Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: The View from Here

New Year's Eve, and I began the day in style by falling out of bed, which I don't recommend (and no, I wasn't drunk) - but now it's time to look back on 2016. Not on world events - dramatic though they've been (I've touched on all that here) - nor on the relentless succession of notable deaths, but on some of the highlights of my year, as reflected on this blog.
 In January - and how long ago it seems - I was in the fine city of Wellington, enjoying the family, encountering new butterflies and birds, and reading Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, Michel Houellebecq's Submission and F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter - also visiting Katherine Mansfield's childhood home.
  Back in Blighty, I enjoyed an exhibition of work by Roland Collins - the start of a good year's gallery haunting that included Pre-Raphaelite drawings at Leighton House, George Shaw's My Back to Nature at the National Gallery, Opus Anglicanum at the V&A, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Edward Ardizzone at the House of Illustration, and Rodin and Dance at the Courtauld - not to mention an art-rich week in Venice in September.
  By contrast, my only visit to the theatre was an experience to forget, though my only visit to the cinema, on the other hand, was an absolute joy - Hail, Caesar!
  It was another good year for church crawling and church monuments (a growing obsession), my travels taking me from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire (and again), CheshireNottinghamshire and a wondrous collection of newly restored monuments in Northamptonshire.
  A spring walking holiday in the Mani - a feast of Byzantine art,  sunshine, butterflies and wild flowers - included a memorable visit to Patrick Leigh Fermor's house.
  The English weather was iffy - much of the spring cool and wet, and early summer bright but cool. However, high summer and early autumn were glorious, and I had a terrific butterfly year - the Year of the Hairstreak - about which I've written already.
  My reading (of books new to me) included Javier Marias (twice), Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them, J.L. Carr's The Battle of Pollock's Crossing, and Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, and I discovered the novelist Elizabeth Jenkins.  
  What else? I followed The Dabbler onto Facebook, made a return visit to a long-ago boyhood haunt, ditched my electric lawn mower and went manual, and invented a new cocktail - the Nigroni.
 As I said, I'm not going to rehearse the year's death toll, but cannot ignore the sad loss of England's greatest poet, Geoffrey Hill. To end on a happier note, though, America's greatest, Richard Wilbur, is still with us. I celebrated his 95th birthday with this.
 A Happy New Year to all my readers - and try not to fall out of bed...


Thursday, 29 December 2016

Casals

The great cellist Pablo (Pau, if you must) Casals was born on this day 140 years ago.
Casals first encountered the Bach cello suites when, as a boy of 13, he came across a tattered copy of the sheet music for the six suites in a second-hand shop. He studied and practised them daily for the next 13 years before performing them in public for the first time.
The video clip above shows him playing the first suite at the Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa in 1954. Balm for the soul...

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Puzzle

A few months ago, I put up a link to this piece that I wrote about Dutch flower paintings at the National Gallery. Now a letter - email rather - has come in, asking a question to which I have no answer. So naturally I'm throwing it open to my erudite readers...
 My correspondent points out that, despite the Dutch passion for flowers and flower paintings in the 17th century, the interiors depicted so beautifully in paintings of the period seem never to feature any flowers at all, not so much as a few tulips in a vase.
 Obviously the kind of arrangements depicted in those virtuoso flower paintings were out of the question - but no flowers at all in the house? Or perhaps there were flowers, but for some reason they were omitted by the painters of interiors?
 I can't think of a single Golden Age interior painting with flowers in it, nor can I explain their absence. Has anyone got any ideas?

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A little late


A little late, I know, but it's still Christmastide, and  I heard this beautiful piece of festive music by Schoenberg the other day and it's stayed with me. Enjoy...

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Death Tape and Post-Fiction

The Death Tape was playing in the pub earlier - well, not tape these days, of course, but it was, as we gradually realised, a compilation of music by all the stars who have died this year in the Great Cull. So far this year, that is - not wise to talk too soon, when they're still dropping like flies: Rick Parfitt and George Michael in the past couple of days, who else before the year's out? George Michael was in the mix so this was a bang up to date compilation, and there were Bowie and Cohen and Prince and the Eagles (for Glenn Frey) and the less obvious likes of Bobby Vee, Merle Haggard, Prince Buster... What a year it's been for deaths - see Mr Appleyard's fine summing-up here.
 And it was an equally big year for Events, a year in which things happened - notably Brexit and Trump - that actually changed the landscape. Predictably enough, neither of these biggies was predicted by any of the pundits, aka 'experts' - the same experts who also unanimously failed to see the 2008 crash coming, and who before that insisted that Britain must join the Euro and, before even that, the ERM. The pundits, of course, carry on as if nothing has happened, seem to have learned nothing, and continue to predict what's in store for us. And the popular rejection of the consensus they represented is characterised as the birth of 'post-truth' (official Word of the Year) politics, a political climate in which facts count for nothing, and instincts and feelings dictate choice.
 There's something in this analysis, but not in the sense that's implied. The representatives of 'post-truth', it seems to me, are those who cling to the comfort blanket of the old exploded certainties, who cannot acknowledge that things have changed, that Brexit and Trump happened, and happened not because people had gone mad but because enough of them had stopped believing in a consensus that no longer reflected the realities of their experience. Who's deluded here? Who's in denial? It seems to me we're now living in 'post-fiction' times, and should be glad of it.
 Meanwhile I look forward to the Correspondents' Look Ahead on Radio 4 on Friday, in which BBC correspondents tell us once more what's not going to happen in the coming year.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Happy Christmas

A happy Christmas to all who browse here, and a prosperous New Year.
(The Holy Family with a Shepherd, painted by Titian around 1510, now one of the glories of the National Gallery.)

