Thursday, 19 October 2017

Red House

Here's something I wrote for those nice people at Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. It's about that remarkable survival, Red House in Bexleyheath...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

'One of the great works of art of England'

I spent most of yesterday making a long day trip – much longer than it should have been, thanks to various train and taxi problems – into Suffolk. My destination was St Andrew's church in the village of Bramfield. It's a pretty and interesting church – detached Norman round tower, thatched roof, a splendid late medieval screen (detail below) – but I was there to see Nicholas Stone's great monument to Arthur Coke and his wife, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth, 'Christianly and peaceably', in 1627.
 It's an almost stark monument, in black and white marble, with virtually no ornamentation, and the kneeling figure of Arthur Coke, against the wall, is stern and stiff. All the interest lies in the alabaster effigy of mother and child, she reclining at peace with the babe in her arms. It's a piece of work so exquisitely carved that Sacheverell Sitwell describes the rendering of the mother's full sleeve, the pillows under her head and the coverlet over her body as 'worthy of Bernini'. He is right – and he barely exaggerates in declaring that 'This is one of the great works of art of England'. The same could be said, in my view, of a good many of the best church monuments of the early 17th-century golden age. It's a shame we have to travel so far and so long to see them. But it's worth it.



Monday, 16 October 2017

Richard Wilbur RIP

This link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog alerted me to the sad news that the great American poet Richard Wilbur has died. He lived a long (96 years), productive and largely very happy life, which ended peacefully – and yet the news hits hard, I think because of what died with him: a surely unrepeatable combination of technical perfection, deep poetic knowledge and respect for tradition, wit and elegance, reticence and grace. Truly we shall not see his like again.
 I've posted many of Wilbur's poems here over the years (as a quick search will confirm). How to mark his death? Surely with this, perhaps his greatest, the poem that even Randall Jarrell (who had mixed feelings about Wilbur's work) called 'one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written' – A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra...

Under the bronze crown 
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat, 
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down 

            Past spattered mosses, breaks 
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills 
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes 

            A scrim or summery tent 
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose 
Collapse of water, its effortless descent 

            And flatteries of spray, 
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, 
      Watching, about his shaggy knees, 
The goatish innocence of his babes at play; 

            His fauness all the while 
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh 
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile 

            Bent on the sand floor 
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come 
      And go in swift reticulum, 
More addling to the eye than wine, and more 

            Interminable to thought 
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not 

            More intricately expressed 
In the plain fountains that Maderna set 
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed, 
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill 

            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine 
      Illumined version of itself, decline, 
And patter on the stones its own applause? 

            If that is what men are 
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre, 

            Spangled, and plunging house? 
They are at rest in fulness of desire 
      For what is given, they do not tire 
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse 

            And riddled pool below, 
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety. 
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow 

            Before the wealthy gate 
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss— 
That land of tolerable flowers, that state 

            As near and far as grass 
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land 
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

Not an Ex-Parrot

I always enjoy stories of supposedly extinct species being rediscovered – partly because they are in themselves good news, and partly because they suggest we are often rather too liberal in our diagnoses of extinction. The world is bigger – and stranger – than we imagine (stranger than we can imagine, according to Arthur Eddington), and we often underestimate the resilience and staying power of nature.
  Here is the latest news of an Australian bird that was thought to have been extinct for a century – the mysterious Night Parrot. It's hardly surprising that this parrot should have disappeared from view for so long: not only is it nocturnal, it is also a very reluctant flier that prefers to keep to the ground, skulking in thickets of Spinifex grass. At least its call has now been identified, which should make matters easier...
 By the way, the piece I've linked to contains the cherishable phrase 'Spinifex knoll'. Not one you often come across.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

English Messiahs

So there I was the other day, in one of my regular charity shops, when I spotted a book with the more than intriguing title English Messiahs. Opening it to have a look, I discovered that it was an account, by one Ronald Matthews, of six English religious pretenders who had claimed to be either the Messiah, or the harbinger – or potential mother – thereof, or, in one worrying case, God Almighty's nephew. It was published in 1936, and the author is careful to exclude the obviously insane or the obviously fraudulent – which still leaves him with plenty of Messiahs to choose from. There is something about Protestantism, the author suggests, that tends to encourage individuals who believe they have this particular kind of special destiny...
  Matthews' first case study is a fascinating and sad one – the story of the 'Quaker Jesus', James Nayler. He seems to have been a decently and sanely devout man, a prominent and effective Quaker, who suffered some kind of brainstorm that left him identifying rather too strongly with Jesus. As a result, he allowed a group of female followers to become dangerously devoted to him (he had a decidedly Jesus-like look to him). In the end, they insisted on leading him into Bristol on horseback, chanting 'Holy! Holy! Holy!', in what looked like a blasphemous re-enactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested, his case was discussed at length in Parliament, and he was duly punished for blasphemy by being pilloried and flogged, then having his tongue bored with a hot iron and his forehead branded with the letter 'B'. This was followed by two years' hard labour. He emerged from prison physically broken but with his mental equilibrium restored. Nayler died shortly after being robbed and left near death in a field in Huntingdonshire. As I said, a sad story.
 There is some sadness too in the case of the much better known Joanna Southcott, the remarkably popular 'prophetess' who, in her sixties, announced that she was going to give birth to 'Shiloh', the new Messiah. Instead of doing so, she died, surrounded by fanatical believers who were probably more convinced of her mystical pregnancy than she was. These believers were hard put to accept that Southcott was dead (despite the evidence of her decomposing body) or that she had never been pregnant, and even when they had finally swallowed these facts, many of them remained devout 'Southcottians'.
  Indeed the long afterlife of this particular nonsense is its most remarkable feature. I remember seeing notices in the papers as recently as the 1970s, proclaiming that 'War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box.' This was a sealed wooden box left by Southcott with instructions that it be opened at a time of national crisis in the presence of 24 Bishops – on which Christ would immediately return to Earth and eternal peace would reign. In 1927 the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have X-rayed the box and found it to contain such odds and ends as a rusty pistol, a lottery ticket and a nightcap. However, Southcottians declared that Price's box was not the real one, which was held at a secret location known only to them.
  Those notices in the papers were placed by the Panacea Society, the last incarnation of Southcottianism, founded in 1919 in Bedford. In the 1930s there were some 70 Southcottians in Bedford, and the Society owned several buildings in the town, one of them, known as The Ark, set aside for the use of the Messiah following the Second Coming. They also had allotments, and believed that Bedford was the original site of the Garden of Eden – a quite wonderful flight of fancy, as anyone who's visited Bedford will appreciate.
 Though the Panacea Society no longer exists as a religious community, there is still a charitable trust – and, amazingly, a Panacea Museum that is open to the public and boasts an impressive 4.7 rating on Trip Advisor. Next time I'm in Bedford (for the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery), I must drop in.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The late Jeremy and Other Snails

