Thursday, 28 February 2013

Reasons to Be Cheerful (continued)

It's the last day of February - always the grimmest month of the year, and particularly dispiriting this time as days and weeks of grey skies and bitter cold have rounded out a winter that was, for the fourth time in five years, colder than usual. Remember those airy pronouncements at the turn of the century about how 'global warming' would put an end to white winters, so that snowfall would become 'a very rare and exciting event'? The Independent notoriously ran a front page to this effect in 2000, looking forward to generations of children growing up with no experience of snow, or even of cold. Since then, of course, snow has become a regular visitor to the Levant, let alone these isles.
 Tomorrow, by some reckonings, is the first day of spring - hurrah for that! But Jim Dale - not the one who played Marshal P. Knutt in Carry On Cowboy, but a senior meteorologist - warns us not to get our hopes up. 'Don't expect spring,' he counsels. 'We'll be fighting raw cold for weeks.' So clearly we're in for a fine warm March. Excellent news.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

'You might be just the man to help me, sir...'

He came striding towards me on Cromwell Road yesterday evening as I was waiting to cross. Black overcoat, scarf, suit and tie, glasses, in his mid-40s maybe. 'You might be the just the man to help me, sir,' he began. The accent and manner suggested perhaps a minor public school (expelled) or, more likely, the full HMG (home-made gentleman). He exuded serial failure - well merited, no doubt - and, although well dressed, he didn't have the grooming or the glowing complexion of the truly prosperous. He looked, alas, like what he was.
'I'm really in the most embarrassing situation,' he continued. 'This is so humiliating...' Here we go again. His convoluted tale involved a celebratory lunch with friends - drink taken (though there was none on his breath) - chaotic journey across London, in the course of which he became detached from his wallet and briefcase - unhelpful hackney carriage company - unhelpful public transport authorities, etc, etc. At various points he delved in his inside pockets for documentary proof of his bonafides, which mysteriously never appeared. The one constant was the mobile phone in the palm of his left hand and the cigarette smouldering between two of its fingers. Anyway, the upshot of his unfortunate adventure was that he was quite resigned to walking to Paddington, but once there he would have to present the sum of £22.50 (it's always a precise figure) in order to board the train to his home in Great Malvern.
Along the way, he shook my hand warmly, gave me his full name - which was something suitably posh, along the lines of Anthony Charles Beaumont - told me his business was in buying and selling property and suggested an exchange of cards (his seemed to be invisible, I don't carry one) so that he could return the money to me with all due dispatch.Well, I am a bit of a sucker for these minor con artists - I keep hoping that one day I'll come across a bullsh*tter in the league of Dr Reo Symes - but I had a train to catch, so I didn't encourage any further elaborations on his narrative. I gave him a few quid - he seemed mildly affronted that it wasn't £25 and keep the change - and went on my way. He lost no time in introducing himself to a hapless tourist who had just stepped out of a hotel.
It wasn't a great performance, but it was quite inventive, and at least my friend 'Anthony Charles Beaumont' (or whatever it was) has made an effort. Unlike the much more downmarket panhandler who used to appear night after night on my homebound train with the same unvarying spiel, delivered in a wheedling tone: 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm really sorry to disturb you - I wouldn't normally do this, but I'm desperate. I'm not a beggar...' I never gave that one a bean.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Old Tire Swingers

This is worth a look, for some pretty mean string-band music, and for the hilarious mismatch between hyperactive presenter and laid-back act.


Today is reckoned to be the average earliest flowering date for daffodils - some 13 days earlier than it was 20 years ago. This probably has less to do with 'global warming' than with a trend towards earlier-flowering bulbs. The daffodils (or some of them) have been coming into flower for the past week or so down my way, despite the bitter cold, and a very welcome sight they are, especially as today's varieties tend towards paler, more delicate flowers - more like the wild daffodil, and  less like the garish, stridently assertive standard garden daffs I remember from my boyhood, lined up like so many sentries in every suburban flowerbed.
  The wild daffodil is of course immortalised in that ur-poem of English romantic lyricism, Wordsworth's Daffodils - a poem whose first line alone is shorthand for Poetry Itself, at least in this country. But there is also Robert Herrick's beautiful lyric,To Daffodils - so spare yet so expressive, so simple yet brilliantly wrought. The second stanza, in particular, is quite wonderful...

