Sunday, 23 April 2017

Snap

As soon as I was safely out of the country, Theresa May cheekily called a snap election - a development not unnoticed by the walking party. One of our number declared authoritatively that she was obliged to do this in order to deal with right-wing 'troublemakers' in her party who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that didn't precisely meet their demands (he didn't explain how the security of an increased majority would encourage them to pipe down - and I fear by 'troublemaker' he meant anyone who actually wants the UK out of the EU). He also predicted a mighty surge in support for the Lib Dems - who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that involved, er, Brexit - under their wildly charismatic leader, Tim Thingy. Well, from where they are, the only way is up of course, but it's not likely to make any real difference, is it - unless our friend was looking forward to an unholy alliance of Lib Dems, Scot Nats and others somehow thwarting Brexit. Now there's a depressing thought. Old Nige will call the election result in due course. Meanwhile I hope not to be returning to this subject very often.

Back from Greece...


And mountainous it was - we were walking in the Taygetos range, climbing endlessly along zig-zagging mule tracks, in places reduced to a rubble of rocks, scree and boulders, then at last descending equally endlessly through similarly challenging terrain. But we all survived, without so much as a twisted ankle - and, by golly, it was worth the exertion. The views were immense and dramatic, upwards to the snow-capped peaks of the principal mountains of the range, downwards into immensely deep canyons and river valleys, and all around to rocky and wooded bluffs, flower-covered slopes, distant glimpses of the wide Spartan plain...
 As for the wildlife - the walk began with a yard-long head-to-tail crocodile of Pine Processionary Moth larvae making its wiggly way across the car park of the inn where we stopped en route to our base in Mystras (their huge cocoons were hanging from the trees like grubby plastic bags). On our last afternoon we heard a cuckoo calling in the wooded valleys below us, and on the first day we spotted two wild tortoises resting in the undergrowth. Wild flowers were everywhere - cyclamen and red anemones, muscari (grape hyacinths) and blue pimpernel, sea squill and giant fennel, Judas trees and acacias in full flower, and orchids, orchids galore: I must have seen at least half a dozen spectacular species new to me, and some of the commoner ones were gloriously abundant (there's one in the foreground below).
 All this, and butterflies too - swallowtails both Greek and English, clouded yellows in profusion, small coppers and brown arguses, several species of orange tips and blues, and a number of Greek browns I couldn't name. I must have seen the best part of thirty species in all - it was, when the sun was out (which was more than half the time), butterfly heaven.
 We made no literary pilgrimages this time, but I can report that Patrick Leigh Fermor's house remains just as it was a year ago. Nothing has been put into storage, and no concrete progress made towards the projected Leigh Fermor museum house. This is no great surprise.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Monday

It's been wonderful spending so much time with the grandchildren and their parents, but the undeniable downside is that the brain turns mushier than ever, exhaustion sets in daily, and blogging, among other things, must take a back seat for a while. Hence the sparsity of recent posts here.
  And tomorrow, at a preposterously early hour, I'm flying off to Greece with my walking friends for a few days in a decidedly mountainous part of the Peloponnese.
  I'll leave you with an after-Easter poem by Kay Ryan that takes its title from Wallace Stevens' Of Mere Being...

The Palm at the End of the Mind

After fulfilling everything
one two three he came back again
free, no more prophecy requiring
that he enter the city just this way,
no more set-up treacheries.
It was the day after Easter. He adored
the eggshell litter and the cellophane
caught in the grass. Each door he passed
swung with its own business, all the
witnesses along his route of pain
again distracted by fear of loss
or hope of gain. It was wonderful
to be a man, bewildered by
so many flowers, the rush
and ebb of hours, his own
ambiguous gestures - his
whole heart exposed, then
taking cover.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday


And here, to mark Easter Sunday, is another treasure of the National Gallery, Titian's early masterpiece Noli Me Tangere. Here, as described in John's gospel (my current bedside reading), is the moment when the risen Jesus, having announced himself to Mary Magdalene by speaking her name, warns her to 'touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father'.
  A brilliant showpiece for the young Titian's prodigious skill in figure painting and landscape, this picture was originally conceived as a more straightforward composition, with Jesus in a less dramatically expressive pose - and wearing a gardener's hat (as in my favourite Resurrection painting - Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb in the Queen's Gallery, below).
  Happy Easter Day, everyone!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday

This Good Friday morning, with perfect timing, I stumbled on a piece on Raphael's Crucifixion (known as the Mond Crucifixion) that I'd all but forgotten writing. It was on The Dabbler six years ago, and here's the link...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Other Men's Flowers

Here's a link to the excellent Freddie's Flowers blog, where I have left a small bouquet of flower poems...

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A New World

When I saw the huge black glass facade of something called 'Poundworld' on the high street, I thought it was unlikely that this was going to be an Ezra Pound theme park - but what was it? Surely an establishment on such a scale couldn't be filled with stuff selling for a quid, could it? Especially as it was only a few doors away from a perfectly satisfactory Poundland...
 Reader (contain your excitement), it was! This was Poundworld indeed - a world packed full of quid-priced stuff. And I have to say it was one of the most depressing interiors I've ever set foot in - a vast, warehouse-like space with draining overhead strip lighting that reduced such colour as there was to a lifeless grey and induced a feeling like the prelude to a migraine attack. It was rather like a Soviet-era supermarket, except that the shelves, far from being empty, were piled high with stuff - stuff that seemed to be much the same as the stuff in any other pound shop, just displayed in greater quantities.  By the time I'd reached the far end, I was losing the will to live, and could only turn and head as fast as I could back towards the entrance, weaving my way through the browsing throng. The place was clearly doing a roaring trade, the checkout queue stretching away into the grey distance. I've no idea why - novelty perhaps? But then I've no idea about many features of this mystifying modern world.
 Relieved to be out again in the fresh air and natural light, I strolled a few doors down the street and glanced almost fondly into the old familiar Poundland.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

'What couldn't possibly happen to us had happened...'

I have written much about Edward Thomas on this blog, but, looking back, I realise that I have never marked the anniversary of his death. And this year it is the centenary of that sad loss to English poetry - and something more terrible to his family and others who loved him.
 In her autobiography, Myfanwy Thomas, Edward's younger daughter, then just six years old, describes her anxieties after her father left for the war -

After saying good-bye to my father, every night for weeks I prayed for his safety on the ship, which seemed to me the most dangerous part of going to war. I imagined huge waves dashing against a small tug-boat, which mounted to the crest and then slithered down. My eyes screwed up tightly could not dispel this terrifying picture. The only prayer I knew was one which Joan Farjeon, Joe's daughter, had taught me. The prayer was a puzzle but I did not like to ask Mother about it; we were not a praying family. But seeing Joan kneel by her bed enchanted me and I became a regular kneeler.

Then, when the dreaded news came -

On that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. "No answer" came like a croak, and the boy rode away.
Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother's sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.
The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron [her sister Bronwen] had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire on a rage of tears - for what couldn't possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea?

