pound, Joyce - had their faces firmly set to the past. Picasso too, come to that, and Stravinsky... For art to be truly new - modern, if you like - it must always be deeply steeped in what went before. It was only in dead end movements like Futurism and, more widely, in architecture that a serious effort was made to uproot an art from its past - and little good came of that... Remember, the true progressivism is retroprogressivism - Back to the Future! Forward to the Past!

Monday, 10 September 2012


The sparrows have gone. From the garden, and from the whole road - just like that. The cheery company of House Sparrows, whose clamour was such a familiar sound of the morning, and who swept in on my garden in frequent raiding parties, jostling for places on the feeders and emptying them in no time - suddenly they're gone.
  The first sign was that the feeders were staying full much longer. Maybe the sparrows have just changed their routines, I thought, found better feeders down the road. But then I realised I wasn't hearing them or seeing them in the garden, and that there was no sign or sound of them anywhere on the road. Only a few weeks ago they were thriving as only sparrows thrive, a loud and lively feature of the street.
  What can have happened? I have no idea, but it must have been something fairly catastrophic to cause such a sudden disappearance, especially as there was not even any sign of decline. Perhaps they'll be back. I do hope so. It's too quiet without them, and a lot duller.
  Anthony Hecht's poem House Sparrows, about the sparrows of Long Island, beautifully captures the essence of these birds and their powerful appeal (and, until very recently, strong connection) to us humans:

'Not of the wealthy, Coral Gables class
Of travellers, nor that rarified tax bracket,
These birds weathered the brutal, wind-chill facts
Under our eaves, nesting in withered grass,
Wormless but hopeful, and now their voice enacts
Forsythian spring with primavernal racket.

Their colour is the elderly, moleskin grey
Of doggedness, of mist, magnolia bark.
Salt of the earth, they are; the common clay;
Meek emigres come over on the Ark
In steerage from the Old Country of the Drowned
To settle down along Long Island Sound.

Flatbush, Weehawken, our brownstone tenements,
Wherever the local idiom is Cheep.
Savers of string, meticulous and mild,
They are given to nervous flight, the troubled sleep
Of those who remember terrible events,
The wide-eyed, anxious haste of the exiled.

Like all the poor, their safety lies in numbers
And hardihood and anonymity
In a world of dripping browns and umbers.
They have inherited the lower sky,
Their Lake of Constants, their blue modality
That they are borne upon and battered by.

 Those little shin-bones, hollow at the core,
Emaciate finger-joints, those fleshless wrists,
Wrapped in a wrinkled, loose, rice-paper skin,
As though the harvests of Earth had never been,
Where have we seen such frailty before?
In pictures of Biafra and Auschwitz.

Yet here they are, these chipper stratoliners,
Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace
Of cheerfulness, who seem to greet all comers
With the wild confidence of Forty-Niners,
And, to the lively honour of their race,
Rude canticles of "Summers", "Summers", "Summers".

That startling image in the penultimate stanza catches something of the alien quality of birds. Much though we come to love them, it is for their plumage, their songs, their expressions and habits - not for what shows of them in their legs and feet, reminders that they are, at the level of anatomy, a kind of pared-down pocket dinosaur.

Friday, 7 September 2012

On the Other Hand...

I noticed that the old slogan 'Forward not back' (a Labour favourite in the Blair days) was being bandied about on a grand scale at the Democrats' shindig in Charlotte. Naturally, as a dyed-in-the wool reactionary, I flinch from this kind of thing, but does anybody - even in progressive circles - take such a notion seriously? If it means anything (which is debatable), its message must rest on an unspoken presumption that going forward is a good in itself, forward is always into the light, 'things can only get better', etc. But what sane person would not rather go back from here 100 years, to a world that knew nothing of the industrialised slaughter of two world wars, the murderous oppression of communism and fascism, the Holocaust, 9/11, etc, etc? Going forward from 1912 was really not such a brilliant deal, was it? That progressive ideas are still alive and apparently flourishing after the unfolding horrors of the 20th century never ceases to amaze me. Maybe we're just natural born optimists.