News of the demise of Jeremy the lefty love triangle snail got me thinking about snails in general. Though they're a plague and a bane in the garden, I've always had a soft spot for them, and have fond memories of my daughter, when very young, entertaining herself with (surprisingly pacey) snail races.
 Thom Gunn's fine poem, Considering the Snail, I have posted before. Here, for a very different take on the subject, is Marianne Moore's To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.
The citations in the Author's Notes are not very accurate, but let's not get pedantic. What fascinates Moore is the snail's 'contractility', as exemplified by its 'occipital horn'. A century and more earlier, Keats, reading Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, was similarly enchanted by the snail's 'tender horns', as he writes in a letter (from Box Hill) to John Hamilton Reynolds –

'He [Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know where he talks about "cockled Snails"--well, in one of these sonnets, he says--the chap slips into--no! I lie! this is in the Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind. 

Audi-- As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'


If Keats identifies with the snail's contractile sensitivity, William Cowper, considering the snail, also admires its self-contained, 'hermit-like' life, the creature's complete identity with its home perhaps reflecting something of Cowper's desperate need for home, for a safe place that offered him enough stability and security to be able to engage with the world – and retreat from it –

'To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all
                                                Together.

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much
                                                Displeasure.

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 
Its master.' 





Wednesday, 11 October 2017

His Country Again

Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway,
      The tender blossom flutter down,
      Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away;
Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
      Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
      And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air;
Unloved, by many a sandy bar,
      The brook shall babble down the plain,
      At noon or when the lesser wain
Is twisting round the polar star;
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
      And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
      Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
Till from the garden and the wild
      A fresh association blow,
      And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger's child;
As year by year the labourer tills
      His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
      And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.


Inspired, or reminded, by my recent visit to Somersby, I've been rereading In Memoriam. It's a poem imbued not only with overwhelming grief but a powerful sense of place and the passing seasons. In the lines above, these elements intermingle beautifully as Tennyson contemplates leaving the family home, the rectory in Somersby. 'The brook' is of course the one that gave its name to a narrative poem by Tennyson and, more famously, to the lyric embedded in it - 'I come from haunts of coot and hern...' The present-day brook, down the road from the rectory, is a shadow of its former self, no longer babbling down the plain but rather trickling steadily. But the poem lives on – as does In Memoriam.


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Legend

Today two broadcasting legends celebrate their 94th birthdays – motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who is now 'semi-retired', and cravat hero Nicholas Parsons, who is still indefatigably working. He has presented every single edition of Radio 4's Just a Minute since its birth 50 years ago, and is still doing a splendid job as chairman, straight man and comic in his own right.
 Parsons made his film debut a full 70 years ago (in Master of Bankdam, adapted from Thomas Armstrong's big bestseller The Crowthers of Bankdam) and his stage debut a couple of years before that. And he was a relatively late starter, having spent five years working as an engineering apprentice on Clydebank and studying mechanical engineering. Truly a legend.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

