Thursday, 25 May 2017

Two Ascensions

Today is Ascension Day (and, as it happens, my late father's 108th birthday).
 The Ascension of Christ has proved a challenging subject for painters, involving as it does a two-tier composition, with Earth and astonished disciples below, Heaven and the ascending Christ above. This posed no particular problems for artists working in the Byzantine tradition of flat, two-dimensional picture space. But to present the scene naturalistically, in the three-dimensional world of Renaissance and later art, was more difficult.
 The picture above, by Perugino, tackles the problem by presenting what is essentially a static, two-dimensional image of the scene, but with each element painted naturalistically, the figures rounded and lit as if in three-dimensional space. The image is so patterned and tightly structured that it could almost be a stained-glass window. Note those formal, symmetrical angels and that mandorla of cherubim heads around Christ. But note too the shadows on the ground and that lovely Umbrian landscape in the blue distance.
 For a completely different approach, consider the picture below, a modello by Tiepolo (probably G.B. and his son G.D. working together, as they often did). Air was Tiepolo's element, and skies - skies peopled with dramatically posed figures in ravishing colours - were his forte; no one painted ceilings with such convincing pictorial depth, or rather height, and his clouds are as eloquent and perfectly placed as his figures. Jesus ascending into clouds, to his disciples' astonishment, was a subject that came naturally to him (as did the Assumption of the Virgin, which he painted many times). His version of the Ascension might lack religious intensity, but as a piece of masterly painting there's no arguing with it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci), one of the great Florentine Mannerists, was born on this day in 1494. This is his Portrait of a Halberdier, probably painted during the siege of Florence. A typically intense and edgy psychological portrait, it shows a refined young man, who has clearly seen little of life, posing with all the swagger and arrogance of a seasoned soldier. The pose, boldly filling the picture space, is entirely convincing, but the unease and vulnerability in the young man's face are what hold the eye and give this beautifully executed painting its extraordinary force.
It lives in the Getty Museum in California, having been bought at auction in 1989 for an eye-popping (at the time) $35.2 million. Earlier this year, the National Gallery sadly failed in its bid to buy another Pontormo portrait, Young Man in a Red Cap, from an American billionaire for £30 million.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Godot: Leaves and Hats

Until I saw it on the shelves of my favourite local charity shop, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Folio Society edition of Waiting for Godot - Beckett's play seemed an unlikely candidate for the Society's list. But it exists, and I have it in my hands. Very handsome it is, too - designed and illustrated by the great Tom Phillips (creator of A Humument).
 There's a preface by Edward Beckett, Samuel's nephew and executor, devoted chiefly to the surprisingly complex textual history of Godot. And there's an engaging Illustrator's Note by Phillips, who recalls drawing Beckett at rehearsals of the play at the Riverside Studios. Chatting with him during breaks, Phillips wisely decided to talk only of cricket and smoking, but he did share some memories of the dying days of music hall, and mentioned that Godot reminded him of the double acts from those times (toffs and tramps, comics and stooges, etc). 'All those bowler hats, you mean?' asked Beckett. 'Yes, mmm, yes... something in that.' The play, suggested Phillips, felt like watching one such double act being invaded by another. 'Mmm, yes,' said Beckett, '... something in that.'
 All those bowler hats, indeed - at one point there are five on stage. This gave Phillips one of the motifs for his illustrations. And the other was the on-stage tree with its 'four or five leaves':
'I enjoyed speculating as to what the particular leaf was like that may or may not have been there. I assume that somewhere in a learned paper there exists a thesis on this Berkleian leaf which might also discuss the parallel numbers of leaves and hats. Fortunately I have neither seen nor read it. Thus I am happy to think in Beckett's words, "Something in that... yes, mmm, yes."
 This is very little by way of visual ammunition to be armed with, but it is enough to go on. And so, like Lucky, I rest my case.'
 The lithograph below, of Beckett watching Godot rehearsals at the Riverside Studios, forms the frontispiece of this splendid edition.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Dream Dinner Party?

