Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The last shape of things

On this day in 1955 Philip Larkin wrote the short and surprisingly sweet Long Sight in Age...

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.

It was unpublished in his lifetime, and some think it unfinished, but it works perfectly well as it stands. As usual with Larkin's poems, the formal structure is precise but barely noticeable. Here one abcacb sestet is followed, and thematically echoed, by a second after the semicolon. The poem is perfectly rounded; there is no evident need for more.
  Long Sight in Age now features as part of a Larkin display at the Hull and East Riding Eye Hospital, even though, in ophthalmological terms, what 'they say' is clearly wrong: ageing is usually a matter of increasingly fuzzy vision, declining acuity of long sight and short sight both. As our eyes age, we enter an increasingly impressionistic world of 'ghostlier demarcations' (not, alas, accompanied by 'keener sounds').
 For me, oddly, things have not been so simple on the ocular front: after I retired, my long sight surprised me by coming back, so that I no longer need glasses for distance, only for reading (and for that my eyesight has become definitely worse). Meanwhile, of course, my mental world becomes more fuzzy and impressionistic, and names, in particular, are harder and harder to retrieve from the decrepit, over-stuffed filing cabinets of memory. This is only a minor nuisance, and the effort of retrieval is probably good mental exercise, even if takes its time. Better two days late than never?

Monday, 18 June 2018

Charge!

Seeing a large reproduction of this painting in a charity shop reminded me of my father's penchant for high Victorian patriotic art (and poetry). He was a great admirer of this picture, which he referred to as 'The Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo', though it is generally known as 'Scotland Forever!'. It shows the regiment charging at full gallop towards the enemy, and makes its dramatic impact by putting the viewer in the position of the enemy as this formidable fighting force bears down on them. Full of ferocious energy and excitement and painted with tremendous dash, it packs a huge pictorial punch, and caused a sensation when it was exhibited, in 1881, at the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly.
  As is usual with this kind of painting, the artist has taken liberties with the historical facts: the Scots Greys advanced not at the gallop but at a quick walk, owing to the broken ground; their horses at Waterloo were mostly brown chargers rather than heavy greys; and in battle there would be practical oilskin covers on their dashing black bearskin caps. This is not the real but the ideal charge, a blood-stirring icon of patriotic valour.
  The surprising thing about Scotland Forever! is that it was painted not by a man but by a woman – Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, who specialised, with great success, in this kind of thing. And she was no mean painter: Scotland Forever! is a technical tour de force, as are most of her larger paintings, many of which are more sombre and reflective in tone. A fine example is Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea (below), which was bought by Queen Victoria and is in the Royal Collection. 'I never painted for the glory of war,' wrote Lady B, who was a Colonel's wife, 'but to portray its pathos and heroism.' She was resolutely naturalistic in her approach, and intensely disapproved of the Aesthetic movement. Indeed Scotland Forever! was painted following a visit to the Grosvenor Gallery, as a riposte to all that greenery yallery nonsense.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Here Lies What Was Mortal

Interesting to see that Stephen Hawking's memorial stone in Westminster Abbey (installed yesterday) carries the words 'Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking'. This is an Englishing of the epitaph of his Abbey neighbour, Isaac Newton ('Hic depositum est quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni'). The neighbour on his other side, Charles Darwin (who kept quiet about his agnosticism), was content with his name and dates only.
  Hawking regarded the brain (all there is of us in his philosophy) as 'a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'  Nevertheless Hawking was sent on his way with the Dean of Westminster commending 'his immortal soul to almighty God'. Ah well. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature......