 It was long believed that Thomas died without a mark on his body, killed by the concussive wave of a passing shell. However, in a letter discovered recently in an American archive, his commanding officer wrote that he was 'shot clean through the chest'. His widow was tactfully spared this fact - the slightest softening of a blow that plunged her into unbearable grief and a shattering 'breakdown'.
 Robert Frost, who described Thomas as 'the only brother I ever had', knew him for just four years, but his loving friendship and encouragement made a poet - ultimately a great poet - of Thomas. Three years after his friend's death, Frost wrote To E.T. -

I slumbered with your poems on my breast 
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through 
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb 
To see, if in a dream they brought of you, 

I might not have the chance I missed in life 
Through some delay, and call you to your face 
First soldier, and then poet, and then both, 
Who died a soldier-poet of your race. 

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain 
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained— 
And one thing more that was not then to say: 
The Victory for what it lost and gained. 

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire 
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day 
The war seemed over more for you than me, 
But now for me than you—the other way. 

How over, though, for even me who knew 
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 
If I was not to speak of it to you 
And see you pleased once more with words of mine? 



Friday, 7 April 2017

Birthday


Born on this day in 1613 was Gerrit Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, and one of Leiden's finest. He's under-represented in the National Gallery, but this beautifully executed Portait of a Man (surely a self-portrait?) hangs there.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Poet Voice

With a tip of the hat to both Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on this interesting study of 'Poet Voice', the curious affliction that overcomes so many poets or 'poets' when called upon to read their works aloud. The author of the piece identifies several forms of Poet Voice - for the two principal modes, check out the links to Andy Hamilton's imitation and to 'Switch', the spoof Spoken Word poet in Cardinal Burns. In the video clip, the American poet Louise Gluck demonstrates the standard literary form of Poet Voice all too perfectly - but over here it has a rather different sound. Overwhelmingly it's the sound of Liverpool (blame McGough, Patten and co.), of Yorkshire (blame Hughes), of nowhere south of the Midlands - London poets are generally obliged to adopt a cockney Spoken Word/ rap mode if they are to have any credibility, or to make it onto the airwaves.
 Radio 4 is infested with contemporary verse, usually spoken by its creators, invariably adopting standard Poet Voice or, in the more 'banging' programmes, loud Spoken Word voice. Most of the work is dismal enough already, but the liberal adoption of these voices makes it pretty much unlistenable. The prime offender (at least in category one) is Paul Farley, a Liverpudlian who adopts full-on Poet Voice not only to read his poems but also to present his programmes: check out The Echo Chamber, a show that has surely done more than any other to put listeners off the whole business of contemporary verse.
 It need not be like this. It's perfectly possible to read poems without adopting a 'special' voice, as Philip Larkin showed. He read as if his business was to put across his work as directly and straightforwardly as he could, not to proclaim 'I am a Poet and this is Poetry'. I'm not sure that poets' (or indeed actors') readings ever add anything very useful to what is on the page, but at least Larkin - unlike so many of today's practitioners - didn't make matters worse.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Nuntium Retroprogressivum

The news from Cambridge today is that a development of new houses has been emblazoned with graffiti - in Latin. Dog Latin anyway, so it's probably not the work of classicists (I'm assuming they still have to know Latin, but I'm probably behind the times there).
 In my day, graffiti of a provocative nature was everywhere, most of it the work of various anarchist groups who were all over the place in those rebellious times. Blake was popular, I remember - 'The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,' etc - and the likes of Antonin Artaud ('Jet of Blood')  and countless 'revolutionaries' now forgotten, at least by me. At that time, of course, Cambridge was a very different city, essentially an impoverished and declining provincial town with a very wealthy (and widely resented) university in its midst. Now it's an extremely prosperous city, made rich by high-tech industries, and with house prices to match. It seems the town's resentment now is against the housing developers and their allies who are turning most of the city into a big-money zone where the locals can't afford to live. It makes you quite nostalgic for the run-down, low-rent grubbiness of Cambridge as it was half a century ago. Half a century! Eheu fugaces labuntur anni... [Enough with the Latin - Ed.]

Monday, 3 April 2017

And More

Just now, things seem to be conspiring to bear me back into the past - specifically to that golden period when I first arrived, as a nine-year-old boy, in the suburban demiparadise that is still, after various wanderings, my home. I was listening to Radio 3 this morning when Schubert's lovely song Hark! Hark! The Lark came on, beautifully performed by Ailish Tynan with Iain Burnside on the piano. This took me straight back to music lessons at my primary school when, with Mr Rutland at the piano, we children would raise our voices to sing this song, and Haydn's Creation's Hymn and Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds and other stirring and joyful classics. Actually, I wasn't raising my voice much at all, but I was listening - and Hark! Hark! The Lark was one of the very first songs that awakened the love of music in me - a love that has, in various forms, been part of my life ever since. Hark! Hark! sent me to the record shop to buy what I think was my first record - a Music for Pleasure EP of Die Forelle, sung by the Vienna Boys' Choir (price 6s 8d).  This happened in an unremarkable state primary school - would a pupil of today hear such music at the age of nine? I very much doubt it. But then it seems to me, looking back, that we came out of that fifty-to-a-class primary school rather better educated, in some ways, than today's graduates. Times change.

Continuities

Our daughter and the grandsons, now aged four and two, are over from New Zealand - and who wouldn't head for England now that April's there? As usual, she has brought fine weather with her, and yesterday was a quite glorious April day - the elms (such as they are), lime trees and hornbeams in tiny leaf, horse chestnut parasols just opening, blackthorn and wild cherry in flower, the first cuckoo flowers showing above the grass, green alkanet briefly a thing of beauty, white comfrey and honesty in flower, early bluebells and cow parsley umbels, speedwell and violets, even the dandelions a glorious spectacle in their first flush. In the gardens, magnolia trees are flowering as amazingly as ever, and any day now wisteria, lilac and spring clematis will follow. What a time to be in England...
  We all spent the afternoon in the local park where I (and Mrs N, separately) had played and explored and (in my case) climbed trees six decades ago. The boys had no interest in the children's playground (which wasn't there in our day) but were fascinated by the grassy slopes and curving old-brick walls of what had been, in the eighteenth century, an ornamental canal with a grandly conceived grotto at its end, of which only the brick structure of 'caves' and tunnels (now blocked off) were completed. The house for which this landscape was laid out never got built, but these remnants of the grand plan have happily survived. Climbing the slopes and rolling down them, jumping off the walls, crawling into the one open tunnel - the boys relished it all, just as their grandparents, and their mother, had in their childhoods. These continuities, the fruits of staying so long 'rooted in one dear perpetual place', are to be treasured. And, to cap it all, as we were larking about by the grotto, the first orange-tip butterfly of the year wandered past.
  There were more to come today as I took a walk on another boyhood haunt, Wilderness Island (which really was a wilderness in my day) - not only orange tips but my first speckled woods of the year, a profusion of them, and peacocks, commas, holly blues, brimstones, a red admiral and a tortoiseshell. In England - now!

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Trouble with Nature

Those almond blossoms are all very well, but there's something intrinsically wrong with nature, isn't there? The 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher certainly thought so, and he knew just what it was. 'Nature,' he declared boldly, 'is too green, and badly lit' ('trop verte et mal éclairée').
 I came across this quotation today, and it reminded me rather of Ronald Firbank's equally lofty and absurd 'The world is so badly managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.' One suspects, though, that Boucher probably meant it. He's not a painter I'm drawn to - his frothy Rococo confections  don't appeal - but I'm prepared to forgive the man who could paint the outrageously erotic Mademoiselle O'Murphy (below).