Mrs Nige is of the opinion that there is something deeply, seriously weird about Theresa May (leader of the personality cult formerly known as the Conservative Party). Having seen Mrs May's guest list for her dream dinner party, I'm beginning to think Mrs N might be right... Stanley Spencer, for heaven's sake!? At a dinner party?!
 My own dream dinner party would ideally have no guests. Failing that, Anton Chekhov might be fun - I like his conversational style, as recorded in V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free:
'He had become notoriously an apparent listener who... was given to uttering apparently irrelevant yet gnomic or fantastic comments that killed the subject. He had once interrupted a wrangling discussion on Marxism with the eccentric suggestion: "Everyone should visit a stud farm. It is very interesting."'
 And Samuel Beckett could be counted on for plenty of silence too, and would be unlikely to want to talk about anything but cricket. To make up the numbers, perhaps I'd extend an invitation to Fernando Pessoa, knowing he would be unlikely to turn up...
 I know, I know - I should have Dr Johnson and John Keats and Oscar Wilde and... But a dinner party! Round one table? Really, it would be insufferable. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Piper Church and a Way Forward for the Book Trade

I was off church-crawling again today, with walking friends, on Romney Marsh - big cloud-filled skies, wide horizons, sheep pastures and claggy arable, isolated churches with strangely bare interiors, skylarks and swans, chuntering warblers in the reeds, burbling marsh frogs... The largest of the churches - St George, Ivychurch, the 'cathedral of the marsh' - was fortunate enough to receive the John Piper treatment: see above and below this post.
 On the evening before the walk, we dined in Hastings in an excellent second-hand bookshop that at night becomes an even more excellent Thai restaurant. The surroundings are of course perfect for any book-lover, and all those books lining the walls, floor to ceiling, have the welcome effect of damping echoes, so that you can actually hear what your fellow diners are saying - in contrast to most restaurants, too many of which seem designed with the opposite aim. This dual business model surely represents a way ahead for bookshops, so many of which are today struggling to survive - good books, good food and audibility. What could be more agreeable?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


The butterfly year got off to a flying start with that early burst of warm weather - I'd spotted ten species by April 5th, which might be my best tally ever. But there it stopped (thanks to a combination of cooling weather and family and other activities) until last weekend, when I was able to add the Green-Veined White to my list.
 So, this afternoon being strangely warm and sultry, I decided to pay a return visit to the nature reserve that I'd strenuously located, but not actually entered, last year. The Small Blues weren't flying yet, but after the recent cold weather that's not surprising. However, there were plenty of lively little Small Heaths - my first of the year - and my first Common Blues, larger and bluer than their Small cousins, in fact a glorious sky blue. And there was a wonderful surprise - a Grizzled Skipper. I'd only been in the reserve a few minutes when suddenly there it was, wings spread, basking on a leaf, wholly unexpected - and then another flew past and settled nearby...
 The Grizzled Skipper is a little beauty, one of our prettiest small butterflies, and surely deserves a better, more descriptive name - I'd suggest the Spangled Skipper. Speckled Skipper? Pied Skipper?

In Happier Times

Little did I realise when I was visiting Bottesford that I was walking in the asymmetric footsteps of Laurel and Hardy.
 Stan's sister Olga (Healey) was the popular landlady of the Bull Inn there, and the comedy duo stayed at The Bull when they were appearing at the Nottingham Empire in 1952. I learned this from a plaque outside the inn, and naturally my curiosity was piqued. Although the place seemed strangely quiet for a Saturday lunchtime, it was apparently open, so we stepped inside to take a look.
 Suffice to say, we did not linger long. It must have been a much cheerier place in the days when Stan and Ollie visited - that's them above, with their wives in the snug of The Bull, 'in happier times', as they say in the papers.