I've been reading Willa Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940. Like her early tales of prairie life, it's a novel of bittersweet nostalgic retrospect – but this time the nostalgia is for Cather's childhood years in West Virginia, before her father moved the family to Nebraska. In fact the nostalgia is for a period before she was even born, before the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves. Though slave ownership was the exception rather than the rule in West Virginia, Cather's central character, the Sapphira of the title, owns slaves, family slaves whom she brought with her when she followed her husband to West Virginia.
 Sapphira, who at the time we meet her is a dropsical invalid, is a domineering, deeply flawed character who yet has a compelling charm and something truly lovable about her – rather like Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy. Her treatment of her slaves is for the most part benignly maternalistic – until she begins to form dark suspicions about one of them, Nancy, the 'slave girl' of the title. It is those suspicions that drive the narrative of the novel – though 'drive' is too strong a word (as is 'narrative' almost). This is a novel whose interest lies chiefly in its richly layered characterisation – always Cather's strongest point – and its strong sense of place and community. The action proceeds, rather fitfully, in a series of episodes or tableaux, the narrative divided not into chapters but 'Parts', though each part is no longer than a normal chapter.
 The story is told by what seems to be an omniscient narrator, with a particular insight into the characters and events. It is not until the Epilogue and a sudden switch into first person that we discover who the narrator is – a discovery that throws new light onto what has gone before.
 Sapphira and the Slave Girl is so liberally sprinkled  with such now taboo words as 'nigger' and 'darkie' that it is unlikely to turn up on any present-day curriculum. Indeed Cather's attitude to the Peculiar Institution is at least partly indulgent – but in this, as in other areas, she skirts sentimentality with her usual finesse. This is not one of her best novels, but her particular magic – the mysterious power that lies behind the plain surface of her words – is still present. That magic makes even a second-rank Cather a more rewarding read than the first-rank productions of many other novelists of her time. 




Sunday, 8 October 2017

Douglas's End, Zog's Smoking

Wandering around in Birmingham's botanical gardens yesterday, I came across a board carrying a little background information about the plant hunter David Douglas, after whom the Douglas Fir is named. The intrepid Douglas, who introduced some 240 plants to Britain, travelled widely in the wilds of North America, and met his end, at the age of 35, in Hawaii. Climbing in the mountains, he became snow blind and fell into a pit trap, where he was gored to death by a wild bull. (At least, that's the version of his death given on the Birmingham board. Wikipedia offers a more nuanced account of Douglas's mysterious end.) 


Then, this morning, I discovered that King Zog of Albania (born on this day in 1895) was probably, at his peak, the world's heaviest smoker, getting through more than 200 a day. He also survived something like 55 assassination attempts, on one occasion defending himself with his own pistol, making him the only head of state to have personally exchanged fire with a would-be assassin.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Lost Words?

This looks like a fine book – which, as the review says, should be made available in a cheaper edition if it is to reach the intended audience. But in what sense are these words – words like blackberry, buttercup, kingfisher, acorn, bluebell, conker, wren – 'lost'? They have been dropped from a children's dictionary whose very limited remit is simply to reflect current usage. By that criterion, their omission was probably justified, though I'm always suspicious of the publicity-seeking stunts of dictionary publishers these days. 'Lost words', though? The words will only be lost if the things described are (if then – words can have long afterlives), and there is no sign of any of these common natural phenomena disappearing.
 The problem is that children today typically have less everyday contact with the natural world than they did in the days when they – we – were free to roam at large. But even in the city, nature is everywhere, even on the pavement (the asphalt can indeed be botanised), let alone in parks and gardens and along streets, many of which are still tree-lined, even in the very centre of town. Indeed the suburbs are now richer, in terms of natural diversity, than much of the intensively-farmed countryside. All that is needed is for children's attention to be drawn to this ever-present nature, and if the parents aren't doing that (especially when children are very young and eager to soak up all the knowledge they can get), then the schools should be – it's one of the most useful things they could do.
 Happily my (adorable) granddaughter, who has just started school, has already been out on at least one organised nature walk in a nearby park. Not that she needed it, as she's grown up well aware of what blackberries, buttercups, acorns, bluebells, conkers and the rest are – these are certainly not 'lost words' for her, and I'm sure she's not the only one. But schools should certainly be doing more of this sort of thing – right through to secondary level (as was standard when I was at school). It would be good for the children's health and wellbeing, expand their knowledge of the world, and make them more aware of what is around them. If there's no room on the timetable, why not drop 'physical education' in favour of nature walks? Far more beneficial than running around on a muddy field or jumping over a vaulting horse. Horse? Another 'lost word'?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Whirligig of Time

I was half-listening to Radio 4 just now – David Cannadine talking about Prime Ministers' Props – when I caught a familiar sound pumping away under the words. Blow me down if it wasn't the Velvet Underground's White Light / White Heat! My mind looped back half a century...
  When I was first at university, I would occasionally inflict my presence on the 'college disco'. Of the stack of singles that made up the playlist, only one was deemed cool and transgressive enough for us poseurs to request – White Light / White Heat. Not that we intended to dance – dear me, no. The thing was to take a seat, assume a languid pose and make no response whatever – not so much as a tapping finger – to the juddering, amphetamine-fuelled beat of the music. This was not easy, but as a demonstration of the art of cool it seemed well worth the effort. The pose could be broken only to ask the DJ to turn up the volume (if it was possible by this stage to make yourself heard). Yes indeed – like the young Sam Johnson, I spent my university years in a condition best characterised as one of 'stark insensibility'.
  Why was White Light / White Heat being played under Prime Ministers' Props? It was triggered, alas, by Harold Wilson's talk of the 'white heat of the technological revolution' – what radio producer could resist such a cue? The principal subject of the programme, however, was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who once said that if he wanted to work out an economic problem, he would do it with matchsticks. Guess which early Status Quo single was chosen to accompany every mention of matchsticks...?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Sargent at Dulwich

Yesterday I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see their exhibition of Sargent watercolours (it ends on Sunday and the final weekend's likely to be a bit of a scrum). This is a popular exhibition, and it's not hard to see why: Sargent's watercolours are a joy to look at, technically brilliant, easy on the eye and full of sunlight – (to quote Lord Clark of Civilisation) what could be more agreeable? Painted en plein air, they are the products of Sargent's leisure and travels, of his time off from the gruelling production-line process of portrait painting, and, for all their virtuosity, feel relaxed and effortless. Anyone who has tried their hand at watercolour can only gaze in awe at Sargent's jaw-dropping mastery of the medium.
 The pictures, painted in Venice, around the Med, in the Alps and various parts of France, Italy and Spain, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, show a continuing preoccupation with painting effects of light on water and stone, of reflected light from water onto stone, of strong sun and complex shadow, and the particular problems of rendering light and shade on white material against white paper (as in the dress of the poster girl, Lady with Umbrella, above left).