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
         You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
         Has not attain'd his noon.
                        Stay, stay,
                Until the hasting day
                        Has run
                But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
         We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
         As you, or anything.
                        We die
                As your hours do, and dry
                Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Patrick George and Others

Well, I finally made it to the Patrick George exhibition during opening hours, and I was not disappointed. I was surprised to find that it's his 90th birthday exhibition - but then, this is a painter whose history goes back to the Euston Road school. However, it was relatively late in his career that he found his metier as a landscape painter, mostly of his home county, Suffolk. The landscapes on show at Browse & Darby include some wonderful work, the products of a long, patient, self-effacing engagement with his subjects. His paintings are - like the landscape he depicts - modest, unshowy and understated. Often they can seem unfinished - until you give them time and close attention, when they gradually reveal themselves. Despite appearances, many of them are the product of years of work and thought and revision. George says simply that he paints what he sees - not what is there; nature cannot be reproduced - but what he sees. Not being a one for self-promotion or for theorising about his art, George is strangely little known, has never been fashionable, and is, IMHO, seriously undervalued. If you find yourself near Browse & Darby (Cork Street) before March 13th, I'd recommend dropping in and having a look for yourself.
  After this, I made my way to Tate Britain and had a quick dash through an exhibition there, Looking at the View - a scrappily thematic selection of landscapes (in the broadest sense) from the gallery's own holdings. No Patrick George here (though the Tate has three), but a few unfamiliar pictures I was glad to see, notably an extraordinary moonlit William Nicholson of The Hill Above Harlech. And then there were two eye-catching pictures by one Annie Louisa Swynnerton, both portraits rather than landscapes, one of them this wonderfully extravagant picture of a Firbankian aristocrat in an Italianate landscape, which actually made me laugh.
 As I went into the Tate, a security van parked outside was repeatedly blaring out the message 'Help! Help! Security vehicle under attack. Please contact police.' No one was taking any notice, and it was still blaring away when I came out. Perhaps it was a work of art.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Cat's Life

This minimovie should amuse anyone who, like me, spent too much of their youth in arthouse cinemas watching French films of the Nouvelle Vague.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Just when you think the BBC's massive sense of its own importance and sheer wonderfulness couldn't get any more massive, along comes the latest jaw-droppingly self-congratulatory trailer for the supposed wonders of BBC2's output. Watch it here, if you can stand it...The verbal content of this shameless waste of licence fee payers' money might sound to the casual listener like so much windy 'inspirational' verbiage in the spirit of the Olympics opening ceremony - and a crime against John Keats and various other poets - but it is of some formal interest as a rare modern example of the verse form known as a cento. This is a patchwork of very short unrelated fragments from the works of one or more poets, stitched together into some kind of whole. At one time centos were often assembled from fragments of Virgil, sometimes to demonstrate the poet's unwitting foreshadowing of the Gospel story. The content of the BBC2 cento, stitched by one Alison Chisolm, is detailed here. Poor old Walter Savage Landor contributes two words of Alison Chisolm's 13, and Arthur O'Shaughnessy is, er, generously represented. But let us return to Keats and remind ourselves of that great sonnet - great enough to shrug off whatever violence is done to it...

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Six Men on One Ukulele

It's probably just my yoghurt brain, but I did enjoy this extraordinary performance.  Watch the chap third from the left...

Monday, 18 February 2013

Home-grown Rampagers

'Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.'
Thus Edward Thomas in the lovely short poem Tall Nettles. Even in Thomas's time nettles were spreading across the land, invigorated by the nitrogen-rich fertilisers that were coming into heavy use, and by the breaking of ground for building development. Nettles were one of the subjects of an interesting edition of Radio 4's Costing the Earth that I caught the other day. Its thesis was that, while we've been obsessed with the threat from alien invasive plants - Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the like - our own home-grown rampagers have been quietly engulfing more and more land, and at an accelerating rate. Nettles, brambles, ivy and other long-established invasive species are spreading as never before, encouraged by the decline in grazing and in woodland management. Ever increasing areas of land are 'scrubbing up' as they are taken over by birch and thorn, alder and elder. 
Seeing photographs or paintings of familiar landscapes a century and more ago, it is often striking how relatively bare and orderly they are, compared to the scrub-covered present. In my own lifetime I have seen large areas of local chalk downland revert to scrub.  It's a reminder of how important human intervention is to the creation and maintenance of habitats, and what would happen if we were not around - what might yet happen across much of the land as we increasingly retreat from it. It will not be pretty - but it might have a certain primeval beauty, and it might still be possible to trace the human past through the covering of vegetation. A ghost of the railway network, for example, would subsist in great closed-over avenues of buddleia, from Penzance to Inverness. But buddleia is an alien invader, and that's another subject...
The butterflies would enjoy it though.