Monday, 15 May 2017


I've been in Derbyshire again, staying with my cousin, walking and church-crawling. On Saturday we made it all the way to Leicestershire (northern tip thereof) to visit a church I've had in my sights for a while - St Mary's, Bottesford.
 As Pevsner says, this is a church visited more for its monuments than its architecture (and, at present, for its nesting peregrine falcons - there's a live video feed inside the bell tower from the nest high up under the spire). As Pevsner also says, the interior is, after the impressive exterior (tallest spire in Leicestershire, etc), 'dull', or at least bare and uneventful. All the action is concentrated in the chancel, which is so packed with grand monuments that the altar has had to be moved westward to become visible and usable.
 The monuments are to the Earls of Rutland - an unbroken sequence from the 1st to the 8th - and their clear purpose is to project the grandeur of the illustrious dynasty. The best of them are, as one would expect, those that date from the Golden Age of English monumental sculpture (from the late 16th century through the first few decades of the 17th).
 The 2nd Earl's monument is an overblown affair, the effigies of the Earl and his wife dwarfed by the marble table under which they lie and its bulbous, heavily decorated legs. The top of the table carries three small kneeling figures and a tall upright slab emblazoned with appropriate armorial bearings. Standing in the middle of the chancel, this is, to put it mildly, a 'statement' tomb.
 Things improve with the next four Earls, whose monuments benefit from the superior taste and workmanship of the Golden Age. Those of the 3rd and 4th Earl are from the Southwark workshop of the great Dutchman Gerard Johnson (Gheerart Janssen) and that of the 5th is by his son, Nicholas Johnson. They are good work, but have none of the emotional charge of the very best of the period (as represented by Epiphanius Evesham and Nicholas Stone). The most affecting and perhaps most artistically successful figures are often the kneelers, as with this exquisitely carved young lady.

 On the tomb of the 6th Earl - a very grand affair, at the centre of which lies the Earl between his first and second wives, the middle step of an effigial staircase - kneel these figures [below] representing two sons killed in infancy 'by wicked practice and sorcerye'. A woman and her two daughters were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, the mother subsequently choking to death on a piece of bread she offered to eat to prove her innocence, and the two daughters being executed in 1618.

 All of which seems a million miles from the world view represented by the monuments to the 7th and 8th Earls, which were erected just 50 years later. They are from the studio of the famous Grinling Gibbons (best known for his prodigious wood carvings) and are both resolutely in the Baroque classical style. Now, rather than lying on straw mats with their hands clasped in prayer, the Earls stand in a fanciful version of Roman dress and strike appropriately imposing, more than a little camp, poses. The 8th Earl and his wife stand on either side of a rather ugly urn, on which the Earl rests an out-turned indicative hand, while his lady holds one hand to her bosom, and with the other lifts her stola to expose a well-turned leg. The effect is awkward, a little clumsy, and massively self-conscious.
 The Golden Age is truly over.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Another Kind of Library

I'm reading another Elizabeth Jenkins novel, Brightness - of which, no doubt, more in due course. A copy of this elusive item turned up on, I think, eBay at a reasonable price, and when it arrived I was delighted to discover that it bore the green shield of the Boots Booklovers Library (overprinted with a dark cross to identify it as withdrawn from stock).
 I am just old enough to have faint vestigial memories of the days when Boots - and W.H. Smith - ran commercial circulating libraries from many of their high-street premises. The libraries were in decline by then, but in the early years of the 20th century and on through the interwar period, they were a major presence, a huge influence - not necessarily for the better - on the nation's reading habits and on the commercial decision-making of the publishing industry.
 The Boots library had a business model that was bound to appeal to the English middle-class (and would-be middle-class) public. It offered a Class A subscription (relatively expensive and with various extras) and a Class B subscription (relatively inexpensive with no frills), thereby providing each group of subscribers with another group to look down on or look up to - perfect. There was even an On Demand subscription - more expensive then Class A - for the truly aspirational. What's more, Boots provided tasteful, even elegant surroundings for its library users, lending tone to what might otherwise have been a vulgar pharmaceutical bazaar.
 It was the perfect package, but it was doomed to fail, along with the other commercial circulating libraries, as public lending libraries took off in the postwar period and became acceptable even to the middle classes. The last Boots Booklovers Library closed in 1966 - just three years after Brightness was published.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