 In Venice, Sargent paints at water level, from a gondola, fascinated by the effects of light where stone and water meet, by the play of light on the underside of bridges and the hulls of boats. There are no grand panoramas or conventional postcard views of the city; Sargent's engagement is intimate and detailed, the rapt attention of an artist rather than a tourist. He doesn't paint a palazzo – he paints one corner of it, from water level – and when, elsewhere in Italy, he paints a grand Baroque fountain he ignores the statue at the centre in favour of studying the meeting of stone and water at the edge of its pool. Most of these paintings could be classed as studies rather than finished works – but when studies are of this quality, the distinction hardly matters. Sargent himself lined his walls not with oils but with these watercolours, which no doubt also served as happy reminders of his travels and leisure time (others on show in the exhibition – rather less successful – are from Sargent's time as a war artist, and there are a few portrait studies of male nudes).

 Walking around the exhibition – which is of manageable size, around 90 works – I realised I'd seen some of these pictures before, at the Royal Academy's Sargent and the Sea exhibition back  in 2010 (including The One I'd Have Stolen). This time, the one I'd have stolen (theoretically, Your Honour) was the Spanish Fountain (above right), as perfect a study of sunlight on water and stone as anyone ever painted in watercolour. This is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition, and I'm glad I made it – just.






Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Tom Petty

Sad news that Tom Petty has died, and at only 66. He did some great work, especially in creative collaboration with other musicians. A couple of touching details struck me in his obits...
 At the age of 11, Petty (who had had a difficult childhood) met Elvis Presley and shook his hand - and 'That was the end of doing anything other than music in my life.'
 Last year, after playing a set of 40th anniversary gigs with the Heartbreakers, he told Rolling Stone, 'I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can. I don't want to spend my life on the road.' One of the good guys. RIP.


Monday, 2 October 2017

'A pip of life amid a mort of tails'

Today is the birthday of that great poet and successful insurance executive Wallace Stevens – 138 today. How to mark the day? With a poem, of course – but which? I got my inspiration when I was taking a stroll early this evening, looked up and saw a squadron of parakeets flying over, on the way to their roosting grounds...

The Bird with the Coppery Keen Claws

Above the forest of the parakeets,
A parakeet of parakeets prevails,
A pip of life amid a mort of tails.

(The rudiments of tropics are around,
Aloe of ivory, pear of rusty rind.)
His lids are white because his eyes are blind.

He is not paradise of parakeets,
Of his gold ether, golden alguazil,
Except because he broods there and is still.

Panache upon panache, his tails deploy
Upward and outward, in green-vented forms,
His tip a drop of water full of storms.

But though the turbulent tinges undulate
As his pure intellect applies its laws,
He moves not on his coppery, keen claws.

He munches a dry shell while he exerts
His will, yet never ceases, perfect cock,
To flare, in the sun-pallor of his rock.


Next time I see the parakeets I shall relish the image of a 'parakeet of parakeets' brooding over them, exerting his will as he munches a dry shell...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Last Night I Saw W.H. Auden...

He was the subject of a BBC2 documentary, Stop All the Clocks: W.H. Auden in an Age of Anxiety, an attempt to – guess what – 'explore the contemporary relevance' of Auden's poetry. Ah well - that's the kind of pitch you'd have to make to get a programme on a dead white poet onto a mainstream BBC channel. And it wasn't at all bad.
 Predictably, there was a lot of dubious stuff linking Auden's September 1, 1939 ('I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-Second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low, dishonest decade...') with the terrorist atrocity of 9/11. Equally predictably, much was made of Funeral Blues and its famous appearance in that terrible film Four Weddings and a Funeral (where John Hannah managed to turn what always struck me a serio-comic five-finger exercise into a heartbroken expression of grief).
  Funeral Blues gave Auden's now posthumous fame a new lease of life – surely a good thing. But one of the interesting features of the documentary was its frequent reminders of just how famous the poet was, internationally, in his later life. He even appeared on Parkinson, for heaven's sake – smoking like a chimney and discoursing about poetry. Would any poet make it on to a popular chat show today? Hardly...
 And there was extraordinary footage of Auden and Chester Kalman at their quaint little cottage at Kirchstetten in Austria (where Auden was buried). We see the poet suavely, almost ingratiatingly,  giving interviews in German, and – more alarmingly – driving a VW Beetle, not a good idea for a man who lived on benzedrine and alcohol (indeed he had to give it up shortly after the footage was taken). At one point, Igor Stravinsky came on to declare that 'Auden has been in Austria too long now. After all, we can't afford to give our best poet to the Germans.'  Quite.
 The programme ended, fittingly, with another poem Auden wrote in 1939 - the great elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats... 'In the deserts of the heart/ Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.'