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Shriver Stirs It Up

'From now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer ... that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.' 
  Predictably enough, these forthright words from Lionel Shriver have stirred up an almighty brouhaha in the wonderful world of publishing, and she has been dropped from the judging panel for a writing competition run by Mslexia magazine. Shriver was writing in response to the news that Penguin Random House intends that by 2025 its author list will reflect the 'diversity' of society as a whole. This can of course only be achieved by a quota system, and quotas can only lead to the kind of scenario so graphically outlined by Shriver.
  The response of the editor of Mslexia is interesting. Why on earth should women writers – or any writers not living in a totalitarian state – need a 'safe space' to publish their work? If any writers are in need of a 'safe space' it might soon be those who dare to question the 'diversity' dogma that now seems to have the publishing industry, as well as so many other institutions, firmly in its grip.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

An Unlikely Debut

On 6 July, 1904, the Natal Mercury published these lines, written by a 16-year-old Durban High School pupil who styled himself 'C.R. Anon'...

Hillier did first usurp the realms of rhyme
To parody the bard of olden time: 
Haggar then followed and, in shallow verse, 
Proves that to every bad there is a worse.
Some nameless critic then in furious strain
Causes the reader cruel pain
While after metre pure he seems to thirst
But shows how every worse can have a worst


(Hillier, a former mayor of Durban, and Haggar, a teacher who later became a Labour Party member in the Natal Legislative Assembly, had made fools of themselves with some terrible verse parodies of Horace. 'C.R. Anon' had looked on with amusement.)
 
'Hillier did first usurp...' was, incredibly, the literary debut of the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who, among many other accomplishments, would later become (as Ricardo Reis) a master of the Horatian ode. He spent eight of his early years in Durban, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul, returning in 1905 to Lisbon, where he spent the rest of his life as a  flâneur, occultist, publisher and hugely prolific writer, under countless aliases (or rather 'heteronyms').
Pessoa was born on this day 130 years ago.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Poundworld: The Solution

I blame myself. When, last year, I posted a less than flattering review of my local Poundworld discount store, it clearly had a shattering effect on the company's morale – and now a failing Poundworld has been obliged to go into administration. Unless something turns up, it looks likely to become the latest casualty of the high-street retail cull.
  The consensus view among the experts seems to be that the 'everything for a pound' business model is defunct. However, I feel I must point out that there is an obvious solution staring Poundworld in the face – Guineaworld. Yes – price everything at a guinea and sales revenue will instantly rise by five per cent. What's more, the change of name will raise the tone of the stores, and perhaps attract a rather better class of customer. Everyone's a winner.
  In the circumstances, I'll waive my usual consultancy fee for this one.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Among the Happy

Derbyshire has but one butterfly reserve, and it is by no means easy to find. My cousin and I managed to locate it last year, and this weekend we returned to take a longer look. It's a worked-out quarry that has been encouraged to develop into a fine habitat for a range of limestone-loving butterflies, including the Wall (above, once common, now in steep decline), various Skippers, and a couple of Derbyshire specialities – the gorgeous Dark Green Fritillary and a Peak District form of the Brown Argus.
  While we were wandering around the site, we came across only one other person, a very knowledgable volunteer warden who soon got talking to us, about the reserve – which he was instrumental in saving from the gruesome fate of being converted into a caravan park – and all manner of wildlife matters. A born countryman, with a sharp eye and a sharp mind, he had been a computer scientist by career (hardware, not software), but always his passion  had been for wildlife, especially butterflies and birds. A fine example of the kind of expert amateur naturalist so vital to the study of the natural world, he had spent his life reading and reading, recording and, above all, observing, with an informed countryman's eye, and he was clearly a happy and fulfilled man.
  Happy men and happy women seem to abound in the Peak District. I know of no other part of the country where people are so ready to engage complete strangers in conversation and, in the course of it, rhapsodise quite genuinely about the pleasures of living in this beautiful and richly various region. To those of us who spend most of our time in parts of the country where people are unlikely to talk to strangers – and when they do are more inclined to grumble than to rhapsodise – it is like being in another world. And it is immensely heartening to know that such a world still exists in our much-changed country.
  I had been hoping to see a Wall butterfly at the reserve – it's a species I haven't seen in England in decades – but I was disappointed; not one came our way. But then, on the morning of my return to London, I was walking my cousin's dog (a magnificent trail hound with a missing hind leg) near Wirksworth's StarDisc when I looked down and saw a Wall basking on the sun-warmed path, practically at my feet. The perfect ending.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Landscape

A picture (a Breton landscape) for Paul Gauguin's 170th birthday today.
Tomorrow I'm off to Derbyshire for the weekend...