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Birthday Blossom


Here, to mark the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh (born on this day in 1853), is something seasonal, beautifully painted and almost jolly. It's one of the studies of almond blossom that he painted in 1888 to celebrate the birth of his nephew, whom his brother Theo named after Vincent.
 The paintings are suffused with the happiness of their occasion and the joy and promise of new life, but are too honest to be merely pretty, or merely jolly. The pink-edged impasto blossom is vividly present, but no more so than the gnarled and knotted branches, their visual counterpoint, sharply outlined and firmly drawn in the manner of the Japanese artists whose work had such a powerful effect on Van Gogh. The blossom will soon be gone, but those assertive branches will live on, jagged, difficult, undeniable. Vincent's moment of happiness too was soon gone, and his troubled life did not have much longer to run - but is that to be read in these bright images of almond trees in flower? Better perhaps just to enjoy them as things of beauty. That they undoubtedly are.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Heady Times

These are heady times for us retroprogressives. At a civilised hour this morning, Theresa May will hand a letter - a letter, remember those? - to our masters in Brussels, informing them that they have delighted us enough and we're intending to head for the exit door, if they could kindly point out where it is, please. It's not quite on a par with Henry VIII extracting us from the clutches of the Papacy, but there have been plenty of historically minded pundits queueing up to draw such reassuring analogies. That's the kind of long perspective we retroprogressives like.
 Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, El Trumpo has decided to restore King Coal to his throne, thereby flabbergasting the carbonistas. In practice, this might not make much difference to anything (including, of course, 'climate change'), but it's a pleasingly retroprogressive gesture - let's hope there are more to come.
 As for the forthcoming negotiations with the Eurocracy, heaven knows where they will lead, if anywhere. A booby-trapped morass might be what lies in wait for us, and our best hope might be that the EU collapses quite soon in an orderly manner, rendering the whole process irrelevant. I fear the Union as at present constituted is like the Hotel California - 'You can check out any time you like, but you never can leave'. However, checking out is the right retroprogressive thing to do. Back to the future, forward to the past!

Monday, 27 March 2017

Radio at Walking Pace


One of the best things I've heard on Radio 4 in a while was on yesterday's Broadcasting House - the sound of a rescue greyhound called Billy chattering his teeth in anticipation of his favourite food, pilchards. Since then I've discovered that greyhounds often chatter their teeth when a treat is in the offing - there's plentiful footage on YouTube if you're interested - but this was a great piece of radio. Of 'slow radio', in fact, which is given a little showcase on Broadcasting House every Sunday. The time allotted is far too short to give a real sense of slowness, but at least it's always restful and unstructured, a little oasis of peace in the hubbub. And it's always a joy to listen to.
 Now comes news that Radio 3 is going to give us a proper bit of Slow Radio - the soundtrack of a four-hour, twelve-mile walk in the Black Mountains, beginning in Cwmdu and ending in Hay-on-Wye. The walker will be writer and broadcaster Horatio Clare (not to be confused with Horatio Caine of CSI: Miami), so there will no doubt be an intermittent commentary, but the point of the exercise will be to bring us the sounds of buzzards, ravens and other more musical birds - including, with luck, skylarks - of sheep and ponies, the rustle of grass, the sighing breeze, the soft tramp of Horatio's walking boots. It promises to be rather wonderful - perhaps the best thing since the much lamented Radio Birdsong - and I hope it's the harbinger of more Slow Radio to come.
 As I took a stroll on Epsom Downs this glorious sunny spring morning, I wondered what the soundtrack of my walk might have sounded like. There was birdsong, but not as much as I was hoping for, and dominated by robins and great tits - if any warblers had arrived, they were still tuning up - and distant sounds of cars and of golfers on the course that disfigures so much of these downs. I fear much of the soundtrack would have consisted of my involuntary sounds, tuneless humming, random phrases spoken out loud and occasional exclamations, mostly of pleasure. And there was plenty to take pleasure in - primroses, violets, coltsfoot and celandine, brimstones, commas, peacocks and tortoiseshells, cherry blossom, hawthorn in leaf, blackthorn coming into flower. It wouldn't have made great radio, but oh yes, it was a good walk.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Nature Notes


Seeing the first butterfly of the year is always a spirit-lifting thrill - and I experienced it quite early this year - but there's also something very special about catching that flash of sky blue that is the first glimpse of a Holly Blue. In a sense, this is also the first butterfly of the year, being the first to have emerged from a pupa, the others - Brimstones, Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals, Commas, Peacocks, Painted Ladies (if you're lucky) - all being awakened hibernators. I saw my first Holly Blues of the year this sunny morning (and my first, rather late, Peacock), so my butterfly year has begun again. So much more to look forward to now...

Yesterday another natural spectacle caught my eye too as I walked down my road. Looking up, I saw a kestrel and a crow in close proximity - the familiar sight of corvid harrying raptor, I thought - but as I carried on watching, it became clear that this was something different, more like an aerial ballet than the usual snappy chase-off. Kestrel and crow were staying unusually close together, seemingly quite relaxed about it, making no more than gestures at aggression. Each was mirroring the other's movements, moving together like a pair of aerial syncrhronised swimmers and giving a strong impression of playful enjoyment. The crow seemed to be imitating the kestrel's wingtip flutters, the kestrel dropping its purposeful style to adopt a crow-like abandon. All the time, I was expecting this aerial display to break down into the usual unseemly scuffle, but it never happened, and gradually kestrel and crow flew off into the distance with every appearance of perfect harmony. Has peace broken out between these normally fierce competitors, I wonder, or was this just an outburst of vernal friskiness?



Friday, 24 March 2017

Saint Mug's Day

Born on this day in 1903 was Malcolm Muggeridge. If he's remembered at all now, it is as the rather ridiculous, overexposed figure he became in his latter years, when he was a fixture on the nation's television screens - and, with his contorted features and strangulated vowels, a gift to impressionists. He made a fool of himself over his infatuation with Mother Teresa (see Christopher Hitchens on all that) and there was undoubtedly much of the humbug about him (his sexual habits didn't bear much examination), but there is also much to praise about Muggeridge. Despite his early socialism, he was one of the first to see Soviet Communism for what it was, travelling unofficially in the Ukraine in the Thirties, seeing the famine for himself, and attempting to report on it. Sadly his efforts were trumped by the New York Times' Walter Duranty's whitewash job, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize (Mug subsequently described Duranty as 'the greatest liar I have met in journalism').
 Muggeridge also had a very 'good war', serving with the Intelligence Corps and MI6, working with the Free French forces and winning a Croix de Guerre. In the Fifties, he made a surprisingly good job of being editor of Punch, despite having, by his own account, no sense of humour. It was with the Swinging Sixties, and after his conversion to Christianity, that 'Saint Mug', the ubiquitous moral scourge, took over and, driven (one suspects) as much by vanity as by moral fervour, Muggeridge grew into an often ludicrous caricature of himself.
 And yet, and yet. Looking back to that time when Muggeridge and the even more ridiculous - as it seemed - Mary Whitehouse railed against the excesses of the 'permissive society', it's possible to feel quite nostalgic for a period when matters of morality were discussed at such a high pitch and with such seriousness in the mass media. And it is even possible, in view of subsequent events, to see Muggeridge and Mrs Whitehouse as canaries in the cultural coal mine, sensing the moral nihilism that was soon to become common currency, sweeping away so much in its path. Both these 'moral crusaders' often made fools of themselves by firing off at the wrong targets, but, viewed from here, there is also something rather admirable about their efforts to stem the unstemmable tide.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