Friday, 23 December 2016

Harvey: Ducks and more

Browsing sleepily in an anthology last night, I came across this:

Ducks
(to E.M., who drew them in Holzminden Prison)


From troubles of the world

I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway…



It's the first (and best) part of a poem by Frederick William Harvey, and I half remembered it, probably from other anthologies. It's a lovely piece of work - a vivid sketch deftly drawn (check out the rhyme scheme) - but who was F.W. Harvey?
He was, I discovered, a close friend of Ivor Gurney, whom he met at the King's School, Gloucester, and, like Gurney, he was a 'war poet' of the Great War, but in a far more straightforwardly nostalgic and good-humoured vein (like an upbeat Housman, if such a thing is imaginable - his first collection was called A Gloucestershire Lad at Home and Abroad). Ducks was written while he was a prisoner of war, inspired by a chalk drawing a fellow prisoner had made above his bed. Before being taken prisoner, Harvey had won a DCM for conspicuous gallantry.
After the war, he returned home to work as a lawyer, but his willingness to waive his fees, while making him popular as 'the poor man's solicitor', meant his business never thrived. He continued writing, made radio broadcasts, and was a tireless champion of the Forest of Dean, its people and traditions. As well as 'the Laureate of Gloucestershire', he was also known as 'the Forest Poet'. 'Will' Harvey was hugely popular in his home county, and was clearly an all-round good egg. Look at the picture of him - genial, open, relaxed, full of life, even in uniform. There could hardly be a more striking contrast to his troubled friend Ivor Gurney.
 His poems lend themselves particularly well to music and have been set by a range of composers, from Gurney and Herbert Howells to Johnny Coppin. One of Ivor Gurney's best-known songs, In Flanders, is a setting of a Harvey poem - I hadn't realised. Here are the words -

I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
To see above the Severn plain,
Unscabbarded against the sky,
The blue high blade of Cotswold lie;
The giant clouds go royally
By jagged Malvern with a train
Of shadows. Where the land is low
Like a huge imprisoning O
I hear a heart that's sound and high,
I hear the heart within me cry:
'I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain!
My hills again!' 

- and here is the song.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Arrival

The redwings are here! This morning, as I was walking home from the shops, several dozen of them suddenly exploded from a berry-laden holly tree and darted off in all directions, calling to each other with that strange silvery (and sylvan) note, a winter sound. Apart from a few individuals I'd seen in recent weeks, these were my first redwings of the year - a proper foraging party, and I soon realised they were far from alone. All through the afternoon I was spotting bands of redwings, in flight or perched high on trees or gorging on berries. Perhaps we're in for some proper cold winter weather after all - we could certainly do with it.

Dead Letters

While I was in Derbyshire, the cousin and I dropped in on a rather unusual book sale. Unusual in that it was taking place in a private house, what was being sold off was the bulk of the late householder's personal library, and every single book was priced at 25p. The house was one of those old town houses that look quite modest from the street but go back and back, and up and up, and round and round in a warren of rooms and a maze of corridors. And almost every room and every corridor was lined with books, often from floor to ceiling - there were more books here than in Patrick Leigh Fermor's library. More and, for the most part, very different, with fiction and poetry barely present and a heavy emphasis on Ideas - scientific, sociological, historical, philosophical, economic, theological and spiritual. This was a Thinking Man's library (there were even some volumes from the Thinker's Library) and browsing the shelves was an education in how fast Ideas date and become dead letters.
 Who now would choose to read the magisterial pronouncements of H.G. Wells or Julian Huxley, G.B. Shaw or Arnold Toynbee, to say nothing of lesser, more completely forgotten, luminaries? Science books have perhaps the shortest shelf-life of all, though economics and sociology run it close. If it's eternal verities you're after (and if there are such things), you had far better seek them in works of imagination than in those of the intellect. Indeed I would maintain that all a person really needs to know (aside from technical matters) is to be found in Shakespeare. Nothing is quite so dead as the library of a Thinking Man who is essentially a follower of intellectual fashion.
 I could no doubt have made many useful - and at 25p absurdly cheap - purchases, but this vast library was too much for me. In the end, as we weren't going to be allowed out without buying something, I took a little volume of English epitaphs, while my cousin settled for a dog-themed parody of Schott's Miscellany and a useful dictionary of confusing words and meanings.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Two Windows

Sorry, a bit of a hiatus there - put it down to much busyness of one kind and another, and its reverse, a restful (offline) weekend in Derbyshire with my cousin. No notable church monuments this time, but highlights included two villages with particularly handsome main streets - King's Newton and Winster - and one major Norman parish church, Melbourne (just round the corner from King's Newton). Major or not - and rich in antiquarian interest it undoubtedly is - this church reminded me of how rebarbative and godless Norman architecture can be. The heavy gloom of the interior was deeply dispiriting: this was conqueror's architecture - on a small scale, but still oppressive, redolent of power without glory or grace. Happily the setting, with the grand surprise of an extensive lake just around the corner from the church - and a pleasant tea room among the outbuildings of Melbourne Hall - restored the spirits.
 A much more pleasing church, though in every way 'minor', was St John's in Winster, remodelled twice in the 19th century to end up as a double aisle with a colonnade down the middle and arches thrown diagonally to the chancel. This works surprisingly well, creating an airy, cheering and distinctive interior - which proved impossible to capture in a photograph, so I've headed this post with the church's notable window, a little gem by Burne-Jones that's tucked away in the chancel. And below is the upper half of a much larger, more assertive nave window which at first struck me as too jagged and geometric for my taste, but which grew on me the longer I looked at it. The drawing of Christ's features is, I think, particularly fine, and the whole design is full of drama. I've been quite unable to find out who designed this window, so if anyone has any information, please let me know...

Friday, 16 December 2016

Advent Music

In my early days at grammar school, we had a French master who was fond of mnemonics as an aid to learning. One such was 'Advent', an acronym (I think) for verbs that take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense. 'What does Advent remind us of?' he barked one morning. Up went a hand: 'The coming of Our Lord, sir.' A correct answer of course, but not quite what the French master had in mind...
 At this time of year, with the pre-Xmas frenzy under way and every shop and public space piping 'Christmas music' non-stop, it's as well to be reminded that this is indeed the season of Advent. Radio 3's Rob Cowan is doing stirling work each morning, playing music that Bach wrote for Advent. Today's chorale, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake) from BWV140, was so sublimely beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks. Here it is, conducted by Tom Koopman... And here is the version Cowan played, conducted by Karl Richter at a stately pace and in a more 'romantic' style. Compare and contrast if you like - or just enjoy them both and marvel at the greatness of Bach.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