He takes the bins out

By chance (presumably), the BBC's bizarre interview with Arthur Askey lookalike Philip May, the UK's First Gentleman, took place on the eve of the great Denis Thatcher's birthday (he'd have been 102 today).
 Denis, the only other man ever to have found himself in the unfortunate position of being married to the PM, gave but one public interview, and that long after the fall of Mrs T. It was released after his death as a DVD, Married to Maggie - available on Amazon and even eBay, if you're interested (unlikely, I know).
 How often will we hear from Mr May over the coming years, I wonder? I'd hate to think it's now become part of the job. Good to know he takes the bins out, though.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Plus Ca Change

Alors, c'est fait. Macron, inevitably, won, and France, we can be sure, will continue to play a leading role in the ongoing suicide of Western Europe. As I always say, never underestimate the delusional folly of the French, at least in political matters. A nation dazzled by Ideas is rarely going to produce good governance.
 Still, it could be worse. On this date in 1794, Antoine Lavoisier, the 'father of modern chemistry', the man who named both oxygen and hydrogen, was tried, convicted as a traitor and guillotined. Among the crimes he was charged with was adulterating the nation's tobacco with water.
 A year and a half after his death, he was exonerated and his belongings were delivered to his widow with a curt note. A century later, a statue was erected in Paris in his memory, but it turned out that, to save effort, the sculptor had welded a spare head he had lying around - that of the Marquis de Condorcet - onto the body of his Lavoisier. The statue was melted down during the Second World War and has not been replaced.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chez Fothergill

To the agreeable Oxfordshire town of Thame on Friday evening, for a family occasion the next day. We stayed in the Spreadeagle, on the High Street, a hotel famous for having been run in the Twenties by the 'legendary' John Fothergill, who wrote a bestselling book, An Innkeeper's Diary, about the experience. A minor literary and artistic figure who liked to mingle with artists and writers, Fothergill was a friend and correspondent of Evelyn Waugh, who got to know Fothergill's Spreadeagle in his Oxford days. But he owed his fame - or notoriety - largely to the firm line he took with guests he did not consider worthy of his hotel, usually on grounds of bad manners.
 Like many a publican before and since, he took particular exception to visitors who made use of his sanitary facilities without bothering to buy a drink. Such offenders would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Fothergill was not really in the great British tradition of hoteliers and restaurateurs who are clearly in the wrong line of work and who take out their unhappiness on their unfortunate clientele. He was undoubtedly a snob, but not a boor; he was trying to ensure that his guests proved worthy of his hospitality and the very fine surroundings that he had created at the Spreadeagle. For those he approved of, he created a most agreeable kind of private club, over which he presided with charm, wit and generosity. At a time when English hotels were dreary places offering bad food and wine in a dismal environment, Fothergill created something more like a pleasant, artistically decorated country house, with good food and wine. He didn't want 'riffraff' (Basil Fawlty's term - 'vulgarians, bounders and coxcombs' Fothergill would have called them) spoiling the atmosphere of his inn.
  The Spreadeagle gets a mention in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, when Anthony Blanche takes Charles Ryder to dinner:
'We are going to Thame,' he said. 'There's a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn't appeal to the Bullingdon [the notorious Oxford drinking club].'
  The Spreadeagle's glory days are long behind it, but it's a pleasant enough hotel. And when I stepped out to take a turn before dinner, I looked up and found the sky alive with swifts - my first of the year! Circling, swooping, chasing and screaming, they were in high spirits and losing no time in getting their short season under way.
 Back home, only a few wary pioneers have so far braved the cold and cloud, but at least they are here and, despite appearances, the summer has begun.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Trout Again: The Carshalton Dodge