Saturday, 30 September 2017

'Last night I saw Lester Maddox...'

Born on this day in 1915 was Lester Maddox, the segregationist Governor of Georgia. Little cause for celebration there, but I'm not one to turn down an opportunity to play a Randy Newman song. You'll recall that Rednecks begins with the lines

'Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass New York Jew*
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too.
Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
And if they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song...
'

* Dick Cavett, not a Jew.


It's also interesting to note that Maddox – along with George Wallace and most of the segregationist Southern political leaders – was a Democrat. How did the party get from there to the right-on moral high ground in so few decades?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Pickle

I see it's National Poetry Day again (how soon it comes around...). This year's theme is, er, Freedom. For myself, I'm with Donovan inasmuch as freedom is a word I rarely use*. But, to mark the day, let's hand over to Kay Ryan for a few words on life - this life - what is it, Kay, in a word?

It's a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale:
to be miniature is to be swallowed
by a miniature whale. Zeno knew
the law that we know: no matter
how carefully diminished, a race
can only be half finished with success;
then comes the endless halving of the rest --
the ribbon's stalled approach, the helpless
red-faced urgings of the coach. 


* see, if you must, Colours (1965) 

Spark Again

Having taken a refreshing dip in masculine waters with Donald Westlake, I was soon back with my lady novelists - specifically Muriel Spark. I'd picked up a copy of The Driver's Seat in a local charity shop and, as I hadn't read it before...
 What can I say? It's very short, barely novella length, very strange and, even by Spark's standards, icy cold. It's also an astonishing piece of writing, the kind of thing that only a writer of dazzling talent could bring off (if she does bring it off - many of Spark's most ardent fans, it seems, found this one hard to swallow).
 What is it about? Well, it's impossible to say without giving the plot away - but, as Spark happily does just that by way of opening the third chapter of the book, it hardly matters. Lise, the clearly deranged main character, whom we first meet buying a bizarre selection of garish clothes in a London shop before flying off to some unidentified Mediterranean resort, is a 'murderee' (isn't there one of those in Martin Amis's London Fields? Did he get the idea here?). Lise is setting out to accomplish her own murder. She just needs to find someone to do it...
 We are told almost nothing about Lise, beyond the bare fact that she's worked in the same office for sixteen years - a few hints here and there, but nothing concrete - and must try to work out for ourselves why she is doing this, even as we hang on, pale and aghast, waiting to find out how she will bring it about. Happily there are supporting characters and incidental details - delineated with Spark's characteristic acuity - to diffuse our attention, but it is Lise's unexplained, inexplicable quest that drives the action to its climax.
 The author does not let us into the inner world of anyone in this novel - least of all Lise - but remains outside it all, omniscient but telling us almost nothing.  Perhaps that is the only way to handle these dark materials - and it works, to the extent that it keeps the reader reading, and adds up to something that looks like a satisfying whole, even if it's one you'd really rather not swallow. The New Yorker called The Driver's Seat 'spiny and treacherous', and those adjectives are dead right. It is also, like it or not, a rare piece of virtuoso storytelling.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A Face from the Past

This face, I feel sure, is going to haunt me for a long time. It is that of Sir Adrian Scrope (died 1623) as carved by - who else? - Epiphanius Evesham for Scrope's monument in the remote Lincolnshire church of St Leonard, South Cockerington.
 Sir Adrian (of whose life almost nothing is known) reclines on one elbow, the hand of his other arm on his breast, his head raised as if listening intently to something, or lost in thought. His sword lies beside him, his helm behind, his gauntlets under one armoured knee. He wears a fine collar and a sash that still retains a little colour. On two beautifully carved panels below him on the tomb chest his sons and daughters are artfully arranged. The tomb is of alabaster, but Sir Adrian's effigy is of grey limestone, and has been knocked about a bit, as is so often the case with these monuments, great works of art though they are.
 What is remarkable - indeed unnerving - about this effigy is how extraordinarily real it seems, how completely natural and unforced the pose is. When you enter the church, it really does look as if some visitor has decided to rest awhile on a tomb chest. And then, when you look at that face,  when you look into those eyes - or rather try to; the eyes are always elsewhere - it is absolutely like looking at the face of a living person, of a person who has lived. What is that face saying? Is it telling us anything, or is that gaze purely inward?
 This is certainly a man facing the end of his life, not one newly awakened at the general resurrection of the dead, though a similar pose was often used in resurrection monuments. Indeed that semi-recumbent pose was, sadly, to become standard for a host of intensely relaxed aristos on a host of overblown Baroque tombs. But there is nothing relaxed about Sir Adrian, and nothing overblown about his monument. Indeed there's nothing really Baroque about it - that face, in particular, could have been carved at any time. There is something universal about it. Perhaps, when we look at it, we are ultimately looking at ourselves.