More than Dutch

Last night I came across (again) this poem by Kay Ryan -

Dutch
Much of life
is Dutch
one-digit
operations
in which
legions of
big robust
people crouch
behind
badly cracked
dike systems
attached
by the thumbs
their wide
balloon-pantsed rumps
up-ended to the
northern sun
while, back
in town, little
black-suspendered
tulip magnates
stride around.
 Everything about this little poem - even the title - is as Dutch as can be. It could be the description of a scene painted on a Dutch tile or a Delft bowl, and the tone is fittingly comic and naive. Yet it seems to me that the image presented here could have a much wider application.
 Is there not something oddly recognisable in this picture of a world where most lead lives of quiet, good-humoured desperation, stoically holding disaster at bay, while 'back in town' a complacent elite, who know nothing of the ordinary struggles of life, enjoy a wealth founded on unrealities - tulip fever, the derivatives boom, there's little to choose between them (and both are doomed to crash when an altogether different kind of dike bursts, and reality floods in). The divided society so quaintly depicted in Dutch is not that far, it seems to me, from the one that gave us Brexit and the Trump victory, when the big, wide-rumped stavers-off of disaster turned on the little self-regarding magnates of unreality and showed their strength.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

In Deepest England


This ruin, crying out for the John Piper treatment, is the unroofed church of St Mary, Colston Bassett, deep in rural south Nottinghamshire. It is one of several similarly abandoned churches in the Nottinghamshire Wolds, the casualties of depopulation. But one that still stands, complete with roof, is St Andrew, Langar, and inside it is one of the finest monuments of its period in England.
 The interior of this large church is short on atmosphere and charm, thanks to a clunky Victorian restoration and a more recent reordering of the nave, which is now furnished with upholstered chairs in a semicircle facing an altar table to the north; the whole east end is thus rendered liturgically dead. In the north transepts are a couple of Elizabethan tomb chests, monuments to members of the Chaworth family, that might have been placed there specifically to show the difference between run-of-the-mill work and the best - the best being in the south transept, in the form of the Scrope monument.


 Thomas, Lord Scrope, and Philadelphia, his beautifully-named wife, lie side by side, he in armour with a full ruff and the mantle, garter and cap of the Order of the Garter, she in flowing mantle and ruff, her hair swept back from her face. Both have their hands together in prayer and their eyes raised to heaven - conventional attitudes, but they lie as if in life, so convincingly naturalistic is the carving. It is also superbly skilful in rendering the hang of their garments, the details and textures.


 The most extraordinary feature of this monument, though, is the figure of Emanuel Scrope, the son who commissioned it. Represented at about a quarter of the scale of his parents, he kneels at their feet, smartly dressed in Spanish fashion, not mourning but apparently reading a book, while keeping one hand on the hilt of his sword. Once again, the modelling is superb, even if the scale is disconcerting - perhaps it looked less so to Jacobean eyes, accustomed as they were to seeing miniature offspring kneeling beneath their parents on standard Elizabethan tombs. The figure of Emanuel Scrope might be said to represent the transition from hierarchical to naturalistic representation in monumental sculpture (but that's probably pushing it).


 Sadly, this remarkable monument is beginning to fall apart as a result of damp. Two panels of the chest tomb have had to be removed, the marble columns of the canopy are in poor shape, and the transept in which it stands has the air of a workshop crossed with a lumber room. A full restoration will get under way when the money has been found, but meanwhile the Scrope monument stands as a sad example of how little we value the products of what was arguably the golden age of English sculpture. That work of such astonishing quality should turn up in remote parish churches seems little short of miraculous, and is certainly one of the things that make church-crawling in England so richly rewarding.
 Emanuel Scrope went on to father an illegitimate daughter who, in the absence of a legal heir, inherited and married into the Howe family, who in due course produced Admiral Howe, one of our great naval heroes; he is interred and memorialised in the church along with other Howes. Their family home, Langar Hall, is next to the church and is now a rather lovely country house restaurant and hotel.
 Langar was also the scene of the grim early years of the novelist Samuel Butler, so vividly described in The Way of All Flesh. His father was rector here and young Samuel grew up in the oppressively evangelical atmosphere of the rectory, dominated by the father with whom he was locked in a relationship of mutual loathing. Letting bygones be bygones, the church now has a display of photographs - some of them taken by Butler - documenting the life of this notable son of Langar.
 Such an obscure place, so many claims to fame. Truly England is fathomless.








Thursday, 16 March 2017

No Problem

'At last Elphinstone replied. "I have no problem." He said the word "problem" with sardonic emphasis to make clear he knew it for an Americanism.'
[Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus]
 Oh dear, not another Americanism - they're everywhere, and people were probably noticing them rather more in the postwar period in which The Transit of Venus is set. (Elphinstone, by the way, is an unattractive incidental character - just the kind of prig to shudder at an Americanism.)
 The other day I had an email from my friend Susan in snowy New York, remarking on my recent use of the phrase 'meet up with' - undoubtedly some kind of Americanism (building on 'met with') - and asking if I knew when it crossed the Atlantic. I guessed it has probably been in general use here since the 70s or thereabouts, and it does seem to me to be marginally useful in suggesting a meeting that has been prearranged. Oddly, however, to Susan's American ears it suggests the opposite, whereas a plain 'met' suggests something arranged. No doubt we would be better off all round if we just stuck to 'met'.
 While I was at it, I thought I'd update Susan on a few recent developments in English English which I don't think we can blame our American cousins for.
 The drift from 'different from' to the incorrect 'different to' and the frankly appalling 'different than' has recently accelerated to the point where the battle has been decisively lost, at least in spoken English (though some of us are still prone to shout 'from' at the radio).
 I'm not sure where the habit of beginning answers to questions with the word 'So' came from - perhaps it is an Americanism? - but it has spread very fast and is to be heard with depressing frequency on any radio or TV programme involving the asking of questions. Perhaps it is no worse than the equally meaningless 'Well', but it has the annoying implication that the answer being given is somehow self-evident and need only be spelt out to the dimwit questioner.
 Another recent development tends to pass unremarked, even though it results in people saying the exact opposite of what they mean. In its classic form this kind of misspeaking (?Americanism) results in statements such as 'His contribution to the arts cannot be understated'. No one seems to notice.
 Perhaps the most bizarre recent development, though, is the double 'is', which I've noted before, back when (?Americanism) I thought it was a fleeting phenomenon that would soon disappear. Alas it hasn't and all the time one hears usages such as 'the reason is is' or 'the point is is'. I guess it buys the speaker another tiny beat of thinking time, having already no doubt made use of 'So', or perhaps it's a curious way of emphasising the little word 'is'.
 So, the answer is is that American English is different than English English to an extent that cannot be understated.
 Please feel free to add your own linguistic bugbears to this short list.
 Meanwhile, I'm off to the midlands for a few days, with some fine church monuments in my sights.






Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Elegy Land


This ludicrous monument to the poet Thomas Gray stands in 'Gray's Field', adjacent to Stoke Poges churchyard, the hallowed plot that inspired his most famous poem, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that quintessentially English masterpiece. Rather surprisingly, the churchyard is only a short taxi ride north from Slough railway station (a miraculously unspoilt GWR original, which Betjeman would surely have spared from those friendly bombs).
 Stoke Poges is isolated from Slough by a zone of large expensive houses in large gardens, which soon give way to something more like proper country, where the parkland of several grand houses has been preserved (some of it, alas, as a golf course) - and in the midst of all that, surrounded by dense evergreens, lies the church of St Giles in its legendary churchyard.
 First impressions - and let's be honest, second and last impressions - were not propitious. In its modern incarnation, this is not a churchyard to inspire poetry, or anything much else. It has a tidy, well-kept, municipal air, with lots of monotonously green grass and a rather sparse scattering of monuments and headstones, few of them of any antiquity (an exception is pictured below), most being modern or Victorian and more or less ugly. This is no longer a place 'where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap' - far from it - and there are probably half a dozen churchyards within a few miles of Stoke Poges that have more atmosphere and more of interest (come to that, the churchyard of my own Surrey suburban parish has more).
 The 'rugged elms' have of course gone the way of the lowing herd and the plodding ploughman, no drowsy tinklings lull the distant fold, but the setting still feels countrified rather than urban. Red kites circle overhead (they wouldn't have been there in Gray's time), harried by crows. The hum of traffic is not obtrusive. The church still stands, jumbled and irregular, built variously of flint, puddingstone, clunch and brick, picturesque and, as they say, 'not without a degree of antiquarian interest'  - also genealogical interest, as members of the Penn family are buried here, including a son of William Penn himself. Gray's tomb, which he shares with his beloved mother and aunt, is marked by a simple slab, vastly more appropriate than the grandiose monument in 'Gray's Field'.
 Sadly, almost everything that made Stoke Poges the churchyard of Gray's elegy is now lost - which is perhaps not surprising given the lapse of time. But Stoke Poges as it is now also embodies another, larger loss - of the old ways of dealing with death, of mourning and memorialising the dead. Right next to the churchyard are the Memorial Gardens - an extensive, manicured park with tarmac paths that lead the visitor to each delineated zone: rose garden, rock and water garden, parterre, oak dell, pergola, colonnade, and the less elegantly named scattering lawn where ashes may be dispersed.
 These gardens, which date back to the Thirties, are a product of the age of cremation and, if nothing else, a tribute to its efficiency. Little memorial plaques line every neat flower bed and identify each of the hundreds (thousands?) of memorial flowering shrubs and saplings. Huge numbers are remembered here - far more than would fit in a graveyard of comparable size - and they are remembered as they and their loved ones would no doubt wish to be, as an element in a pretty and well laid-out public garden, a pleasant place to visit of a Sunday afternoon and perhaps shed a tear.
 It works, and everybody seems to like it - and yet it's hard, as you walk its immaculate paths, not to sense the loss of the earthy intimacy with the dead, the intense awareness of their presence and their claims on the living, that animates Gray's elegy. It would be impossible here to think such thoughts as Gray did - even more impossible, indeed, than it would be in the present-day churchyard.
 But here is one stone that would have been there, new-carved, in Gray's day...


Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Ein anderer Mott ist Tot

Just a year on from the death of Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin, I discover - from Radio 4's excellent obituary programme Last Word - that the band's bassist (and founding member) Pete Overend Watts has also gone to join the great jam session in the sky. In fact, he died back in January, so Last Word was a bit slow off the mark here.
 Watts, who could belt out a humdinging bass line with the best of them, embraced the band's glam rock image with gusto, wearing platform shoes so high that roadies had to get him back on his feet if he fell over on stage. However, when the music career ended, he was happy to shun the limelight, dabbling in antique dealing, gentlemen's hairdressing (briefly) and, with more enthusiasm, carp fishing. He also developed a taste for long-distance walking, despite a professed dislike of any kind of pedestrian activity. A couple of years ago, he wrote a book, The Man who Hated Walking, recounting his adventures on the Southwest Coast Path. Watts even attempted to walk from Land's End to John O' Groats, but couldn't stick to the route, at one point taking a massive diversion into the Peak District, simply because he realised he'd never been there before.
 The obituaries - Last Word included - have focused on All the Young Dudes (which made a heap more money for Bowie than for Mott) as 'the defining anthem of its era', etc. Well, I beg to differ: when it comes to defining anthems - not only of 'its era' but of the whole era of rock 'n'  roll - surely it's got to be All the Way from Memphis. I'd say it belongs in any list of the ten (or maybe twenty) definitive rock 'n' roll belters - you know, the list that begins with Elvis's That's Alright Mama and continues with... Well, what would you include?
 While you're thinking (or not), here, once again, is All the Way from Memphis. Enjoy.





Saturday, 11 March 2017

Leaves of Ranmore


A warm day in the Southeast today, with lots of hazy sun and only the lightest of breezes. It felt very much like the first day of spring, so naturally I headed for the Surrey hills as fast as Southern Rail would carry me (which was not terribly fast, but I got there).
 With my usual excessive early-season optimism, I was hoping to find butterflies, and there were certainly plenty of Brimstones flying as I started my walk. But in the event that was it, apart from a couple of Tortoiseshells (I think) passing overhead, engaged in  a high-speed aerial dogfight. Happily I'd  already seen a Tortoiseshell earlier in the day, flying in dazed circles before finally settling on the slab-paved former front garden of a house just down the road. My annual reminder of just how astonishingly beautiful these familiar fliers are.
  My walk took me to Ranmore Common, with its landmark church - the extraordinary octagonal tower can be seen for miles around. It's an assertive church, rather harsh and over-crisp - maybe it needs another century or two to bed in. The work of George Gilbert Scott, it's not pretty, but has a lot of nice detail, especially the leafy capitals - a great one for foliation was G.G., and exuberant stuff it is. The picture above is of the entrance porch - and sadly that door was locked (though the interior, as I remember it, is more, er, striking than beautiful). And below is the other side of the porch (I know - try to contain your excitement).
  Anyway, it was a glorious feeling to be back walking in my favourite haunts at the start of the year, with all the summer and its butterflies to come. And along the way I saw a pair of Marsh/Willow Tits, a bird I haven't seen in these parts in donkey's years.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Good Gunn

I spent years ignoring, or dismissing, Thom Gunn. As a young idiot poseur at Cambridge, I naturally dismissed him as (a) a representative of an earlier Cambridge generation, (b) a one-time associate of Ted Hughes, and (c) a formalist whose work was insufficiently free-form and obscure to be taken seriously.
 As the years went by, I shed my juvenile prejudices, came to value formalism very highly, and, when I came across the odd Thom Gunn poem, I began to warm to him (I've even put a couple up on this blog). Then, in the TLS anthology, A Century of Poems, which I've written about here more than once, I came across this fine, bleak poem that reimagines in modern terms the grey tedium and unease of the afterlife described by Homer:

Death's Door

Of course the dead outnumber us
 - How their recruiting armies grow!
My mother archaic now as Minos,
She who died forty years ago

After their processing, the dead
Sit down in groups and watch TV,
In which they must be interested,
For on it they watch you and me.