RIP

Sad news today of the death of Shirley Hazzard, one of the finest writers of the latter half of the last century. I remember the first time I read The Transit of Venus, thinking, right through from the opening pages to the end, I have never read anything like this before, this is quite extraordinary - and deeply moving, in ways far beyond the scope of most modern novelists. The Bay of Noon, though slighter, I found almost as impressive, particularly in its exploration of love and nuances of feeling - Hazzard could discriminate as finely as Henry James, but without the agonised circumlocution. She also had a strong sense of place (perhaps a product of her own transnational life), and she could turn a phrase - I remember noting many down as I read her, in a notebook that was later, sadly, lost. Her other major work, The Great Fire, is quite as extraordinary (and often as moving) as The Transit of Venus, though I was not as entirely convinced as I was by the earlier work. What it does show is a willingness, and an ability, to explore a subject unfashionable in modern fiction: goodness. Goodness and love were Hazzard's themes - eternal themes - and her works will surely live on.
 Oddly, I'd been thinking of re-reading The Transit of Venus. I shall now.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Talking of Beauty: Helen Frankenthaler

The American painter Helen Frankenthaler - of whom it would have been good to see a lot more in the RA's Abstract Expressionism exhibition - was born on this day in 1928. A brilliant colourist, she worked in various styles over six decades, never ceasing to experiment and never losing sight of the essential aim - beauty.
 How old-fashioned, how alien to the modern art world, that word now sounds. Indeed, in her own time, Frankenthaler's work was written off by some as being 'merely beautiful'. Merely? Merely?! What else is art for if not to be beautiful?
 Helen Frankenthaler summed up her own thoughts on painting thus:
'A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks laboured and overworked, and you can read in it—well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that—there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-laboured efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.' 
 One really beautiful wrist motion synchronised with head and heart - is there a better description of the act of painting when it's going really, really well, when it's on the road to beauty?


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Still European and Lovin' It...

It's wonderful what Facebook comes up with in its attempts to pique my interest or get me spending. Communications from the ineffable Stirling Gravitas continue to, er, trickle in  - but today comes this ad for every Eurosceptic's must-have Christmas gift. How well they know me...

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Hirpling On

'As briskly as his bird-like legs allowed, the Reverend Unwin hirpled back to his study...'
 Hirpled?
 The quotation is from The Winner of Sorrow, a remarkable novel about the poet William Cowper, which I'm reading on the recommendation of Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence. Written by the Irish poet Brian Lynch, it's a wonderful read, and I'll no doubt be writing more about it when I've reached the end. But to the hirple...
 This verb means 'to walk with a limp, to hobble'. It's a fine word, one that I'd never come across before. Its origins are in Old Norse, passing into Scots and Northern English usage, and apparently best preserved in Ulster Scots. None of which fits the milieu of The Winner of Sorrow, but who's complaining? It's always a pleasure to come across a new and expressive word.
 Here it is cleverly used (and cleverly rhymed) to describe the gait of a cricket in an Ulster-Scots poem, Address to a Cricket by Sarah Leech:

'You cheer my heart wi' hamely strain,
or shrill toned chirple,
as cozie roun' the warm hearth stane,
you nightly hirple.'

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Hats Off

This is one of those Thursday mornings when I feel like taking off my hat to Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 symposium In Our Time, perhaps even waving it in the airToday's subject was Harriet Martineau, of whom I knew next to nothing apart from her supposed last words, 'I see no reason why the existence of Harriet Martineau should be perpetuated.' From In Our Time, I learnt a great deal about this extraordinary woman, and, along the way, about Unitarianism, Necessitarianism and other intellectual movements of her time. (You can hear the shortened repeat tonight, or listen on the BBC iPlayer.)
  Only on In Our Time, only on Radio 4.
  I see every reason why the existence of In Our Time should be perpetuated.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Two thirds of a century later...

Here we are again - my birthday. Today I (and, of course, my old pal Tom Waits) achieve the age of 67. With two thirds of a century behind me, I feel immensely glad (most of the time) to be here, and immensely grateful for my good fortune in all its many and wondrous forms.
My late Uncle, in his old age, would remark feelingly, 'I wish I was 67 again.' I don't know if that age had some particular significance for him, but as far as I am concerned, I'm certainly happy to be 67.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Over-achievement: Clive James at Cambridge

After finishing Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead, I found myself wondering what to follow it with as my main bedtime read - something more easeful, less substantial, less brilliant than Nicolson's great work. As so often, charity-shop serendipity came to my aid when I spotted May Week Was in June, the third volume of Clive James's Unreliable Memoirs, on the carousel in the Sue Ryder shop. Having read and enjoyed the first two volumes years ago, I thought this would be just the thing.
 In a way, I was right; it was certainly readable (James knows how to keep you turning the pages) and pretty undemanding. And it covers James's Cambridge years, though little about his frenetically active time there chimes with my own student experience (if I ever wrote a similarly themed memoir it would be called Stark Insensibility, or perhaps The Torpid Years, and it would be very slim). James had left, trailing clouds of glory, the year before I arrived, having written for or edited all the Cambridge magazines, virtually taken over Footlights, captained Pembroke on University Challenge, gained a 2:1 and embarked on a Ph.D, learnt several languages, written many poems, read everything (except, he claims, what was on the curriculum), watched all the worthwhile movies known to man (and worked on a film), kept a voluminous journal, spent a lot of time in Florence, wooed and wed, made himself known to everyone of any consequence, and had long pieces published in the New Statesman.
 In the face of all this over-achievement, James's compulsive self-deprecation can lose its charm - and indeed its credibility: you don't get to do all that if you're the kind of hopeless slacker and stumblebum arriviste James portrays himself as. Similarly the characteristic Jamesian mix of flip comedy and high seriousness here doesn't quite gel, making for a lumpy read - and the habit of mixing real names and pseudonyms ('Romaine Rand' for Germaine Greer, 'Dave Dalziel' for Bruce Beresford, etc) becomes tiresome, as do some of the supposedly comic characters (like the American who is forever saying 'Blow it out your ass'). At times the self-deprecation falters and James shows signs of believing rather too strongly in the merits of his - and others' - Footlights productions. Some passages even read like a stagestruck showbiz memoir - the last thing you'd expect, or want, from Clive James.
 However, for all that, May Week Was in June was a good bedside read, enjoyable enough (James is almost incapable of writing dully), with some genuinely funny moments and some acute observations. Even if the self-deprecation is laid on with a trowel, some of it shows genuine insight into his compulsions and shortcomings. Near the end, he looks back and observes himself as his Cambridge days come to a close: '... he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.' A passage like that makes you glad that, for all his gifts and achievements and charm, you're not Clive James.