An article titled 'The Hampshire Fly Fisher' in the Dcember 17th, 1853, issue of The Field contains this startling sentence [my italics]:
'On the other hand, as far as fly fishing is concerned, fishing upstream, unless you are trying the Carshalton dodge and fishing with a dry fly, is very awkward.'
 As regular readers will know, I have lived in the suburban demiparadise of Carshalton for the best part of sixty years, man and boy - but that is the first I've ever heard of 'the Carshalton dodge'. It dates back to the days when Carshalton's river, the Wandle, was famous in angling circles as a crystal-clear chalk stream rich in trout. The implication seems to be that the 'dodge' of luring the wary trout with a dry fly delicately skimming the surface of the water originated in Carshalton, which can thereby claim an honoured place in the history of fly fishing.
 There were even two flies named for the demiparadise - the Carshalton Cocktail and the Carshalton Dun. If the regeneration of the Wandle continues on its present hopeful course, the Carshalton dodgers might yet be back in business, playing their wily Cocktails and Duns over the sparkling, trout-rich waters.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

'The secret, bestial peace!'

The other night I caught a programme on BBC4 called Amsterdam: An Art Lover's Guide - rather good it was, and very watchable. At one point, the presenter Alastair Sooke, touring the Rijksmuseum, briefly admired the Vermeers, then noted that they shared the room with works by another Dutch painter, one who, he seemed to suggest, was seriously underrated outside his native Holland. This was Jan Steen, painter of innumerable genre scenes, many of them portraying drunkenness and cheerful depravity in taverns. A Man Blowing Smoke at a Drunken Woman - the National Gallery's one Steen - is typical, though Steen's canvases tend to be more densely populated with drunks and revellers.
 The Dutch affection for Jan Steen's works is probably, well, a Dutch thing, and his loud, rambunctious works certainly have almost nothing in common with Vermeer's enigmatic masterpieces. It was surely the likes of Jan Steen that Larkin had in mind when he wrote his 1970 sonnet The Card Players, a crudely comic evocation of the 17th-century Dutch tavern world, and a kind of celebration of shameless maleness and hog-whimpering drunkenness...

Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
And holds a cinder to his clay with tongs,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
Towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace! 

Monday, 1 May 2017

Writer's Tears

Here it is, the perfect gift for the writer in your life - and a very welcome present to me from my beloved daughter, who, sadly, is flying back to the Antipodes tomorrow.

Talking of daughters, and writers - and tears - here's Richard Wilbur:

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Homeric Bus

Last night I had a convoluted dream, apparently set in grimy North London circa 1970, but also - such is the way of dreams - in the present day. I've forgotten everything about this dream (cheers of relief all round) except for one detail. In the course of events, two double-decker buses went past, and each of them bore a wraparound poster carrying a quotation from Homer. The word 'Homer' was emblazoned on the front of the bus, above the driver's cab, while the quotation unfolded along the side wall of the upper deck. The graphics were not in the best of taste - rather along the lines of the Biblical quotations displayed outside fundamentalist churches - and I was unable to read either quotation (one from the Iliad, one from the Odyssey). But I was impressed by what I took to be a splendid initiative - Homer on buses! It certainly beats the notorious 'atheist bus' of 2008.
I made a mental note to mention it on the blog. And now I have.

'An Explosion of Freshness' in the Face of Death

This painting of lilacs and roses - 'an explosion of freshness, quivering in the crystal vase where the painter's imagination had placed them,' in the words of Edmond Bazire - was one of the two last completed works of Edouard Manet, painted just weeks before his death on this day in 1883.
  Manet died, like so many in his time, of complications of syphilis. He had a gangrenous leg amputated below the knee in the hope of a cure, but this only postponed the inevitable. However, he retained his good humour and ready wit to the end. One of his last visitors, Gaston Latouche, left an account of the dying Manet:
'Death came slowly, but it came. The last time I saw poor Manet, he had undergone the painful operation on his leg that we all remember. I can still see his fine head silhouetted against the white pillow that emphasised the ashen colour his face had assumed, already invaded by the shadows of death.
 I stayed with him only a few moments; he was supposed to avoid fatigue. We said little - I tried to keep a smile on my lips for his sake, and I felt the sobs tightening my throat. Yet Manet managed to laugh, and to make me laugh - I, who had promised to cheer up the dear companion, to whom I was so deeply devoted. I left without finding a word to say, pressing Madame Manet's hands and those of the good Leenhoff [Leon Leenhoff, Mme Manet's 'brother', in fact her son, either by Manet or possibly Manet's father].
 Two days later Manet died.'