Friday, 15 February 2013

'... chiefly it is intended for xenophobes and anglophobes'

Born 101 years ago today was the Hungarian-born British writer George Mikes, best known (if he is remembered at all) for his gently humorous foreigner's-eye view of the English, How to Be an Alien. First published in 1946, it went into innumerable printings (my copy is the 23rd impression, from March 1957). 'This book,' says Mikes on the dust-jacket flap, 'is meant for those who see the funny side of life and to help those who can't see it, but chiefly it is intended for xenophobes and anglophobes. The author, Mr Mikes (pronounced "me-cash"), has been a keen observer of the behaviour and misbehaviour of foreigners and natives in this country and is happy to give all and sundry the benefit of his research. Chapters on hypocrisy, language, sex, tea, the soul, the weather, rudeness and simple joys are just a few results of his vast investigations.'
The chapter on Sex is the shortest: 'Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.'
Soul is something foreigners have and the English don't need: 'The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.' Mikes is very good on English understatement - a form of expression that is in retreat in today's more emotionally incontinent times - but he acknowledges that 'Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: "I say..." and then keeping silent for three days on end.'
As a portrait of English life it is, of course, very much of its time; this is a lost England of stiff upper lips, scrupulous politeness and strong social codes. In a few places, though, it is strangely prescient, as when Mikes advises foreigners who wish to fit in to 'start eating porridge for breakfast and allege that you like it.' Nowadays everybody seems to eat porridge and claims to enjoy the experience.
The best thing about How to Be an Alien, though - as with so many other titles - is that 'Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures'. This brilliant illustrator makes any book embellished by him well worth a look - and he was on top form with How to Be an Alien.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Low Church

 They say that having a baby around turns the adult brain to yoghurt. It's certainly true of one's own babies, and it seems also to apply to Frankly Adorable Sam, the baby grandson who is staying with us for a few precious weeks. Yesterday, while he and his mother went out visiting, I headed straight for Cork Street and for Browse & Darby to see the Patrick George exhibition. It was only on arriving at the door that I realised I hadn't checked the start date - it opens today. Not yesterday, today.
Smiting my forehead and very probably uttering a 'D'oh!' I rapidly rethought my itinerary. First to the Royal Academy to look at the queues outside the Manet exhibition; they were impressive in scale and in their dogged, cold-defying fortitude. I did not join them. Having used the facilities and visited the shop, I yielded to the gravitational pull of the National Gallery. Despite the yoghurty brain, I managed to make my way there on foot - and, once there, I found that Room 1 was again hosting one of those mini-exhibitions I like so much. This was (and is) Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch - a selection (as the title suggests) of landscape oil sketches by Frederic Church. This leading light of the Hudson River school I knew only for his vast canvases of Nature at its grandest and most sublime. There is one of these - a grand-scale Niagara painting - in the exhibition, but otherwise it is all oil sketches of landscape scenes from his native land and farther afield: Jamaica, Austria, the Middle East. This, you might say, is Low Church rather than High Church.
The sketches are wonderfully deft work, for the most part sufficiently finished to make perfectly satisfactory paintings - you'd sooner have one of these in your house than a full-scale Church any day.  There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets, mountain scenes, cloud studies, and a fine suite of iceberg sketches. All of them show Church's skilled brushwork and draughtsmanship, close observation and great gift for painting effects of light, both subtle and blatant - and, of course, his eye for a picture. It's an enjoyable and rewarding exhibition, well worth a visit.
As for Patrick George, I plan to try again - on a day when the gallery's actually open.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Birthday Beckmann

Born on this day in 1884 was the German artist Max Beckmann. Resolutely unclassifiable and unflaggingly productive, Beckmann is, IMHO, one of the underrated greats of 20th-century art. I knew little of him before the 2003 Tate Modern exhibition, but I remember emerging from that display stunned by the impact of his best work, and hugely impressed by the power of his imaginative vision and the prodigious skill with which he conveyed it. It was one of the most memorable exhibitions of my life - and one of the few times that I've actually enjoyed a visit to the ghastly Tate Modern.