Sunday, 4 December 2016

Well, Well

Yesterday morning - fine, bright and crisp - I took a stroll across Ashtead Common and onto Epsom Common, where I began noticing, every now and then, small signboards pointing the way to 'Epsom Well'. I decided to follow them and see what they led to, envisaging the usual grille-covered hole in the ground and a few sorry bricks, nothing to see here. But the signs eventually led off the Common and into a warren of curving, bungalow-and-semi-lined streets - a kind of suburban mandala, at the centre of which was... Epsom Well.
 There it was, a wellhead of undistinguished modern design (erected 1989) surrounded by circular paving, with a few brick steps leading up to it, the whole surrounded by Fifties bungalows, outside one of which a man was doggedly hanging up his Christmas lights. This, incredibly, was the well (long dry) around which England's first spa had grown up. To quote the inscription around the wellhead: 'The Epsom Well, the medicinal waters that in the the 17th century made Epsom the first spa town in England, a great resort and famous throughout Europe.'
 As I took in the curious scene - the titivated remnant of the historic well set in its bungaloid circus - something about it rang a bell. Yes, Iain Sinclair in London Orbital describes being led reluctantly to it (by the painter Laurence 'Renchi' Bicknell) in the course of his M25 circumambulation, and being duly underwhelmed. A tad harshly, he describes the 'new' Old Well as having 'a touch of the fishing leprechaun about it'. The Old Well, he concludes, is a case of 'lost heritage' - and, to be sure, it is hard, standing on that spot, to sense any connection with the well that made Epsom famous and launched the great fashion for 'taking the waters'.
 These waters were in demand because they contained a great deal of Magnesium Sulphate - 'Epsom salts' - reputedly health-giving, undoubtedly purgative in the quantities imbibed at the Epsom well. Visitors were encouraged to down as much as 15 or 16 pints of the often murky water, then walk on the Common until obliged to dart into the bushes. Men and women retired separately for this purpose, and locals could earn a few pennies acting as lookouts to preserve their privacy.
 As with many subsequent spas, there was something about Epsom that seems to have encouraged gaming, philandering and over-indulgence. Thomas Shadwell (immortalised in Poets' Corner and as the butt of Dryden's satirical barbs) had a hit with Epsom Wells, a stage comedy about the goings-on at the spa. As Sinclair drily remarks, 'The combination of bodily purging with amorous adventure, gaming houses and gluttony was perfectly suited to the English love of 'Carry On' humour. Farts, gropes, excursions.'
 Epsom may have been the first English spa, but its glory days were not long. Despite the digging of new wells in the town, Epsom had fallen out of fashion by the mid-18th century as the waters began to fail, Epsom salts became available (no need to drink the water) and other spa towns, with more attractive facilities, grew up around the country. But it was not the end of Epsom, which continued to thrive as a healthy and relatively civilised place quite close to London (with excellent horse-racing on the Downs) and is still a pleasant small town today. All's well that ends well, you might say.





Saturday, 3 December 2016

Larkin again: 'Something people do'

Talking of Larkin, on this day in 1973 he signed off on one of his last long poems, Show Saturday (which was the last poem selected for High Windows, put in, on the poet's insistence, to add more substance). This is Larkin playing it straight with a solidly built, richly descriptive pastoral - no trace here of the Larkin of This Be the Verse or Annus Mirabilis or, say, The Life with a Hole in It. Show Saturday is in the gentler, more wistful, even affectionate mode of The Whitsun Weddings or Here or To the Sea. It was inspired by a visit to the Bellingham Show in Northumberland, and unfolds in long, slightly laboured lines, many of them enjambed, even between stanzas, to disguise the ABACBDCD rhyme scheme. As so often with Larkin, it ends beautifully...

Grey day for the Show, but cars jam the narrow lanes.
Inside, on the field, judging has started: dogs
(Set their legs back, hold out their tails) and ponies (manes
Repeatedly smoothed, to calm heads); over there, sheep
(Cheviot and Blackface); by the hedge, squealing logs
(Chain Saw Competition). Each has its own keen crowd.
In the main arena, more judges meet by the jeep:
The jumping’s on next. Announcements, splutteringly loud,

Clash with the quack of man with pound notes round his hat
And a lit-up board. There’s more than just animals:
Bead-stalls, balloon-men, a Bank; a beer-marquee that
Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
And another, jackets. Folks sit about on bales
Like great straw dice. For each scene is linked by spaces
Not given to anything much, where kids scrap, freed,
While their owners stare different ways with incurious faces.

The wrestling starts, late; a wide ring of people; then cars;
Then trees; then pale sky. Two young men in acrobats’ tights
And embroidered trunks hug each other; rock over the grass,
Stiff-legged, in a two-man scrum. One falls: they shake hands.
Two more start, one grey-haired: he wins, though. They’re not so much fights
As long immobile strainings that end in unbalance
With one on his back, unharmed, while the other stands
Smoothing his hair. Bit there are other talents –

The long high tent of growing and making, wired-off
Wood tables past which crowds shuffle, eyeing the scrubbed spaced
Extrusions of earth: blanch leeks like church candles, six pods of
Broad beans (one split open), dark shining-leafed cabbages – rows
Of single supreme versions, followed (on laced
Paper mats) by dairy and kitchen; four brown eggs, four white eggs,
Four plain scones, four dropped scones, pure excellences that enclose
A recession of skills. And, after them, lambing sticks, rugs,

Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done,
But less than the honeycombs. Outside, the jumping’s over.
The young ones thunder their ponies in competition
Twice round the ring; the trick races, Musical Stalls,
Sliding off, riding bareback, the ponies dragged to and fro for
Bewildering requirements, not minding. But now, in the background,
Like shifting scenery, horse-boxes move; each crawls
Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound

For far-off farms. The pound-note man decamps.
The car park has thinned. They’re loading jumps on a truck.
Back now to private addresses, gates and lamps
In high stone one-street villages, empty at dusk,
And side roads of small towns (sports finals stuck
In front doors, allotments reaching down to the railway);
Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk
Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday –

The men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women,
Children all saddle-swank, mugfaced middleaged wives
Glaring at jellies, husbands on leave from the garden
Watchful as weasels, car-tuning curt-haired sons –
Back now, all of them, to their local lives:
To names on vans, and business calendars
Hung up in kitchens; back to loud occasions
In the Corn Exchange, to market days in bars,

To winter coming, as the dismantled Show
Itself dies back into the area of work.
Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time’s rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Larkin in the Corner

Philip Larkin rightly took his place in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey today, his memorial tablet set in place close to Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence (whom he revered, for reasons best known to himself). He is also immediately below Edward Lear and very close to Lewis Carroll, so in illustrious and eccentrically mixed company.
 He is also, of course, among a good many poets whose names were expected to live for ever but have wellnigh disappeared - Thomas May, William Mason, Christopher Anstey, John Philips (no, not that one), William Gifford, to name a few. Not that it matters; Poets' Corner was a haphazard growth, never really planned, and standards have definitely tightened over the years - so much so that Larkin had a long wait for his place (a great deal longer than his bête noire Ted Hughes). But this was not owing to doubts about his poetic abilities; it was rather a by-product of the deeply silly hysteria provoked by the publication of Anthony Thwaite's edition of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography. That, happily, has now died down and a more nuanced assessment of Larkin the man has prevailed, along with a growing realisation that as a poet he was indeed the real thing. To quote Auden on a couple of other poets with bad reputations...
'Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.'
  And besides, Larkin has become a genuinely popular poet. His popularity might rest on the unequal tripod of This Be the Verse, Annus Mirabilis and An Arundel Tomb (whose last two lines inevitably supply the inscription on Larkin's tablet), but it is real enough, and many continue to read far beyond the greatest hits. If anyone deserves a place in Poets' Corner, it is Larkin. His poetry will surely live on.

Rodin and Dance

Yesterday I visited the Courtauld Gallery - always a pleasure (what a great gallery it is) - to take a look at Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement. This is a fascinating, tightly focused exhibition that traces the course of the great sculptor's late-life fascination with dance in various forms, some of them bordering on acrobatics. There are sketches - some more finished than others, some coloured in with blots of watercolour, others dashed off with pencil on paper in a few suggestive lines - and there are ranks of little terracotta models, few of them finished, most just quickly moulded (but eloquent) working models. All this work is the fragmentary record of a hugely ambitious, unfinished project whose ultimate aim was to capture movement, in its most intense and fluid form - dance - in the most static of media, sculpture.
 Happily I toured this exhibition with my cousin, who is a dancer and better able than I to appreciate the finer points, decipher what is actually going on in some of the more confusing sketches (is that an arm or a leg?) and to spot the occasional lapse from the merely difficult to the anatomically impossible. Rodin was constantly adjusting these sketches, sometimes using movable paper cut-outs or creating sets of slightly varying copies of the same drawing. Some of the sketches show the same pose from different angles, and some are so ambiguous that Rodin helpfully labelled the bottom of the drawing 'bas'. This way up.
 Rodin took his inspiration from many sources - not, primarily,  classical ballet (the preserve of Degas) but modern dance, acrobatic dancing and traditional Cambodian dance. The last fired Rodin's imagination when the national dance troupe visited France - there's a striking photograph of the elderly artist sketching them from life - and modern dance came Rodin's way via Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; there are sketches of Nijinsky himself in the strange angular poses of the Faun. The principal muse of Rodin's dance project, however, was a Parisian dancer and acrobat called Alda Moreno, whose extraordinarily flexible body we see photographed in an arty nude mag as well as in sketch after sketch, model after model by the fascinated Rodin.
 This quite small-scale exhibition inhabits the kind of cosy space that encourages visitors to chat about what they're looking at, usually making cheery comments along the lines of 'I wouldn't like to try that' or 'Could you do that?' What everyone tries to ignore is that most of these drawings depict naked bodies, often posed in positions that leave no doubt that the women are women and the men men. The pudenda femina and their male analogues follow you round the room, as it were. No wonder nude ballet never caught on.



Tuesday, 29 November 2016

From Bagpuss to 'an emergency of the too realized'

The adorable granddaughter Summer, being a three-year-old of taste and discernment, is a big fan of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's classic creation Bagpuss. Yesterday we were watching the very first episode, the tale of a ship in a bottle - or rather a shipwreck in a bottle, which is repaired and restored to ship shape by means of a little Bagpuss magic and music.
It put me in mind of a Kay Ryan poem, which I pass on with a tip of the hat to the incomparable Dave Lull...

Ship in a Bottle

It seems
impossible—
not just a
ship in a
bottle but
wind and sea.
The ship starts
to struggle—an
emergency of the
too realized we
realize. We can 
get it out but
not without
spilling its world.
A hammer tap
and they’re free.
Which death
will it be,
little sailors?

No one shakes things up quite like Kay Ryan, and in so few, so precisely placed words.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Colour

Because it's his birthday (born on this day in 1912), and because he isn't represented in the Royal Academy's AbEx exhibition, here's a splash of Morris Louis colour to start the week.
It's called Point of Tranquility...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Dr Gully: Stuff and Passion