Monday, 25 September 2017

In His Country

The landscapes of the Lincolnshire Wolds - rolling wooded hills and farmland dotted with sleepy little villages - are among the most beautiful in the land. They are also among the least appreciated and visited: the roads are almost eerily quiet, and people of any description are few and far between - which is great news for those of us who do appreciate the beauty of these wolds. Even better, all the churches that can be opened are indeed open - a rare pleasure for the church-crawler in these times.
 I was there at the weekend, with my cousin, on a little tour of 'Tennyson country', the cluster of villages centred on Somersby, where the poet grew up, a child of the rectory (and of the deeply troubled rector, who descended into insanity in his later life). There is no plaque on the rectory, nor any indication that this was the house where one of England's greatest and most popular poets spent his formative years. Outside the church, an information board gives a pretty good summary of Tennyson's Somersby life, but you would not otherwise know that this tiny village was the heart of 'Tennyson country'; this is not exactly an over-promoted attraction. As a happy result, it can still be enjoyed in blessed peace and quiet.
 Somersby church is typical of the Wolds churches - stone-built, compact, unpretentious, with a sturdy West tower and a degree of Victorian restoration. The airy whitewashed interior is peaceful and numinous. Against one wall there's a display case containing a couple of the poet's churchwarden pipes and one of his quill pens - and, under the tower, the great man's brooding bust, by Thomas Woolner, stares at nothing.
 If there is to be a 'Tennyson country', this is just as it should be - a half-forgotten land lost in a very special, very local kind of enchantment.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Japanese have a word for it...

And the word is Tsundoku. It describes a phenomenon that will be familiar to any book buyer - buying books that are destined to spend the rest of their lives standing neglected and unread on the groaning shelves. We are all guilty - though I like to think I'm a lot less so than I once was. Good to know there's a word for it anyway.

Meanwhile, I must report that I'm off again, to Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, where the hunt for Epiphanius Evesham monuments continues...

A Nigel Writes

It seems the once proud name of Nigel is dying out - see, for example, this wittily titled piece from the Guardian. The writer - a Nigel himself - gets most of the notable Niges in there (including Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit), but unaccountably omits Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and my own hero and role model Nigel Molesworth [above].
 For myself, I owe my moniker - which, like most Nigels, I've never liked - to a combination of my mother's transparent snobbishness and my father's enthusiasm for the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, a couple of which feature the adventures of Sir Nigel and the White Company. He might also have been thinking of the great locomotive engineer Sir Nigel Gresley - I'd like to think so.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Johnson and Johnson

Good to hear Boris Johnson describing the current Cabinet as 'a nest of singing birds' (in the full knowledge that 'nest of vipers' would be nearer the mark). The phrase might ring a bell with readers of Boswell's life of another eminent Johnson. After looking back on his days at Pembroke College, Oxford - days when he was 'mad and violent, being miserably poor and thus opposed to all authority' - Johnson rejoices that his old college has produced so many eminent men. 'Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds."'
 Before Johnson - both Johnsons - the phrase was widely used to describe England in the reign of Elizabeth. Widely and, it seems, aptly. John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, noted in 1560 that sometimes at St Paul Cross there would be six thousand people singing together (surely an exaggeration, but even so). Before the sermon, the congregation would always sing a psalm, with choir and organ, all making glorious music together. 'I was so transported,' wrote Jewel, 'that there was no room left in my whole body, mind or spirit for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.'

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Departure

I thought I'd take a break from the likes of Elizabeth Jenkins and Ivy Compton-Burnett and read something completely different - a crime novel. I'd come across something online about the American crime writer Donald E. Westlake and particularly liked the sound of his posthumously published The Comedy Is Over. I duly bought a copy, complete with garish dust jacket (which I promptly disposed of), and began to read...
 I was, of course, instantly hooked - Westlake really knows what he's doing (he's been described as 'the writer's writer's writer') and loses no time reeling the reader in.  The Comedy Is Over introduces us straight away to the character at the centre of the action - Koo Davis, a wise-cracking old-school comedian whose style and CV resemble Bob Hope's. The time is the late Seventies, and Davis is back on top after a career wobble when he found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the Vietnam war. Now he has his own high-rating TV show - from the set of which he is suddenly, shockingly kidnapped.
 Koo's kidnappers are a bunch of sad but dangerous leftovers from the heady days of 'revolutionary' action, and they don't seem to realise that times have changed, leaving them behind - like Davis after Vietnam, but with no route to a comeback. Their inept attempt to secure the release of ten 'political prisoners' in return for Koo Davis ends in farce, and the gang become increasingly desperate, as does Koo's plight...
 Westlake draws us into Davis's ordeal by taking us into his head and by describing his situation so deftly that we're right there with him, in first one and then another California modernist 'safe house'. And he makes him likeable, despite his many human flaws - and funny, with his unstoppable flow of one-liners. Not many crime novels are as full of gags as this one. Nor, I think, are they likely to include a sex scene in which the male participant recites a passage from Pope's Essay on Man while in flagrante.
 I've got a feeling I might be reading more Westlake in future.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Then...

A few places ahead of us in the queue for the London-bound EuroStar was a familiar figure - none other than Frank Field, one of our most intelligent and honourable MPs (there aren't many of them - they should be treasured). He was conversing amiably with his travelling companion as we all shuffled along, clearing security and heading for the train...