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Osterley

A piece I wrote about the eye-popping Osterley House (pimp my pad, Mr Adam, and pimp it good) is on the website of Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. Here's the link –
 https://www.pooky.com/inspiration/interiors/amazing-interiors-osterley-house-isleworth

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

'At last overcome'

Here, immortalised in alabaster, is Anne, first wife of John St John, Knight and Baronet. To quote her epitaph, 'She lived for thirty-seven years, endowed with noble gifts of mind, body and manner, a rare example of virtue and piety; she was the mother of thirteen surviving children; in the end, long worn down by the painful agonies of her last confinement and at last overcome, she fled to heaven on 19th September, 1628.'
  Now she lies beside her husband (whose second wife lies at his other side). The children still alive when the monument was erected (in 1634) kneel at their parents' head (five sons) and feet (four daughters). Four children who had died in the interim are depicted on one side of the tomb chest, each holding a skull. So much life, so much death.
  This monument is one of a magnificent group in St Mary's church, Lydiard Tregoze, which I visited today.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Woof Woof

One of the incidental pleasures of last night's final episode of A Very English Scandal, the BBC's surprisingly good and very funny drama about the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe, was a brief sighting of Auberon Waugh (played by an actor called Chris Carrico). A beaming Waugh was standing on the stage as the result of the 1979 election in North Devon was announced. Thorpe lost his seat to the Conservative candidate (one Tony Speller) and Waugh picked up 79 votes for his Dog Lovers' Party, beating the Wessex Regionalist candidate and by-election legend Bill Boaks of the Democratic Monarchist Public Safety White Resident party.
  Waugh's Dog Lovers' Party was formed for the sole purpose of embarrassing Jeremy Thorpe by drawing attention to the unfortunate incident on Porlock Hill in which Andrew 'Gino' Newton (later declared dead, then found to be alive and well and living in a cul de sac near Dorking, and now missing again) shot a Great Dane called Rinka in lieu of his intended target, Norman Scott, whom Thorpe wanted dead. Thorpe slapped an injunction on Waugh's election address, which was to be printed in the Spectator in place of his regular column. However, a few copies made it to W.H. Smith's in Norwich.
 Here is Waugh's stirring address to the voters of North Devon:

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I offer myself as your Member of Parliament in the General Election on behalf of the nation’s dog lovers to protest about the behaviour of the Liberal Party generally and the North Devon Constituency Liberal Association in particular. Their candidate is a man about whose attitude to dogs – not to mention his fellow human beings – little can be said with any certainty at the present time.
But, while it is one thing to observe the polite convention that a man is innocent until proven guilty, it is quite another thing to take a man who has been publicly accused of crimes which would bring him to the cordial dislike of all right-minded citizens and dog lovers, and treat him as a hero.
Before Mr Thorpe has had time to establish his innocence of these extremely serious charges, he has been greeted with claps, cheers and yells of acclamation by his admirers in the Liberal Party, both at the National Conference in Southport and here in the constituency. I am sorry but I find this disgusting.
I invite all the electors of North Devon, but especially the more thoughtful Liberals and dog lovers, to register their disquiet by voting for me on 3 May and I sincerely hope that at least fifty voters in this city will take the opportunity to do so.
Genesis XVIII 26: And the LORD said If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
1 Samuel XXIV 14: After whom dost thou pursue? After a dead dog, after a flea.
Rinka is NOT forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof. Vote Waugh to give all dogs the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Wisdom of Cooke

This morning on Radio 4 I caught a rebroadcast of Alistair Cooke's brilliant Letter from America on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (50 years ago this Tuesday), which he witnessed close up. I've written about this before – and about Donald Justice's poem on the assassination – but what struck me this time as I listened to Cooke's Letter was the unflinching honesty and wisdom of its closing paragraphs. In these days when self-flagellation is a reflex response to terror attacks and, in the eyes of many, simply to be white is to be by definition privileged and guilty, those last words seem sadly prescient...