These four, who though they never met
Died in one month, sit side by side
Together in front of the same set
And all without a TV Guide.

Arms round each other's shoulders loosely,
Although they can feel nothing, who
When they unlearned their pain so sprucely
Let go of all sensation too.

Thus they watch friend and relative
And life here as they think it is
- In black and white, repetitive
As situation comedies.

With both delight and tears at first
They greet each programme on death's stations.
But in the end lose interest,
Their boredom turning to impatience.

'He misses me? He must be kidding
- This week he's sleeping with a cop.'
'All she reads now is Little Gidding.'
'They're getting old. I wish they'd stop.'

The habit of companionship
Lapses - they break themselves of touch:
Edging apart at arm and hip
Till separated on the couch.

They woo amnesia, look away
As if they were not yet elsewhere,
But when snow blurs the picture they,
Turned, give it a belonging stare.

Snow blows out toward them, till their seat
Filling with flakes becomes instead
Snow-bank, snow-landscape, and in that
They find themselves with all the dead,

Where passive light from snow-crust shows them
Both Minos circling and my mother.
Yet none of the recruits now knows them,
Nor do they recognise each other.

They have been so superbly trained
Into the perfect discipline
Of an archaic host, and weaned
From memory briefly barracked in.

Reading this led me to buy Gunn's late collection The Man with Night Sweats, in which it is the penultimate poem. The best part of the collection, written during the plague years of the Aids epidemic, is suffused with death and mourning, and includes such beautifully controlled, intensely moving poems as Lament and Still Life. Here Gunn's formalism finds an occasion worthy of it - worthier than the hard-core gay sex and drugs that were so often his theme.
 The best poems in The Man with Night Sweats prove yet again that, far from falsifying or constraining emotion, strict form skilfully handled can enrich and intensify it - and never more so than when the subject is death. (Consider Bishop King's Exequy - and Peter Porter's, Ben Jonson's On My First Son, Gray's sonnet on the death of Richard West, Tennyson's In Memoriam... )
 I'm glad I've finally discovered how good Thom Gunn could be, when the occasion found him.








Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Enchantment

Here's a lovely bit of pianistic enchantment from Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, playing one of the Canciones y Danzas of Federico Mompou, a Catalan composer I only recently became aware of. This piece is so simple, so delicate, but so rich in beauty...


Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Meanwhile...

Over on the rather fine website of Pooky (lighting and interiors for the quality), I'm leading a guided tour of Spencer House, if you're interested...

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ivy on the Shelf

'"My dear, good girls!" said Miles Mowbray. "My three dear daughters! To think I have ever felt dissatisfied with you and wished I had a son! I blush for the lack in me, that led me to such a feeling. I feel the blood mount to my face, as I think of it. I would not change one of you for all the sons in the world. I would not barter you for all its gold. And I am not much of a person for wealth and ease..."'
 My run of charity-shop good luck shows no sign of abating. The other day I found, sitting on the same spot on the same shelf in the same shop where I so recently found Loitering with Intent loitering with intent, not one but two Ivy Compton-Burnetts, side by side, both first editions in good condition, though without dust-wrappers. Not that it would make much difference to their market value if they were wrapped and in mint condition - nobody wants ICB nowadays, apart from the little band of devotees/addicts among whom I number myself. I'd been getting faint withdrawal symptoms, so was glad to find fresh supplies in the shape of two titles I hadn't read: The Mighty and Their Fall (1961) and A Father and His Fate (1957), from which the inviting opening words are quoted above.
 It might be a while before I read them, as I have a bit of a queue of novels waiting to be read - and at present I'm engaged in rereading Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which is not one to hurry through. On this second reading, I'm finding it every bit as impressive as before, if not more so. There is such depth in the characters, such skill in the unfolding of the complex, multilayered tale, such moral seriousness, such involving and moving verisimilitude - all the traditional virtues of the novel at its best, deployed with masterly skill. If there's one novel from the latter half of the 20th century that deserves to survive, this is probably it.
 But predicting the survival of any book or writer is a mug's game. Here, for example, are some contemporary assessments of Ivy Compton-Burnett: 'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...' [Norman Shrapnel]. 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence' [David Holloway].
'P.H. Newby's assertion that she is the only writer since Joyce who is likely to be read one hundred years from now is as safe a statement as any contemporary could risk.' [Frank Baldanza].

 And now you can find first editions of her works on the shelves of a charity shop, priced at £1.99. Which, oddly enough, was also the price I paid for another first edition by another wildly unfashionable novelist, Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Come to think, it was in the same shop. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Tiepolo Time

Looking back through the years (nearly nine of them now), I see that Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is almost as regular a birthday boy on this blog as Edouard Manet (23rd January). Well, any excuse for a dash of Venetian colour, especially at this time of year.
 Tiepolo was born on this day in 1696, and I shan't repeat what I've written about him on earlier posts (a quick search will bring them up). The image above is Pax et Justitia, a typically brilliant creation, illusionistically perfect, full of light, space and singing colour. It is part of Tiepolo's decorative scheme for the monastery complex on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a former leper colony in the Venetian lagoon that became an important site of the Armenian diaspora and a great centre of learning.
 Byron spent six months on the island, studying Armenian - 'the language to speak to God'. His visit is fondly remembered - he must have been on his best behaviour. Among later visitors was a young revolutionary called Joseph Stalin, who lodged at the monastery in 1907 and worked as a bell-ringer while on his way through Italy to Switzerland to meet up with Lenin. Now there's an image to savour - young Stalin tugging on the bell ropes of San Lazzaro...
 And here's another - Tiepolo's wonderfully sensuous take on Daphne and Apollo.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Audacity of The Hope

Good news from the Yorkshire Dales, where a village pub that had been closed and was taken over and saved by the villagers has gone from defunct hostelry to winner of CAMRA's National Pub of the Year.  The George and Dragon also functions as a village shop and library, and has a community allotment attached, and free internet access - all the kind of things that keep a village alive. But note also what is absent - muzak, gaming machines, phoney decor, gastropub pretensions, all the things that make drinking in many modern pubs such an unpleasant experience. What a good pub like the George and Dragon offers is a place where you can sit quietly and comfortably, talk - and hear what you're saying - meet people (if you want to) and drink good beer or whatever else takes your fancy.
  In the suburban village where I live, a closed-down pub was brought back from the dead in similar fashion - bought by the locals and reopened as just such a neighbourhood pub as the George and Dragon (though without the library, shop and allotments - we already have those). It is now so successful that it's sometimes impossible to find a seat - but other than that, it's wellnigh perfect.
  This surefire retroprogressive formula is not rocket science (nor is it likely to involve rocket salad). It simply offers the kind of pub that most people who are past their noise-loving youth prefer to drink in - and yet such pubs are hard to find, not least in the London area. One such, by some miracle, survives in Kensington, of all places - the Uxbridge Arms, described by Bryan Appleyard as 'the best pub in the world', and apparently under threat of being sold off. I hope the well-heeled regulars heed the example of the George and Dragon and The Hope (my rescued local) and engineer a buy-out. Then they can preserve this wonderful pub just as it is - perfect.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Birthdays

March at last, and today is the birthday of America's greatest living poet, Richard Wilbur - 96 today. Here's a poem he wrote to celebrate a fellow poet's birthday -

For K.R. On Her Sixtieth Birthday

Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark,
Who round with grace this dusky arc
Of the grand tour which souls must take.