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 1.

This is intended as the first of an occasional series devoted to little things I come across that lift my spirits and send me on my way with a smile on my face. Spread the joy, that's what I say...

On my way to the station this morning, I was just coming to the T junction at the end of my road when I heard a woman singing merrily. It was a young mother, pushing a buggy with her little girl in it (aged about three, I'd guess), and singing, with full voice, Oranges and Lemons. She looked across and saw me, but instead of doing the English thing and lowering her voice or falling silent, continued on her way, singing the fine old rhyme right through to the end, word and note perfect. After which she immediately started reciting The Owl and the Pussy-Cat...
  Now, this was not an aspirational middle-class mother on some joyless child-improvement project - it felt more like a simple sharing of spontaneous happiness. That little girl is surely getting a good start in life.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Funeral

Yesterday afternoon I was at the funeral of the walking friend who was the subject of this recent post. It was at a South London crematorium and, as it was advertised as a 'humanist funeral', my hopes were not high - in my experience, these tend to be awkward affairs with a gaping hole at the middle (no prizes for guessing its shape) - but this time, the format was perfect, and all was exactly right for the man whose life we were celebrating and whose death we were mourning.
  The music we came in to was the great Bach Chaconne (played by Itzhak Perlman), and when all were gathered the celebrant said a few introductory words, and read Robert Burns's Epitaph to a Friend:
'An honest man here lies at rest,
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm'd,
Few heads with knowledge so inform'd;
If there's another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.'
  She then read out a luminous personal tribute from his brother, probably the man who knew him best, and this was followed by three personal tributes, the first of which was given by an old friend from his university days. He ended, rather wonderfully - and against the humanist grain - with words from the end of The Pilgrim's Progress: 'And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.'
  The celebration ended with two pieces played on the Northumbrian small pipes (by Kathryn Tickell, who else?) - the plangent Whittingham Green Lane, followed by the jolly Stagshaw Bank Fair, which sent us all out into the glorious late summer sunshine with a spring in our steps. Exactly as he would have wanted. He felt very present, and very content with what had been done to mark his life. And if the trumpets are indeed sounding on the other side, I'm sure he'll take this unexpected turn of events in his always formidable stride.


I see my review of William Gerhardie's Futility is up on the super soaraway Dabbler.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Music in a Life

The other day on The Dabbler, Brit listed the various signs he's noticing that his youth is behind him - not least the evolution of his musical taste, always a strong indicator.I wonder where it will lead him next. Brit is of course a mere stripling in his early 30s or thereabouts, and I'm wondering if his taste in music might, over the coming years, follow a similar parabola to mine. Here's how it went...
  To begin at the beginning, my first real awareness of the power of music came at the state primary school where I arrived at at the age of 9 rising 10. Here an excellent music teacher led us in choral singing of pieces by, among others, Schubert, Haydn, Purcell and Beethoven (imagine that in a state primary today...). Although I could barely sing, I started taking a strong interest in, especially, Beethoven, and happily explored the classics (or a limited, Ludwig-dominated part thereof) with my brother, maintaining this interest in parallel with an obsessive love of pop music that began shortly before the coming of The Beatles - my own weekly charts, the lot. Well, it was undoubtedly a (the?) golden age of the pop single, and there was surely never a better time to follow the music and buy what discs of 7" vinyl one could afford.
  Only as I grew into a condition of irremediably cool grooviness in my later teens and early 20s did my classical interests fade away into the margins of my musical life. This state of affairs lasted well into the Seventies (through what was surely the golden age of the 12" album), at least up to the release of Patti Smith's Horses and Television's Marquee Moon, the last two albums to hit me, sweep me away and take me over in the old thrilling way I'd become used to from the intensive listening years of multiform intoxication and (let's be honest) idleness. By this stage, I was a working man (well, employed) and life was about to get serious - i.e. bereavement and parenthood were around the corner, Life was becoming real.
  It was around this time that I began to feel the need for the depth and the solid emotional power of classical music. I discovered for the first time much of Schubert, especially the late masterpieces, and the late quartets of Beethoven (how had I missed those first time round?) and much else beside. But then, as the years passed and the children grew, things took a curious turn, and I found myself journeying further into country music (which had always been there in my early love for the Byrds and Gram and Emmylou and the Burritos) - and, in parallel to this, that other music of love and death, opera...
  These days, opera seems to have largely fallen by the wayside (apart from Mozart) and the country taste has moved on into alt country and the wider world of Americana. Meanwhile, my classical journey has taken me further back into the past, and much further into English music, recently into Baltic music and, well, into all sorts of places, often under the guidance of Mahlerman's brilliant Sunday posts on The Dabbler. Which takes us back to where we began. And here I stand, a man who no longer takes even a passing interest in the mainstream world of rock, let alone pop, and seldom even revisits old favourites - they are so deeply embedded from all those years of stoned immersion that I hardly need to be reminded - but whose journey continues. Who knows what will come next and where it will end? Let's hope it's not in a twilight home with The Definitive Monkees on my iPod. Oh, I don't know though...