 'I have no doubt that this experience is a trauma and because of it, no doubt, five days later I still cannot rise to the general lamentations about a sick society. I, for one, do not feel like an accessory to a crime. And I reject almost as a frivolous obscenity the sophistry of collective guilt, the idea that I, or the American people, killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Robert Francis Kennedy.
I don’t believe, either, that you conceived Hitler, and that in some deep, unfathomable sense, all Europe was responsible for the extermination of six million Jews. With Edmund Burke, I do not know how you can indict a whole nation.
To me, this now roarlingly fashionable theme is a great folly. It’s difficult to resist because it deflects an attack on one’s own conscience to some big corporate culprit. It sounds wise and deep but it is really a way of opting out of a human situation, a situation that includes pity for the dead Kennedy, sympathy for the American nation, and the resurgence of its frontier traditions in a later time. And, not least, compassion for Sirhan Sirhan.
I said as much as this to a younger friend and he replied, "Yes, and I too, I don’t feel implicated in the murder of John or Bobby Kennedy, but when Martin Luther King is killed, the only people who know that you and I are not like the killer are you and I."
It’s a tremendous sentence and exposes, I think, the present danger to America. The more people talk about collective guilt, the more they will feel it. And after 300 years of subjection and prejudice, any poor Negro or desperate outcast is likely to act as if it were true that the American people, and not their derelicts, are the villains. 

Friday, 1 June 2018

Ivy in the New Age

Last week my addiction to Ivy Compton Burnett got the better of me again and I took down The Mighty and Their Fall from the shelf where it had been lurking unread for a surprisingly long time. There is little point in expatiating on the charm of ICB's novels (though I've probably done so quite often on this blog over the years) – you're either susceptible to it or you're not. Maybe it's a gene...  Anyway I loved The Mighty and Their Fall, for all its evident absurdities. Even by ICB's standards, this one is full of the most clunky plot contrivances – letters concealed and discovered, wills destroyed, conversations overheard, the return of a long-absent son – all deployed without compunction. The real action, the substance of the family psychodrama, is all in the subtle modulations of the dialogue, as ever, and it's beautifully done.
  I happened to find a review of The Mighty and Their Fall in the Spectator archives. It's by Olivia Manning, author of the Balkan Trilogy (and one of Auberon Waugh's minor betes noires). The review seems to have been computer-transcribed (hence some curious features), but here's the link... Much of it is taken up with a lengthy (and not entirely accurate) plot synopsis, but perhaps that was normal at the time. And the time was... 1961. It's a shock to realise that The Mighty and Their Fall, which of course inhabits a wholly Edwardian world, came out in the year Rabbit, Run was published in the UK (see the 'Just Published' sidebar), which was two years after Goodbye, Columbus and a full five after Seize the Day. A new age was well under way – but it was not one that would have impinged to the slightest degree on Ivy's eternally anachronistic world.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Alarmed