Having found so much to enjoy in Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare, I've been seeking out her other novels, with limited success (this really is a very nearly forgotten novelist). I've just finished reading Dr Gully, which I found in a 1976 Penguin edition (published price 45p!). This is a fictionalised biography - or, more accurately, a fact-bound novel - that takes as its subject the eminent Victorian physician (and psychic researcher) James Manby Gully, who, towards the end of his life, became unwittingly embroiled in the sensational, and still unsolved, Charles Bravo murder.
 The most striking aspect of Jenkins' novel is that there is no mention of Charles Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself - and the ensuing inquests - don't happen until the closing chapters. This is all, as it were, back story. Charles Bravo doesn't even feature as a speaking or active character and is only heard of indirectly. That is how tightly focused the novel is on Gully's feelings and experiences. It is a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, clearly charismatic man with a mesmeric presence - a man whose spell the author herself seems to have fallen under.
 The essential action (as against plot) of the novel is embodied in the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and a beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo. She is trapped in a deeply unhappy mariage blanc with a hopeless alcoholic, while Gully is shackled by a defunct marriage to an older woman from whom he long ago parted but who is still alive. The course of the superficially unlikely romance between Florence and Gully is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable, and we follow its vicissitudes with real emotional involvement.
 Elizabeth Jenkins is not one of those rare novelists who don't so much write about the past as effortlessly inhabit it (think Penelope Fitzgerald). Rather she works her way in by building a world rich in abundant and intricate detail, a world of stuff - furniture, textiles, dresses, hats, coats, carriages, lamps, curtains, medications, mourning dress, stationery, wallpapers, toiletries, jewellery, wash stands, all the equipment of opulent upper-middle-class Victorian life. Jenkins not only tells you about these things, she often tells you which suppliers they came from - and you can be sure the information is accurate; this is a diligently researched book.
 In less skilled hands, this would be tiresome, but here it is essential to the writer's purpose, conveying the oppressive world of stuff - and servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping - in which the principal characters are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is giving nothing away to say that this affair is ultimately doomed, and that in the end Florence Ricardo becomes Mrs Charles Bravo. By then she has parted decisively from Gully, and we have only indirect knowledge of what is going on in her life. Gully is now a helpless observer, looking on as the terrible climactic events unfold...
 After the parting of the lovers, a good deal of the heat goes out of the story, and it unfolds in a different manner, closer to a more conventional kind of true-crime historical fiction. This, however, is interesting enough in itself, and Gully's piecing-together of the events that led to Charles Bravo's death is entirely plausible. What is less satisfactory is the near-sentimentality of some of the final scenes, in which Jenkins seems almost besotted with her creation, her James Gully. She might have done better to end on a sharper, more ambivalent note. That said, though, this remains a very fine exercise in making a persuasive and involving fiction out of a mass of factual material. If you can get hold of it, do give it a try.
 (The picture above shows Dr Gully with the materialised spirit known as 'Katie King'.)








Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Ardizzone in the House of Illustration

Today I visited the House of Illustration, a new(ish - est. 2014) gallery devoted to the art of illustration. It's on Granary Square, part of the rather wonderful regeneration of the former post-industrial wasteland around King's Cross and St Pancras.
 The House of Illustration has an exhibition on (until 22 January) of works by the great illustrator Edward Ardizzone. I've always loved his work - since childhood, in fact - so this was a must-see, and it did not disappoint. There's a good range of work on show - drawings, watercolours, pen and ink, etchings, lithographs - representing his career as book illustrator, war artist, observer of the passing scene, and 'commercial artist'. In addition there are several of his delightful illustrated letters to friends and family, and a video in which Shirley Hughes, Quentin Blake and others pay tribute to Ardizzone, a man who seems to have been every bit as genial as his art would suggest.
 Ardizzone is a rare example of a cheering artist, one whose works often make you smile and always make you feel that bit better about being alive in this world. Even a picture of a burial party interring corpses - On the Road to Tripoli: A Cup of Tea for the Burial Party (one of his war paintings) - is more about the tommies enjoying their cup of tea than the grisly business they are engaged in. On the other hand there are a couple of war paintings, large watercolours, that are almost bleak - A Battery Position in an Orchard of Young Fruit Trees in the Snow and A Drunken Dutchman in a Street in Bremen, a sad, lone figure in an entirely blasted townscape. Nothing could be further from Ardizzone's usual happy drunks enjoying themselves - and occasionally fighting, especially the women - in the English pubs he loved (see, and enjoy, his illustrations for The Local, a book by Maurice Gorham, who also commissioned much of Ardizzone's work for the Radio Times).
 It's easy to undervalue illustrators and rank them far below 'real' artists - a good reason in itself to have a dedicated gallery like the House of Illustration - but a close look at the pictures in this exhibition leaves no doubt of Ardizzone's extraordinary ability. His use of cross-hatching, in particular, to create the most subtle gradations of tone and depth is quite prodigious, as is his all-round facility as a draughtsman. His rounded forms and broken lines suggest the influence of Rowlandson, his heavier lines and deeper shading recall Daumier, and there is something Baroque about the composition of his more complex pictures - but Ardizzone was himself from the start, instantly recognisable, instantly cheering. He brought something very special to the art of illustration, entering fully into the spirit of the book and creating real, complete pictures, with real depth, rather than just decoration. His art will outlast many of those books - indeed, it already has.
 As I wandered round this exhibition, I was delighted to find two girl students copying some of the pictures - and copying them so well Ardizzone would surely have approved. It's good to know that some students at least are still learning to draw.



Monday, 21 November 2016

The Hon. F.S. Jackson, Cricketer Extraordinaire

Born on this day in 1870 was Yorkshire and England cricketer Stanley Jackson - or, to give him his full name and honorifics, Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, PC. As that list of initials hints, Jackson was a man of many parts, and he had quite a life.
 At Harrow, Jackson was a friend of the future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and had another one, Winston Churchill, as his fag. At Cambridge, he took the brilliant but unconventional batsman Ranijitsinjhi under his wing, getting him into the University First XI and ensuring that he won his Blue, all in the teeth of considerable racially-motivated opposition. Jackson played in the successful Yorkshire sides of the turn of the 20th century, scoring 1,000 runs each season and achieving the double (1,000 runs and 100 wickets) twice - all this despite his other commitments, mostly to do with his political career. These commitments also prevented him touring with England, but he played in 20 Tests (a record for a player who never toured) and was captain in 1905, retaining the Ashes.
 Jackson served in the Second Boer War and later became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was elected an MP in 1915, and served as Financial Secretary to the War Office. Then, in 1927, he was appointed Governor of Bengal, knighted with a GCIE and made a Privy Councillor. In 1932, while giving a speech in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta, he was shot at five times with a pistol by a revolutionary nationalist. Showing that he hadn't lost his sportsman's reflexes, Jackson ducked and sidestepped all five bullets and, before the smoke had cleared, coolly resumed his speech, to admiring cheers.
 Jackson died back in London in 1947. Looking back on his funeral, the Bishop of Knaresborough recalled, 'As I gazed down on the rapt faces of that vast congregation, I could see how they revered him as though he was the Almighty - though, of course, infinitely stronger on the leg side.'