  Later, at St Pancras, as I was making my way along one of those endless tiled corridors to the Victoria Line, I found myself behind a short, rotund superannuated hippy with an impressively dense tail of matted hair hanging from his nape and an unmistakably cannabinoid smell emanating from his baggy t-shirt. From his gait, I got the impression of a genial soul, still truckin' after all these years. As I overtook him, he called out: 'Hey, aren't you...? Oh no' [scrutinising my face] 'you're not.'
'No, I'm not,' I replied. 'Are you?'
'No,' he replied, chuckling by now, 'I'm not either.'
'I often wish I was,' I said as I picked up speed, and we bade each other a cheery farewell.
I liked him, He had something of The Fugs about him, or Fat Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Quite took me back...

 Then, at Victoria, as I got off the Tube, there was Frank Field again, walking towards me. I gave him a conspiratorial smile, but I don't think he noticed.

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.



Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Off gallivanting again

I'm going to be in Holland (Maastricht and environs) for a few days, so there may be a hiatus...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Visit to the Library

Yesterday my researches took me to my borough's 'award-winning' central library. It was, as ever, a bewildering experience: what had once been an easy to understand, easy to use library, with plenty of books arranged along conventional lines, is now a bizarre assemblage of largely unpeopled and unstaffed open spaces with gimmicky names - Page One, Media Too - and precious few books in evidence. Only on the upper levels of the building do things begin to get a little more recognisable - the children's library is little changed, and on the next level up is something that resembles the library as it was, complete with a (now apparently unstaffed) reference library. But even here there are large mysterious cubes bearing the names of primary colours and painted accordingly - are they intended as some kind of easy-to-understand classification system? If so, without an explanation of what the colours signify, they do not get us very far. Happily, on the shelves, the familiar Dewey decimal system still reigns supreme. And, happily, the library still has a handsome set of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was the object of my quest.
 Whenever I am in this library building, I take a look at a display case on one of the landings, which contains an open copy of the borough's printed Book of Remembrance. This lists the names and addresses of civilians killed by bombing during the Hitler war, their ages, and when and where they died. This chronicle of loss - often of entire families to one bomb - makes sad and sobering reading, and offers a salutary perspective on our present times. It seems almost inconceivable that, in living memory, ordinary people in a borough some miles from the centre of London went about their lives under relentless bombardment from the skies, knowing that each night could be their last. Against that, the perceived threats and dangers of our present world seem small beer indeed, and the self-obsessed psychobabble,  offence-seeking, virtue-signalling and grievance-mongering of our times look like the behaviour of thin-skinned moral infants who have never had real jeopardy and real calamity to deal with.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Test and the Encounter

I spent yesterday in a social whirl worthy (almost) of Jeffrey Archer in the heyday of his legendary blog. First I met Bryan A at Lord's, where we enjoyed 20 minutes of the morning session before the rain swept in. As it looked serious, we repaired to a café to ponder our next move - which was to head for the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Having lunched at leisure, we strolled along to the National Portrait Gallery and had a look around their current exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, of which more below. As we emerged from the gallery, the weather was evidently clearing, so it was back to Lord's, where play had resumed. And so it was that - surrounded by a tiresome (but perfectly pleasant) gang of food-fighting, drink-spilling hoorays - we witnessed cricketing history when Jimmy Anderson clean-bowled the Windies' Kieran Powell to claim his 500th Test wicket. Something to tell the grandchildren - though they will neither care nor understand. Hey ho.
  But to The Encounter. It's a lovely little exhibition, just 48 portrait drawings and studies, ranging in date from the 15th to the 17th century and taking in such big names as Leonardo (a figure drawing), Dürer, Rembrandt (only a sheet of little figure studies, but fascinating to examine) and Hans Holbein the Younger. It's Holbein's portrait of John Godsalve [above] that greets you as you go in, and is arguably the star of the show. An unusually finished drawing in coloured chalks, ink and body colour with white heightening, it's beautifully executed, with all of Holbein's almost uncanny skill on show.
 Godsalve was a minor government official, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell and, some years after this portrait was drawn, Member of Parliament for Norwich. The portrait shows him as he was when Holbein first met him - a young man on the rise, meeting the artist's gaze with a look that is at once diffident and direct, anxious and sly, and surely speaks volumes about the precarious nature of life on the margins of the Tudor court. Holbein so valued this portrait that he kept it in his possession all his life, perhaps using it as an advertisement to show potential patrons what he was capable of. It's a stunning piece of work (on loan, like many others in the exhibition, from the Royal Collection).
  The poster boy for The Encounter is Giulio Pedrizzano, a lutensist, as portrayed by Annibale Carracci in a dashing little pen and ink drawing, fizzing with energy, that perfectly captures the intense, almost ferocious gaze of the sitter. Every bit as arresting and immediate as the Caracci, but much more highly finished, is a coloured drawing titled Middle-Aged Man with Curly Hair, attributed to Nicolas Lagneau, a 17th-century French artist better know for caricatures and grotesques.
His Middle-Aged Man [right] is no caricature, but a minutely detailed, closely observed study of the lived-in face of a man who stares out at the world with a kind of defiant resignation, and absolutely no illusions.
 Another gem attributed to a minor artist is a captivating drawing in black and red chalk, Young Girl Looking to Her Right [below], thought to be by Leendert van der Cooghen, an amateur painter active in Haarlem during the Dutch Golden Age. This drawing is executed with the utmost delicacy, and perfectly captures the youthful beauty - the 'bloom' - and the physical awkwardness of a girl poised between childhood and adulthood.
 The Encounter is on until 22 October, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the art of portrait drawing.