Yesterday, in the course of my researches, I visited Great Brington, near the Spencers' Northamptonshire seat. I needed to have a look at (and photograph) the monuments in the Spencer Chapel in St Mary's church – a nationally important collection.
 My hopes were not high, as I knew the chapel was enclosed by railings and locked gates, but I hadn't realised quite how Fort Knox-like these defences were until I saw them for myself. The railings, five feet high and spiked, are hung with notices warning that the chapel is 'alarmed' and that reaching through the railings will trigger the alarm. This precaution is on top of already quite serious security measures in the church itself. Amusingly, one of the grandest of the Spencer tombs (an eight-poster by Nicholas Stone) carries a notice warning visitors not to touch this 'fragile' monument. Chance would be a fine thing...
 In the event I managed to get a couple of decent photographs by holding my camera (i.e. mobile phone) through the railings, and no alarm sounded. But how much richer and more enjoyable the whole experience would have been had the Spencer Chapel been part of the church, not a segregated, high-security, 'alarmed' enclave. If noble families are so determined to keep their monuments rigorously apart from the communal life of the parish and inaccessible to us monument fanciers, why don't they build their own chapels in their own grounds (as many do)? Maybe the Spencers wish they had.
 I suspect the high level of security around the Spencer Chapel is partly due to the extraordinary events that followed the death of one of their own – Diana, Princess of Wales. It seems the family originally intended her to be buried in the family vault under the Spencer Chapel, but in the febrile, not to say hysterical, atmosphere of those strange days, this was clearly not an option. The Earl wisely decided that Great Brington and its church could not cope with the pressure of being a site of pilgrimage for millions of devoted Diana fans, so she was buried on an island in the lake at Althorp.
 Or was she? Rumours of a secret reburial in the church abounded at the time (mysterious nocturnal goings-on, evidence of the chapel floor having been opened, etc.) and have never quite gone away. To judge by the visitors' book, a fair few think they are paying their respects at Diana's resting place when they visit St Mary's. When I was there, though, I had the place to myself. The temptation to climb over those railings was strong – but, deterred by those spikes and alarms, I overcame it.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A Thousand Voices

Born on this day in 1908 was the great voice artist Mel Blanc, 'Man of a Thousand Voices'. The number and range of animated characters he voiced is astonishing – all the way from Tweety Bird to Yosemite Sam, via Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester the Cat ('my normal speaking voice with a spray at the end'), and, later, Barney Rubble, Cosmo Spacely (in The Jetsons) and many another, quite possibly to the number of a thousand. 'There are only five real people in Hollywood,' Jack Benny once remarked. 'The rest are all Mel Blanc.'
  In 1961, Blanc had a very nearly fatal car accident which left him in a coma for weeks. Eventually one of his neurologists woke him by asking, 'How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?' After a short pause, Blanc replied, 'Eh... Just fine, Doc. How are you?' The specialist than asked if Tweety was around. 'I tawt I taw a puddy tat,' replied Blanc, who from then on began a long recovery. In the course of it, he recorded several episodes of The Flintstones while lying flat on his back in a full-body cast. What a pro! He also found time to file a $500,000 lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, causing the authorities to make the site of his accident, the aptly named Dead Man's Curve, considerably safer.
  Mel Blanc died at the age of 81, and, at his own request, his headstone bears the legend 'That's All, Folks!'

Monday, 28 May 2018

Hopeful?

The legendary Dave Lull yesterday sent me a link to this piece from the New York Times about a dramatic decline in the numbers of flying insects. It's a subject that was also the theme of a book, The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy, which I reviewed in The Dabbler (back in the dear dead days before Facebook). McCarthy was writing before the German findings described in the NYT piece had been made known, but he had reached similar conclusions from his own observations. And anyone who remembers the sheer abundance of insect life in earlier decades – swarms of flying insects swirling in the headlights and spattering the windscreen – would have to agree with him.
  These matters were in my mind this morning when I went for a stroll on Mitcham Common. So far this has been a rather strange butterfly year. Things got off to a slow start after that endless cold wet April, but, in terms of species seen, I am now pretty much where I would expect to be at the end of May. The worrying thing has been the low numbers of individuals flying, even of the commonest species – and this despite a good run of warm and sunny weather. So few Peacocks, so few Tortoiseshells, so relatively few even of the common whites – and not a single Red Admiral or Painted Lady yet. When I've gone looking for target species, I've found them (so far), but there has been so little else flying...
  Happily I gained a more hopeful picture from this morning's visit to the acid grasslands of Mitcham Common. I saw my first Small Heaths of the year – and in large numbers (I gave up counting after 20, and must have seen at least double that number in less than two hours).
Also more Small Coppers than I've seen in some entire seasons, and an abundance of Six-Spot Burnet moths (red spots on black), as well as Commas, Speckled Woods, Brimstones and Holly Blues – and three or four fresh and lively Common Blues. My first Brown Argus of the season took a little finding, and I saw no more than two, but no doubt there will be a good many more before the year is over. Clearly the butterfly year is not shaping up as badly as I feared it was – though there is no arguing with the overall decline in insect life.
  By the way, I particularly like the way the author of the NYT piece argues for the crucial importance of that threatened (or at least unfashionable) species, the field biologist – even the dedicated amateur. It was amateurs, after all, who laid the groundwork for the serious study of natural history. They are still needed.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