Monday, 11 February 2013


Floppy-fringed physicist Professor Brian Cox is a man of many gifts - not least the rare ability to talk through a permanent broad grin (I wonder if he's ever tried ventriloquism?). Last night he was telling us again about The Wonders of Life. This is a series in which he explains how the whole of life was produced and is maintained by the operation of certain basic physical laws - a physicist's-eye view of nature, if you like. Last night's episode took its title from Darwin - Endless Forms Most Beautiful - and it seemed that every time Cox opened his mouth (or rather grinned) out would come the word 'beautiful'. Here was a man on a mission to show us how 'beautiful' is the operation of the laws of physics in a Darwinian world. 
I am always suspicious when scientists use the word 'beautiful'. I can accept that, for those with the mental equipment to appreciate such things, certain equations and formulas might seem beautiful. But the Darwinian vision of nature? Surely that's a stretch. Yes, Darwin himself used the word, but he was entitled to - then his vision was new, and strands of an earlier, more consoling, romantic world view still clung to it. By now, those who claim to accept natural selection as a full and sufficient account of how the natural world works should have internalised Darwinism and all its grim, far from 'beautiful' implications. But, as John Gray pointed out in Straw Dogs, almost nobody - including, or especially, its most ardent advocates - has truly come to terms with the Darwinian vision of a world in which everything, including ourselves and everything we think and do, is the product of blind and meaningless forces, and we are no more than just another species that has come and will go in due course. Talk of 'beauty' (or any other values) in such a context is little more than whistling Dixie, is it not? Yes, nature can indeed be made to look beautiful - as it was in Cox's programme, which came across at times like a pop video for a new single called Nature, or indeed Endless Forms Most Beautiful - but it is also brutal and ugly, as many a wildlife documentary shows (not to mention the ultra-bloody outtakes), and, to a true Darwinian, none of these adjectives should be applicable to nature. It just is. 

Review alert

I see I have a review of Charles Portis's The Dog of the South over on The Dabbler today...

Friday, 8 February 2013

Al Desko Etiquette

With the deplorable habit of eating lunch at one's desk - eating al desko, as some wags call it - now firmly established in many a workplace, the BBC News website has taken the opportunity to unroll another of its endless Stories About Nothing, one that's almost up there with the legendary Cardboard Box epic ('We've all been there...'). The undoubted star of the al desko Story About Nothing is etiquette expert William Hanson, with his 17-inch-square linen lunch napkin at the ready, folded half-way with the crease towards him (rather than - heaven forbid - towards the computer screen). Good eating manners, he reminds us, 'could be the difference between getting a promotion [and what?], especially if your boss is watching'. Good thinking, Hanson...
Passing over the truly disgusting bulgar wheat recipe that follows, back comes Hanson in the next section with more sound advice about taking a break every four mouthfuls, resting your idle fork on your knife.Then it's on to the etiquette minefield of the after-lunch coffee - drunk, of course, in a demitasse. Whatever you do, counsels Hanson, put the sugar in the cup after the coffee, and don't stir clockwise only -  'coffee dissolves better if you stir backwards and forwards, 12 till 6'. Which sounds like rather a long lunch break to me.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

More Sams

To mark Charles Dickens's birthday - 201 today - and to celebrate the arrival yesterday from his native New Zealand of my frankly adorable grandson Sam, here's another sample of young Sam's Weller namesake in full flow. This time, Sam Weller has decided to cheer up his distracted master with a blood-curdling anecdote...