You who have sounded William Blake,
And the still pool, to Plato's mark,
Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark.

Yet, for your friends' benighted sake,
Detain your upward-flying spark;
Get us that wish, though like the lark
You whet your wings till dawn shall break:
Blow out the candles of your cake. 


In an interview (when he was a mere 87), Wilbur recalled how he came to write this birthday poem:

'That’s a sort of funny story. I had known briefly the English poet Kathleen Raine, who, as the poem sort of mentions, was not only a poet but was devoted to William Blake, and there were certain people she liked to expound. She was having a birthday; somebody wrote me from England saying that Kathleen’s having a sixtieth birthday, and we want to give her a party and we want to have lots of poems of greeting and celebration, of congratulation, and so will you write one? I remember that it came to me in the middle of the night that I ought to write something to her in the form of a rondeau, but perhaps the initial line that occurred to me proposed that. In any case, I was pleased to wake up and write a poem in the middle of the night, which doesn’t usually happen to me. And before I sent it off to this fellow in England, I got a letter from Kathleen Raine saying so-and-so has been a terrible busy-body, and he’s making people write poems for my birthday and I don’t want you to bother. But I sent it to him and said, “I think I’ve written a good poem and so I’m not going to suppress it.”'

Happy birthday, Mr Wilbur. Somehow the world feels that bit better for your still being in it. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Stunner in Room One


Talking of the National Gallery, one of the things I most like about that great institution is Room 1, the small room devoted to exhibitions consisting of a single painting (or sometimes a few more). It's the antithesis of the all-conquering blockbuster, offering the welcome chance to look properly, at length and with due concentration, at a painting.
  The present occupant of Room 1 is an absolute stunner. That's it above, though the reproduction gives no idea of its sheer scale (it's huge) or the brightness of its colours. It's The Repentant Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci, a northern Italian Baroque painter whose works were all but forgotten until the Sixties, and who is wholly unrepresented in UK public collections.
 Judging by this powerful masterpiece, Cagnacci is clearly a painter of rare gifts and equally rare inventiveness. Everything about this repentant Magdalene is quite unique - from the dramatic composition, with the Magdalene prostrated in the foreground and the dramatic expulsion of Vice by Virtue dominating the central space, to the palatial setting, the luxurious discarded finery, and the extraordinary grouping of the Magdalene and her virtuous sister at floor level.
  The standard repentant Magdalene is a figure of voluptuous, titillating beauty who seems unaware of her bared breasts as she turns her tear-filled eyes heavenward and clasps her hands in new-found piety. Cagnacci's Magdalene, by contrast, turns her face towards her sister, who is pointing the way to virtue - but the Magdalene's face is in shadow and looks uncertain, thoughtful, conflicted. There is not an ounce of sentimentality here.
  There is, however, all the sensuousness you'd expect of this subject - and then some. Cagnacci's handling of light falling on tender female flesh is absolutely masterly. Indeed it's his forte - half-length female nudes were his speciality, and he made a good living from private commissions. These might take their ostensible subjects from mythology, history or the Bible, but their intent and their appeal were clearly erotic.
  In The Repentant Magdalene, Cagnacci shows off his sensuous skills not only on the barely-draped body of the Magdalene but on the exposed flesh of the androgynous angel representing Virtue. And every inch of flesh gets the full, loving treatment - even the feet, which some said Cagnacci couldn't paint, such was his devotion to the half-length nude. He could.
 The Repentant Magdalene has been lent to the National by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and will be on show until May. Don't miss it - it's a revelation.

Floral Tour

Over on the flowerful blog of Freddie's Flowers, I take a floral tour of the National Gallery...

Monday, 27 February 2017

Loitering with Intent

Wandering into a local charity shop the other day, I couldn't help but notice a first edition of Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, in its original, rather loud dust-wrapper. It was keenly priced (£4.99) and I hadn't read it - though I'd read and enjoyed (and even reviewed, for the late lamented Listener) its literary near relation from the Eighties, A Far Cry from Kensington. So I bought Loitering with Intent, and I've read it, and I enjoyed every moment - indeed, this might even be my favourite Muriel Spark.
  Like A Far Cry from Kensington, it's a return visit to Spark's life as a struggling young would-be poet and novelist in Kensington - then a less than respectable part of London - 'in the middle of the twentieth century,' as she puts it. The story is briskly told, with never a wasted word - or emotion; the narrator has all the cool, sharp-witted detachment we expect of a Spark heroine. What unfolds is an intriguing, beautifully engineered tale, in which the narrator, Fleur Talbot, takes a job with one Sir Quentin Oliver, an almighty snob who is also, Fleur gradually realises, probably mad and almost certainly bad. He runs an outfit called the Autobiographical Association, whose members - a bunch of dim and variously needy minor eminences - he encourages to write their memoirs with 'absolute frankness'. Fleur's job, such as it is, is to knock these pathetic writings into some kind of shape.
  Fleur has been writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and she is increasingly disturbed to find that events from her novel are playing themselves out in the eccentric world of the Autobiographical Association. And Warrender Chase is not the only book feeding into the action of Loitering with Intent: Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Cellini's Autobiography are permanent presences, and also in the picture are Fleur's new novel, All Souls' Day, and the one she plans to follow it with, The English Rose (a key phrase in Loitering with Intent). But this is most definitely not a dreary exercise in meta-fiction - in fact it's a notably jolly piece of work, with elements of farce and a whiff of Ealing comedy about it (quite fitting for the period). There's a sinister edge to it (as in many Ealing comedies), but it's most definitely a comedy, and a notably inventive, ingenious and entertaining one that kept me eagerly turning the pages - and there are only 220 of them (those were the days!). Better shaped and more ambitious than A Far Cry from Kensington, it's classic Spark. If you have a taste for her (and I know many don't) and haven't read this one - do seek it out.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

From Essex to Edward Thomas's Field

I spent yesterday walking in eastern Essex, around Rochford - not quite Essex badlands but with some of the salient features: straggling bungaloid growth, big brash houses behind pseudeo-baronial gates and railings, overextended roadhouse pubs with huge car parks, the odd breaker's yard, a brackish creek with boats rotting away at the moorings... However, the area also has a curious charm - a bleak kind of charm perhaps, but charm nonetheless. Wide views and tall skies, vast fields of turned clay, beds of wind-blown rushes, flocks of swans grazing, buzzards mewing, a scattering of pleasant old buildings - Georgian brick houses, clapboard cottages - surviving among the later excrescences. And there were several good-looking, homely churches of stone and brick on our route - the grandest and most handsome of them St Andrew, Rochford, pictured above.
  En route to the start of the walk, we breakfasted at an improbably located cafe in a small off-road industrial estate. The place was called Childerditch - a name that must resonate with any Edward Thomas fan.
 In April 1916, while convalescing from an illness, Thomas wrote a set of four 'Household Poems', of which the first is addressed to his elder daughter, Bronwen.