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Tackling AbEx

My taste for Abstract Expressionism having been revived by my recent visit to the Guggenheim in Venice, I was inevitably going to visit the Royal Academy's blockbuster exhibition sooner or later. I reckoned I was feeling strong enough to face twelve rooms of AbEx yesterday, so off I went to Burlingon House - where I was delighted to find a complete absence of queues (if they'd managed to get Monet into the title - From Monet to Pollock? - it would have been a different story).
 For a blockbuster, this one was pleasingly uncrowded, with little or no jostling and clear views of the paintings, both close up and at a distance (often the better option with some of these vast canvases). It's a high-impact exhibition of mostly high-impact, large-scale works, and the overall effect can accurately be described as stunning.  Though it was interesting, enlightening even, to see so much Abstract Expressionism in one place, I was left wondering if it's the kind of art that lends itself to display on such a massive scale.
 Is a roomful of Jackson Pollocks more or less impressive than a few, carefully selected and hung? I'd say, on the evidence of the roomful at the RA, decidedly less. I'm happy to regard Pollock as a great artist (not Titian great, not Rembrandt great, but modern great), but paintings that are so assertive, so densely busy, so fizzing with energy are hard to take en masse and can too easily feel more like an assault than an aesthetic experience. And Pollock's are among the best paintings in the exhibition - lesser works in these circumstances can seem strenuous, inspissated, melodramatically gestural, almost comic (I must admit I was sometimes wearing a not entirely appropriate smile as I toured the rooms).
 Rothko - of whose greatness I have no doubts - does not come out of this exhibition as well as he should have done. Some very fine examples of his mature work have been gathered, but hanging them in the central hall - a space open on four sides, where all routes through the other rooms meet - does them no favours. Rothkos need an enclosed, peaceful, womb-like space to bring out their mysterious beauty - and they need carefully modulated, dimmish light. The central gallery is less brightly lit than the rest of the exhibition, but it's not a good Rothko light.
 So, what did I get out of this exhibition, and why am I glad that I girded my loins and tackled it? Certainly a new appreciation of Arshile Gorky (who gets a room to himself), whose Water of the Flowery Mill [below] struck me as a very beautiful painting indeed (and one which, like all such brushy, juicy, textured work, does not reproduce well). Then there was Willem de Kooning, who is abundantly represented here and whose works I studied with some care. I thought I didn't much care for De Kooning, but the more I saw of him here the more I realised that it was just a case of having come across too many De Koonings of the kind I don't like - the more angry, slashing, grotesque stuff - and too little of the rest. I stood long and happily in front of the glorious, quasi-pastoral Villa Borghese [above] and Untitled (1961) - such colours, such plenitude of light and air, such a relief after the claustrophobia and relentless tension of other De Koonings.
 A good deal of this exhibition left me cold - Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, even Clyfford Still. I was hoping there might be rather less rigour and absolutism, rather more colour for the heck of it, perhaps a bit of Morris Louis, some more decorative Helen Frankenthalers... Abstract Expressionism ends well, though, with a room of late works that includes a vast, light-filled four-canvas mural by Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, a kind of leave-taking from the movement ('Tom' was the critic Thomas B. Hess, an early champion of Abstract Expressionism). And there are two glorious late De Koonings - ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled V (1976). These sent me on my way weary and dazed but convinced that, in the end, I had seen some very fine art.









Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Bright Wake: Adam Nicolson's Homer

Reading in bed is one of the great simple pleasures of life, but bedtime reading has to be chosen with care. Topping my bedside pile recently was Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, and this was not a good choice. Not because it's not good - it's brilliant - but because it was almost too good, certainly too intellectually stimulating, and it was too big; short books, or ones that divide themselves easily into smaller units, are better for bedtime. As a result, I took far too long to read it - but I have finally done so, and must report that I found it the most illuminating, exciting study of Homer I've ever read.
 Nicolson sets out to answer two linked questions: Where does Homer come from, and Why does Homer matter? He immediately declares his own conviction that the accepted dating of 'Homer' is wrong, that the Iliad had its origins in a period 1,000 years before the standard eighth-century BC date, at a time when the semi-nomadic, hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppe first came into contact with the sophisticated, authoritarian city-and-palace culture of the eastern Mediterranean. It's a case that he argues convincingly in the course of the book, and it certainly seems to explain a lot about that strange and bloody epic.
 Nicolson's great strength, though, is in conveying the sheer thrill of discovering Homer - which is not necessarily the same thing as reading him: Nicolson had 'done' Homer at school, but it was many years later, after the decidedly Homeric experience of sailing a 40ft ketch through a violent storm, that Homer first came home to him, in a blaze of revelation. 'I knew that this was the human spirit on fire, rapidity itself, running, going and endlessly able to throw off little sidelights like the sparks thrown off by the wheels of an engine hammering through the night. Speed, scale, violence, threat; but every spark with humanity in it.'
 What follows is a journey through Homer that is at once literary, historical, topographic, archaeological, ethnographic and intensely personal. It's a dazzling performance,  in the course of which Nicolson covers a lot of ground, in every sense - and a lot of sea, so essential to understanding Homer's world. His conclusion? 'Homer is not Greek; he is the light shining in the world. He provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to these questions; he merely dramatised their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.' As I closed this extraordinary book, I could only agree, and marvel.



Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Keaton Walks

The publicity blitz for the new Harry Potter spin-off film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has been so relentless that I keep accidentally catching interviews about it, usually with its star, Eddie 'Rubberlips' Redmayne. What is always mentioned in these interviews, as an index of Rowling's all-round wonderfulness, is her direction that Redmayne's character, Newt Scamander, has a 'Buster Keaton walk'.
What, I wondered, is that? Nothing so instantly identifiable as a Charley Chaplin walk, that's for sure. Keaton's various walks are subtly nuanced and adapt themselves to circumstances - is there really a single Buster Keaton walk? I suppose there is, but it doesn't often last long in the same register. So I thought I'd have a look on You Tube. A search for 'Buster Keaton walking' yielded this little gem, which I pass on for your enjoyment, and as a reminder of Keaton's rare kinaesthetic genius.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Talking Cricket with the Giant

The other day I learnt that the world record for session-drinking - one not recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, despite its branding - is held by the gigantic pro wrestler (and occasional film actor) André the Giant. André (né André René Roussimoff) was reported to have downed 156 beers (each of 16 US fl oz/ 470ml) in one sitting, and he came close to that figure on several other occasions. But André also has his place among the lesser footnotes of literary history...
  In the 1950s, Samuel Beckett bought a plot of land in a hamlet northeast of Paris, where he built a small house with the help of a local called Boris Roussimoff, who became a friend and card-playing partner. Boris was André's father, and by the time André was 12 he had already grown too big to be taken to school on the school bus. Beckett volunteered to drive the young giant to school in his truck, and did so daily for some while.
 What did the great writer and the young wrestler-to-be talk about in these surreal scenarios? According to Boris, they talked almost entirely of cricket (Beckett is famously the only Nobel literature laureate to have featured in Wisden). Some, however, have imagined other conversations between the two...

Monday, 14 November 2016

Leon Russell

And the deaths just keep on coming... Now it's Leon Russell who has gone to join the great celestial jam session, having died in his sleep at the age of 74.
 Russell was a massively talented musician who could do just about anything - songwriting, performing, producing, arranging, mentoring, playing sessions, managing the practicalities (he pulled together the epic Mad Dogs and Englishmen phenomenon out of the wreckage of Joe Cocker's Grease Band). He worked with everyone, from Phil Spector to Elton John, B.B. King to George Harrison, the Beach Boys to Bob Dylan (that's his piano on Watching the River Flow and When I Paint My Masterpiece).  He wrote A Song for You, which has been covered by more than 100 artists, and was universally revered by his fellow musicians - a supreme example of the 'musician's musician'.
 Leon Russell and the Shelter People was one of the albums of my misspent youth - I still have the played-to-death vinyl LP. I have only to hear the opening bars of Stranger in a Strange Land and I'm back in 1971. Here's a link...
 Those days are gone - Eheu fugaces labuntur anni - and now so is Leon Russell. RIP.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

'A traveller with the moon's halo above him...'

Talking of Godfathers of Gloom (see 'RIP', below), I was reading R.S. Thomas last night. The Bard of Bleakness certainly deserves his craggy and forbidding reputation - nobody has written better of life's fierce rigours and God's stubborn absence. However, when, on occasion, a shaft of light penetrates the Cambrian gloom, it shines all the brighter for its rarity. As here -

Arrival

Not conscious
    that you have been seeking
        suddenly 
    you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
          dust free
    with no road out
but the one you came in by.

        A bird chimes
    from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
    you know. The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
    as you are, a traveller
          with the moon's halo
    above him, who has arrived
    after long journeying where he
          began, catching this
    one truth by surprise 
that there is everything to look forward to.

Friday, 11 November 2016

PS

We cannot let this day pass without discovering what Donovan makes of it all. Here is his official tribute to LC - and now we know what cologne he favoured...

Donovan Tribute to Leonard Cohen
I join the many tributes today for the passing on of the Great Poet Leonard Cohen.
Leonard once said he would be remembered only as a minor Poet of the Mid Twentieth Century. This is characteristic of Leonard’s understated humour. Leonard is a major Poet and we hail his body of work this day!
Last October just passed I was in Berkley California at the home studio of our friend Mandy Aftel, admiring a painting of Leonards, a recent gift to Mandy from Leonard. The gift in praise of Mandy’s Natural Fragrance blending, which Leonard loved to wear.
In the London of the Sixties, Leonards first album was ‘de rigueur' in every young artistic girl and boys flat.
I stayed at Leonard’s Greek house on Hydra one summer and knew that Leonard was from the Classical Poetic Tradition, with a special love of the work of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Thank you Leonard for being a champion of Poetry and encouraging all Poets to excel in this Dark Age of Unreason and Uncertainty!

RIP

So now it's RIP Leonard Cohen, who at least lived to a ripe old age, and seems to have died happy. I fancy he always was (well, reasonably so) - I never bought into the 'Godfather of Gloom' stuff; so many of his songs are full of self-deprecating humour and delight in the pleasures of life. I'm Your Man, my favourite among his albums, would surely make anyone smile. In a way it's a pity Cohen didn't pip Dylan to the Nobel - he was, after all, a poet who started singing his poems, unlike the songwriting genius Bob.
Which track to play? I've opted for this one, which somehow seems fitting. It's adapted from a poem by Cavafy, which itself took its inspiration from Antony and Cleopatra. I rate it one of Cohen's most beautiful songs.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Sutch Is Life

Talking of electoral matters, David 'Screaming Lord' Sutch was born on this day in 1940. Sutch, an eccentric rock'n'roller and self-publicist, stood in forty-odd parliamentary by-elections, invariably losing his deposit - though he once beat the candidate of the Continuing Social Democratic Party, shortly before the SDP collapsed (Sutch subsequently offered the leadership of his National Teenage Party to David Owen). Several of Sutch's National Teengage Party policies later became law - votes at 18, passports for pets, all-day pub opening - but his principal aim was to get noticed. With his trademark top hat and rosette-covered leopardskin jacket, he was indeed unmissable on stage when the results were called out.
 As a musician, Sutch can be generously seen as a goth-horror/ shock-rock pioneer, his stage act involving coffins, knives and daggers, fake blood, skulls and offal. Joe Meek saw enough promise in him to produce a single, but Sutch was never more than a cult act. On the other hand, he was amazingly well connected and could spot talent, giving early opportunities to the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Noel Redding and Nicky Hopkins. All of these performed on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, which has a reputation as one of the worst ever made (I'm not going to check). His follow-up album, released as Hands of Jack the Ripper, featured (among others) Ritchie Blackmore, Matthew Fisher and Keith Moon - none of whom knew they were being recorded.
 And where was this legendary album recorded? According to Wikipedia and every other source I can find, at the 'Carshalton Park Rock'n'Roll Festival'. Eh? I must have missed that, though I was living on the edge of that very park right through the Sixties. Does anyone know or remember anything of this 'festival'? Malty? Were you there?