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Mugwumps Old and Young

This deeply dull election campaign has become a tad livelier thanks to our old friend Boris Johnson, who has lobbed a few verbal firecrackers the way of Jeremy Corbyn. In the course of pointing out, quite rightly, that a JC government would be a serious national security worry, Boris describes the Labour leader, mildly, as a 'benign Islingtonian herbivore' and, more vigorously, as a 'mutton-headed old mugwump'. Now, this is noun seldom heard on this side of the Atlantic except in a Harry Potter context. Politically, it means an independent who stands apart from, and even against, his own party - which was certainly true of JC before, thanks to a badly misfiring joke, he found himself leading it. However, it's unlikely Boris had that angle in mind - or even the Harry Potter angle. More likely he just went for a word that sounded silly and sat well with 'mutton-headed'.
 Self-described Mugwumps were the short-lived Sixties combo of that name, which has its place in the complex archaeology of the Mamas and Papas and the Lovin' Spoonful, since Cass and Denny of the former and Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian of the latter were involved. One LP was released, after the band had broken up, and I once owned it, but I have to say that, despite all the talent involved, it is really of curiosity value only. This track is about as good as it gets...

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Assistant

I've just finished a novel I'd been meaning to read for some while - Bernard Malamud's The Assistant - and it's left me moved, shaken, and quite convinced that I have encountered a true modern classic.
 Malamud's second novel, The Assistant is set in a poor district of New York, where Morris Bober, a Jewish grocer (who, importantly, has lost a young son) lives with his wife and daughter, and struggles to keep his failing business going. His life hits a new low when his store is raided by two holdupniks, one of whom hits him ferociously over the head. While he is still recovering, a mysterious young man begins to haunt the store, offering to work, for nothing, as an assistant. Morris, against his wife's objections, takes him on, and the grocery's fortunes begin to improve. But who is the young man? Can Morris trust him? And what will happen when he begins to fall in love with Morris's daughter?
 This seems at first like a familiar narrative structure, but in Malamud's hands it serves as the framework for a fascinating and profound moral drama, one in which nothing is simple and everything is difficult. The unfolding events, expertly unwound through a process of revelation and concealment, are never predictable and the ground is never firm beneath our feet - which is to say that this novel feels a lot like life itself. The main characters are, like the story, many-layered - they draw us into their lives, eager to find out more, to know them, though they are ultimately unknowable, even to themselves. None is more compelling than Frank Alpine, 'the assistant', the young man at the centre of the novel, a man set on a terribly difficult path of redemption, one from which he is all too liable to stray, but which is the only thing that can save him from himself - and in saving himself, he might save others.
 This is a wholly convincing tale of suffering and penance, love and forgiveness, the all but impossible making of a new life. It exerts an unshakable grip and feels, from beginning to end, like a classic. I suspect Malamud is better known and more highly valued in the States than over here. I'd previously only read one of his novels - the rather atypical A New Life - but I'll surely be reading more now. Recommendations welcome.

Monday, 24 April 2017


I know the Wandle, my local river - biologically dead in my boyhood - is now very much alive, with enough life in it to support kingfishers, egrets and a large population of herons. Even so, I was amazed and delighted to see, this morning, way upriver, a decent-sized brown trout - maybe a foot long - swimming in the shallow water, and even rising to snap at something, before retreating into the shadows of the riverbank undergrowth. For some reason, it put me in mind of a piece of music... Any excuse for enjoying this joyful performance again.

Sunday, 23 April 2017


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


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.


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 -

Much of life
is Dutch
in which
legions of
big robust
people crouch
badly cracked
dike systems
by the thumbs
their wide
balloon-pantsed rumps
up-ended to the
northern sun
while, back
in town, little
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.