Thursday, 7 September 2017

Buster, Stan and Ollie

I just saw this extraordinary photograph of Buster Keaton with Laurel and Hardy in the early Thirties; it was flashed on screen in the course of a documentary about Hal Roach. The picture is all too eloquent of Keaton's sad career slump. He looks like a man staring into the abyss, while Stan and Ollie look like, well, Stan and Ollie, living forever in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

'The little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work..'

There are some landscapes, by reputation spectacularly beautiful, that somehow leave me cold and a little uneasy. It took me a while to realise what these landscapes have in common: it's the absence of all tangible signs of human habitation and activity. The fact is that I prefer landscapes inhabited and adorned by humanity, with an easy balance between the landscape and the buildings and settlements that sit naturally in it. The ideal setting (for me) is among gently rolling hills, with valleys and folds, farms and villages, patterns of field and wood. Not for me the desolation of an unpeopled landscape. And not, it seems, for John Ruskin, who begins The Two Paths by recounting the pain he felt in passing through such landscapes during a long holiday in the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1857:

'As I passed, last summer, for the first time, through the North of Scotland, it seemed to me that there was a peculiar painfulness in its scenery, caused by the non-manifestation of the powers of human art. I had never travelled in, nor even heard or conceived of, such a country before; nor, though I had passed much of my life amidst mountain scenery in the South, was I before aware how much of its charm depended on the little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work, which are mingled with the beauty of the Alps, or spared by their desolation...'

 Ruskin goes on to compare what buildings there are in these Scottish wastes most unfavourably with the cottages and ruins that dot the Alpine scene. He continues:

'While these conditions of Scottish scenery affected me very painfully, it being the first time in my life that I had been in any country possessing no valuable monuments or examples of art, they also forced me into the consideration of one or two difficult questions respecting the effect of art on the human mind' - difficult questions that are considered at length in the remainder of the book.

 On the 1857 Highland holiday, Ruskin (then aged 38) was, like some sulky schoolboy,  reluctantly and resentfully accompanying his 'Papa and Mamma', as he recalls in notes that might in part explain his pained reaction to the Scottish scenery around him:

'My mother wants me to see the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls of Kilmorock. I consent sulkily to be taken to Scotland with that object. Papa and mamma, wistfully watching the effect on my mind, show their Scotland to me. I see, on my own quest, Craig-Ellachie, and the Lachin-y-Gair forests, and finally reach the Bay of Cromarty and Falls of Kilmorock, doubtless now the extreme point of my northern discoveries on the round earth. I admit, generously, the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls to be worth coming all that way to see; but beg papa and mamma to observe that it is twenty miles’ walk, in bogs, to the top of Ben Wyvis, that the town of Dingwall is not like Milan or Venice, - and that I think we have seen enough of Scotland.'

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Not Screened Off

Visiting St Etheldreda's, Hatfield, yesterday, I was delighted to find that the Salisbury Chapel in that fine church was not screened off but open to all. That made it possible to see (and photograph) from every angle this magnificent monument to the First Earl of Salisbury, with its superb statues of the Four Cardinal Virtues by Maximilian Colt, a Flemish sculptor who rose to become the King's Master Carver (the King being James I). Behind the statues and below the black marble slab on which the Earl lies in effigy is a skeleton, unadorned, on a rush mat. Memento mori.

Elizabeth Jenkins and the Jensen Owners' Club

I have just finished another Elizabeth Jenkins novel - her last in fact - A Silent Joy, published in 1992 when she was 86 years old. Set in 1957, among a still prosperous and servant-served upper middle class, it's a lumpy piece of work, and I probably wouldn't have finished it if I weren't on a mission.
 A Silent Joy is a rather schematic study of three kinds of love - the deep, disinterested affection of an elderly retired judge for the young daughter of a dead friend; the naked lust of said friend's widow for a dodgy wheeler-dealer; and the sweetly conventional love of a young couple (older daughter of said friend and cousin of another friend) who, in the course of the novel, get married. It is also a portrayal of the dire effects of easy divorce - in 1957! What would she have made of the situation today?
 The character development is uneven, with some of the above seriously underdrawn. In addition there's an equally uneven collection of minor characters - some well rounded, others more like caricatures inspired by Elizabeth Jenkins' (entirely laudable) loathing of 'progressive' ideas. Still, as with all of Miss Jenkins' novel, there's always something there that keeps you reading, some scenes and moments when thing come fully alive and she shows just how good she can be.
 The source of the title is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - a marginal note in Part IV, about the moon and the stars 'that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest and their native country and their own natural home, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.'
 A Silent Joy has the distinction of being the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel - perhaps the only literary novel by anyone? - to earn a notice in the newsletter of the Jensen Owners' Club. Here it is, with apologies for the white on black...

Despite appearances, this was no Mills & Boon pot-boiler but the prize-winning final book (1992) in the six decade long career of this noted author and biographer. Despite being in her late eighties when she wrote this account of life in 1950s London, she had the intelligence to put her hero in a Jensen:

 Neil had now bought a car, a Jensen 541 'R' and this was the first time he had driven Phyll in it. She had always known he was besotted with machinery, but until this morning she'd never realised that he regarded cars as if they were people. 


 Tom Mercer had been out on the drive with Neil, examining the wonders and beauties of the Jensen; now he came indoors. 


If you do come across a copy of this book, snap it up as it is collectable!