They had walked some distance, Mr. Pickwick trotting on before, plunged in profound meditation, and Sam following behind, with a countenance expressive of the most enviable and easy defiance of everything and everybody, when the latter, who was always especially anxious to impart to his master any exclusive information he possessed, quickened his pace until he was close at Mr. Pickwick's heels; and, pointing up at a house they were passing, said—
'Wery nice pork-shop that 'ere, sir.'
'Yes, it seems so,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Celebrated sassage factory,' said Sam.
'Is it?' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Is it!' reiterated Sam, with some indignation; 'I should rayther think it was. Why, sir, bless your innocent eyebrows, that's where the mysterious disappearance of a 'spectable tradesman took place four years ago.'
'You don't mean to say he was burked, Sam?' said Mr. Pickwick, looking hastily round.
'No, I don't indeed, sir,' replied Mr. Weller, 'I wish I did; far worse than that. He was the master o' that 'ere shop, sir, and the inwentor o' the patent-never-leavin'-off sassage steam-ingin, as 'ud swaller up a pavin' stone if you put it too near, and grind it into sassages as easy as if it was a tender young babby. Wery proud o' that machine he was, as it was nat'ral he should be, and he'd stand down in the celler a-lookin' at it wen it was in full play, till he got quite melancholy with joy. A wery happy man he'd ha' been, Sir, in the possession o' that 'ere ingin and two more lovely hinfants besides, if it hadn't been for his wife, who was a most owdacious wixin. She was always a-follerin' him about, and dinnin' in his ears, till at last he couldn't stand it no longer. "I'll tell you what it is, my dear," he says one day; "if you persewere in this here sort of amusement," he says, "I'm blessed if I don't go away to 'Merriker; and that's all about it." "You're a idle willin," says she, "and I wish the 'Merrikins joy of their bargain." Arter which she keeps on abusin' of him for half an hour, and then runs into the little parlour behind the shop, sets to a-screamin', says he'll be the death on her, and falls in a fit, which lasts for three good hours—one o' them fits wich is all screamin' and kickin'. Well, next mornin', the husband was missin'. He hadn't taken nothin' from the till—hadn't even put on his greatcoat—so it was quite clear he warn't gone to 'Merriker. Didn't come back next day; didn't come back next week; missis had bills printed, sayin' that, if he'd come back, he should be forgiven everythin' (which was very liberal, seein' that he hadn't done nothin' at all); the canals was dragged, and for two months arterwards, wenever a body turned up, it was carried, as a reg'lar thing, straight off to the sassage shop. Hows'ever, none on 'em answered; so they gave out that he'd run away, and she kep' on the bis'ness. One Saturday night, a little, thin old gen'l'm'n comes into the shop in a great passion and says, "Are you the missis o' this here shop?" "Yes, I am," says she. "Well, ma'am," says he, "then I've just looked in to say that me and my family ain't a-goin' to be choked for nothin'; and more than that, ma'am," he says, "you'll allow me to observe that as you don't use the primest parts of the meat in the manafacter o' sassages, I'd think you'd find beef come nearly as cheap as buttons." "As buttons, Sir!" says she. "Buttons, ma'am," says the little, old gentleman, unfolding a bit of paper, and showin' twenty or thirty halves o' buttons. "Nice seasonin' for sassages, is trousers' buttons, ma'am." "They're my husband's buttons!" says the widder beginnin' to faint, "What!" screams the little old gen'l'm'n, turnin' wery pale. "I see it all," says the widder; "in a fit of temporary insanity he rashly converted hisself into sassages!" And so he had, Sir,' said Mr. Weller, looking steadily into Mr. Pickwick's horror-stricken countenance, 'or else he'd been draw'd into the ingin; but however that might ha' been, the little old gen'l'm'n, who had been remarkably partial to sassages all his life, rushed out o' the shop in a wild state, and was never heerd on arterwards!'

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Finnish fiddling

Here's something to get the toes a-tapping - a bit of full-on Finnish fiddling from the band called Frigg. Enjoy.


London Underground has come up with a new form of words to explain (or not) 'minor delays' on its lines: they are invariably 'due to operational issues'. You don't say so! The phrase really doesn't add an awful lot to our understanding of the situation, does it - indeed, you might well say that the 'minor delays' are themselves the 'operational issues' here. 'Issues' is invariably a word used to - well, actually, to dodge the issue. 'Issues' sound somehow easier to deal with than problems or difficulties or (often the reality) cockups; issues can be 'addressed', they can be 'explored', and they have that endearing habit of clustering 'around' things. I find it's a sound rule that, whenever you hear someone using the phrase 'issues around', they have nothing useful to say on whatever those issues are so companionably surrounding. Meanwhile, I don't think anyone would feel they had been short-changed if London Underground were just to report that there are 'minor delays' and leave it at that.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Reg and Chip

The sad news of the death of Reg Presley, lead singer of The Troggs, has led to much playing of Wild Thing in (well deserved) radio and TV tributes. Wild Thing was one of those hair-raising, pulse-racing singles that came thick and fast in that golden age of the mid-60s, each one sounding like nothing you'd ever heard before, like something that might change the world. Innocent times... But Wild Thing was, and is, one of the greats, and until recently I had cheerfully assumed that it was a Reg Presley song - which just goes to show that I don't do enough pub quizzes. Wild Thing was in fact written by Chip Taylor, who also penned the couldn't-be-more-different Angel of the Morning. An interesting character, Chip Taylor - brother of Jon Voight, uncle of Angelina Jolie, and successful country and pop songwriter, he threw it all up in the mid-70s to pursue a career as a professional gambler, specialising in blackjack and the geegees. Then, in the mid-90s, he returned to music, teaming up with fiddler Carrie Rodriguez and others to explore a rootsier realm of Americana and alt country. There's plenty on YouTube if you're interested - including Chip and Carrie performing Wild Thing. It's, er, different...