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Coppers' Choppers

It is not a pleasant experience to be woken from a deep sleep at 1 in the morning by the appalling din of a helicopter, so loud and so close it seems to be about to attempt a soft landing on your bed. It's even less pleasant when you're trying to sleep off a 'cold', as I was last night. Almost certainly it was the police again - the chopper seemed to be roving around quite a lot, as if following something going on down below, among us mere ground-dwelling citizens. But, for ten minutes and more, it kept coming back my way, before eventually moving away to wake the sleeping population elsewhere.
  This is becoming an increasingly frequent nuisance, by day and night - and it's not as if I live in South Central LA. It seems those coppers just love getting their choppers out. No doubt there are good reasons for this phenomenally expensive and intrusive aerial activity, but I can't help suspecting that there's an element of macho thrills-and-spills enjoyment about it - I mean, it must be pretty exciting to get up there, whizzing around, using all that high-tech kit, chasing the crims from above, just as they do in the endless emergency services documentaries on the telly. It sure beats patrolling the streets on foot (the thought!) or sitting around in a panda car. It also, like so many recent developments in policing, sets the force apart from - indeed, literally, above - the citizenry it is supposed to be serving. It seems to me that our police forces, back when I was young, were much more firmly part of the community, much less a specialised elite operating mostly apart from it. It's certainly been noticeable how far the police's stock has fallen with the law-abiding middle (and upward) classes in recent decades. Being woken up in the middle of the night by their helicopters can't have helped.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Ending Well

Well, it may have been - may have been? It was - a terrible summer for butterflies, but at least it's ending well. In Derbyshire, my spiritual second home, at the weekend, I had probably my best butterfly day of the year - on the first day of September. Walking with my cousin from Monsal Head to Miller's Dale, I clocked up 13 species (my highest count of the year), including my first proper sighting of a Small Tortoiseshell - and, wonderfully, my first Comma. I caught sight of him quite high up on a rough flowery bank, nectaring methodically on the flowerhead of a Devil's Bit Scabious. What's more, he was showing no signs of any inclination to fly away, and was spreading his wings and showing them off, this way and that, in all their downy, freshly-emerged glory, as if posing for the cover of Comma Monthly. Needless to say, I did not have my camera with me, but we were able to watch him for many minutes, and I even managed to climb the bank for a close-up view. And still he didn't take flight...
  There were more Commas too - two of them - the next day, amid countless Peacocks, another Tortoiseshell, a Brimstone, Red Admirals, Meadow Browns and a Holly Blue. All of these were on a patch of derelict land in Wirksworth, flat, stony and shingly but, after just a few years, already rich in flora, with abundant wild Marjoram and Goldenrod now in flower, a wealth of lower-growing plants, and a burgeoning grove of butterfly-magnet Buddleia. This was very much the kind of terrain where, down by the sea in Kent many years ago, my love of butterflies was born. And this wonderful patch of land is due to be cleared of all its ragged glory, bulldozed, dug out, and 'affordable housing' built on it. I hope this destructive scheme is somehow stopped.