If I should ever by chance grow rich 
I'll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater, 
And let them all to my elder daughter. 
The rent I shall ask of her will be only 
Each year's first violets, white and lonely, 
The first primroses and orchises-- 
She must find them before I do, that is. 
But if she finds a blossom on furze 
Without rent they shall all forever be hers, 
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,-- 
I shall give them all to my elder daughter. 


The original of this sweet, musical poem, in Thomas's hand, survived among his documents - you can see it here. The Childerditch he was thinking of was a field, of course, and far from Essex.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Doris Day

With Storm Doris raging - well, blowing hard, here in the Southeast - the Met Office is taking the opportunity to tell us what a spiffing wheeze it was on their part to start giving every storm a name. You know how it works - starting each year with an A and advancing alphabetically, naming storms alternately with male and female names. This, a Met Office lady told us on the Today programme this morning, has really captured the public's imagination, raising awareness and encouraging 'engagement through social media channels' - every storm a Twitterstorm, as it were.
  Well maybe, but the storm naming business has also given the long-suffering British people yet another reason to laugh at the Met Office, especially when an ominously-named storm turns out to be no more than a puff of wind, or a storm with a totally pathetic name proves to be a real one - Doris, for heaven's sake...
  Last year's naming didn't get beyond Katie, thereby depriving us of the eagerly awaited Storm Nigel. If we get as far as K this year, we'll have Storm Kamil; a little farther and we'll get to the terrifying Storm Malcolm, or even the verbally challenging Oisin, by way of this year's N - Storm Natalie (be afraid...). If, by some meteorological fluke, we get as far as W, we'll have what must be the most pathetic storm name ever - Storm Wilbert. But now I must go out into Storm Doris - I may be some time.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Piperise Your Snaps

It's not often (actually it's never) that I get an idea for an 'app', but one came to me the other day, so I pass it on for the benefit of any hot young app designer who might be reading this, unlikely as that is. Here's the pitch...
  We've all been there. You're on a church crawl, you come across a particularly striking church  in a fine setting that will surely make a good picture. You duly photograph it, look at the resulting image, are mildly disappointed, and think 'What would John Piper have made of this scene?'
  If you're at Binham Priory, say, you can easily find out. Let's say this is your photograph -


  And here is Piper's picture of the same scene, infused with dramatic presence and a brooding sense of imminent apocalypse - or at least rain ('pretty unlucky with the weather, Mr Piper,' as George VI remarked) - by the artist's bold and well loaded brush -


 But what if you've photographed a church - or it might be a historic house or some random ruin - and there is no John Piper picture of it? Well, that's where the John Piper app comes in. With a touch of a button you can Piperise your snap and transform it into a work of art, with computer-generated pen-and-ink detailing and washes of glowing (or glowering) Pipercolour. How good would that be? I'd buy it like a shot.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Year Begins

At last, my patience (what patience? It's only February - Ed.) has been rewarded and I've seen my first butterfly of the year. I was taking a hopeful stroll around a local nature reserve called Wilderness Island - which was indeed a tangled wilderness when I was a boy but has since been tamed and cleared sufficiently to provide a habitat for a good range of wildlife, from bats to butterflies. The sun was out, there was a vernal warmth in the air - and there, on a brisk questing flight among the trees, sulphur yellow against  holly-and-ivy green, was a Brimstone. The year's begun! Spring is round the corner, soon there will be more butterflies, more of these joyous moments. Indeed, I had seen four or five more Brimstones before I left the island, a happy, smiling aurelian. And so home.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Best Second

The Royal Society of Literature is running a poll to find The Nation's Favourite Second Novel, which seems an excellent idea - here's the (not very) shortlist. There's probably a pattern there somewhere - in many cases that of a successful second novel following an undistinguished debut. Would a failed first-timer get a second chance in today's publishing climate?
  And it can take more than two attempts for some novelists to get it right (J.G. Farrell, for example, whose Troubles was preceded by three duds). Any of today's novelists who have a second commission are more likely to find themselves in the unenviable situation of musicians faced with the 'difficult second album' problem. However, the number of recent titles in the RSL list suggests that at least some have been allowed a second chance after a less than brilliant debut.
  But what of the list? Leaving aside Ulysses and Tristram Shandy as being in another league altogether, I think from these titles I'd probably vote for Larkin's A Girl in Winter, an underrated novel that has haunted me ever since I read it (and one that was preceded by something very much inferior).  As for omissions, I'd certainly have included Ivy Compton-Burnett's Pastors and Masters (a second novel so different from her first that it could have been written by someone else) and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, W.G. Sebald's Vertigo, maybe Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave.
 Any thoughts? More omissions? Which title would get your vote?
 (More on how to vote here.)

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Beautiful Exceptions

I know it's still February, but I'm itching to see my first butterfly of the year. Six species have already been logged on the Butterfly Conservation website (beginning with Red Admiral and Peacock both on January 1st), but I've yet to see one, and it's been too long - three and a half months in fact, since I saw one last Holly Blue on All Hallows' Eve last year.
 Yesterday being sunny and just about warm, I went down the garden to eat my lunchtime sandwich - first time this year - and hoped that perhaps some early butterfly would flutter my way. No such luck, I'm afraid, but I was amply entertained by the next best thing - the goldfinches flying down to feast on my nyger seed feeders. These birds have been a constant, and very welcome, presence ever since I put those feeders up - or rather ever since the day, several weeks later, when they finally plucked up the courage to come and feed.
 It's a wonderful thing that these brilliantly coloured little birds are now so abundant over much of the country. When I was a boy, it was quite an event to see one at all, but now they are, in effect, the new sparrows - they're everywhere, flying about with their darting, dipping flight, twittering their silvery song, feasting on nyger seeds when not busy with thistle heads. And it's a joy to see them - especially in these times, when almost all the birds that are thriving in suburbia are big, noisy, aggressive types: all our corvid friends and, round here, the phenomenally successful and phenomenally raucous ring-necked parakeets.
 I recently read a book about the bird life of Australia which painted a nightmare picture of burly, loud-beaked, thuggish birds dominating the parks and gardens of suburbia to such an extent that they pose a threat to life and limb - human as well as avian; deaths and injuries from bird attacks are quite common Down Under. And yet their besotted human victims continue - despite legal bans - to feed these monstrous birds, often with gobbets of raw flesh. It's a kind of avian Stockholm syndrome...
 Happily we in this country are not there yet, and it's unlikely that we'll ever have to cope with the likes of cassowaries and brush-turkeys - but the trend towards larger, louder and hungrier birds driving out the weaker songbirds is worrying enough. Along with the still thriving tits - and the easily overlooked dunnock - goldfinches are the beautiful exceptions. Long may they thrive.