Monday, 4 February 2013

Some Kind of Masterpiece: Machine Dreams Re-reread

I first read Jayne Anne Phillips' Machine Dreams when it came out, in 1984. In those days I used to waste much good reading time on new fiction - but the time spent reading Machine Dreams was most definitely not wasted: this novel grabbed me from the first page (indeed the first sentence: 'It's strange what you don't forget' - indeed) and left me at the end deeply moved, shaken, and quite amazed by the power and range of this phenomenally gifted debut novelist.
On the face of it, it's a simple enough tale of a family - mother, father, son and daughter - told in a series of snapshots at various points in time, from 1946 to 1972, reaching back a generation or so and out into the community of wider family and friends, but essentially focused on these four. Each section of the book sees events through the eyes of one of them, sometimes in first person, usually in third, and often their dreams are woven into the narrative. Such is the power of Phillips' characterisation that each of them (and several less central figures) comes fully to life almost from their first utterance. By the end they feel, indeed, like family - which makes the denouement all the more shattering...
Machine Dreams was widely praised when it was first published, and great things were predicted for its author, though in the event she has published sparsely and seems to be thought of chiefly as a fine short story writer (which she is). Of her later novels (they are few and far between), I read Shelter when it came out and remember being dazzled by much of it but in the end it somehow didn't work for me. I haven't tried the later novels - perhaps I should? But I have reread Machine Dreams, the first time about ten years ago, in some doubt as to whether it could have been quite as good as I remembered it being - it was, though it didn't hit me with quite such an emotional hammerblow. And now I have reread it again, and I come away more impressed than ever. This time the architecture of the book was more apparent to me - in particular the author's subtle use of recurrent images and scenes, often far distant in time, that echo and illuminate each other. The story had still deeper resonance, the characters seemed more real and present than ever, and the closing pages as moving as they were first time around. I believe Machine Dreams really is some kind of masterpiece. If you haven't read it, I'd urge you to seek it out.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A Poem for the Turn of the Month

February already - a new month! This calls for a seasonal poem.
Here is John Clare, sharp-eyed as ever, in The Shepherd's Calendar, enjoying the effects of a February thaw, though he knows it will not last...

The small birds think their wants are oer
To see the snow hills fret again
And from the barns chaff litterd door
Betake them to the greening plain
The woodmans robin startles coy
Nor longer at his elbow comes
To peck wi hungers eager joy
Mong mossy stulps the litterd crumbs
 Neath hedge and walls that screen the wind
The gnats for play will Hock together
And een poor flyes odd hopes will find
To venture in the mocking weather
From out their hiding holes again
Wi feeble pace they often creep
Along the sun warmd window pane
Like dreaming things that walk in sleep
. . .
The hedghog from its hollow root
Sees the wood moss clear of snow
And hunts each hedge for fallen fruit
Crab hip and winter bitten sloe
And oft when checkd by sudden fears
As shepherd dog his haunt espies
He rolls up in a ball of spears
And all his barking rage defies
Thus nature of the spring will dream
While south winds thaw but soon again
Frost breaths upon the stiffening stream
And numbs it into ice—the plain
Soon wears its merry garb of white
And icicles that fret at noon
Will eke their icy tails at night
Beneath the chilly stars and moon
 Nature soon sickens of her joys
And all is sad and dumb again
Save merry shouts of sliding boys
About the frozen furrowd plain
The foddering boy forgets his song
And silent goes wi folded arms
And croodling shepherds bend along
Crouching to the whizzing storms

A 'stulp' is a short, stout post.
'Eke' here means lengthen or increase.
Best of all, 'croodling' means to 'cower or cuddle together, as from fear or cold; to lie close and snug together, as pigs in straw' - thus Webster, with this supporting quotation:
'A dove to fly home to her nest and croodle there.' - C. Kingsley.
A word to remember, I think...