His Foot

I was walking yesterday in the Kentish Weald, a notably beautiful corner of England, especially at this time of year – as one rather misanthropic writer put it: 'Nowhere in England is the presence of man less objectionable.' In the North chapel of St Mildred, Tenterden, I spotted this eloquent remnant of an alabaster panel from the 15th century. It's a Resurrection scene, with Christ rising in triumph from the grave. His foot is on the soldier's chest.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Ten Years

It was ten years ago today that I wrote my first post for this blog. It was about the Eurovision Song Contest, which was still rather fun in those long ago days. Russia had won, and Terry Wogan, of fond memory, was decidedly miffed about the whole thing. Since then I've pretty much given up on Eurovision, but I've no inclination to give up on this blog, so, well – here's to the next ten years!

Thursday, 24 May 2018

What Is Wrong with This Picture?

I noticed this curious painting in the National Gallery the other day. By the Le Nain brothers, French 17th-century genre painters, A Woman and Five Children is an unsettling image, full-frontal and crammed awkwardly into the picture space. The sitters stare out at us with unhappy, challenging expressions. And where is the woman's lower body? There's no room for it; surely she's out of scale. It is all very odd – and strangely reminiscent of Paula Rego.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Cornet Geary Ambushed

This is the monument to Cornet Francis Geary in the church of St Nicholas, Great Bookham (near Bookham Common, where Purple Emperors fly in due season). The relief shows Geary's death in an ambush near Flemington, New Jersey, in 1776. Geary was leading a company of dragoons on a reconnaissance mission, and a band of patriots – or rebels, according to your perspective – had got wind of it and laid a very effective ambush. The unfortunate Cornet Geary was shot dead by musket fire and his body concealed, before being buried in a shallow grave.
  His Bookham monument, which is unsigned, is described by Ian Nairn in the Pevsner Surrey as displaying ' just the right combination of sentiment and ardour', its two elements – Britannia mourning over a portrait medallion, and the relief below, depicting the ambush – 'combined in a composition as elegant and as tender as an early Mozart symphony'. It's hard to disagree: in its low-key, understated way, this is one of the most touching and memorable monuments of its kind – and the relief panel showing the ambush is a quite extraordinary work of art.

Mouse News

Just a quick update before I head out for a walk in deepest Surrey –
Until five minutes ago, the untrappable mouse seemed to have been finally defeated. I had mentioned the problem to my Greek-Cypriot barber, a never-failing fount to wisdom, and he put me on to ultrasonic mouse deterrents. I bought two, plugged them in, and they seemed to do the trick.

Until, just now, a mouse appeared to my right and ran unhurriedly across the room.
This calls for a stiff letter to the chairman of the Acme Mfg Co...

Monday, 21 May 2018

Buried Twice: Ronald Firbank

On this day in 1926, Ronald Firbank's fragile health, broken down by years of heavy drinking and smoking of tobacco and hashish, finally gave out, and he died, of lung disease, alone in a hotel room in Rome. He was just 40.
  The only person in the city who knew him was Lord Berners, the eccentric composer and writer, who hastily arranged a funeral ceremony with a Reverend Rugg (who had been an associate of the notorious Frederick Rolfe, 'Baron Corvo', in Venice). Unfortunately Berners didn't know that Firbank had converted to Catholicism, so the body was interred in the Protestant cemetery, and later had to be exhumed and reburied, 'far away from his country', in the Campo Verano cemetery.
  'Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?' as Sir Thomas Browne put it.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Roger Moore's One Wish

As a man with a bit of a weakness for Magnums, I was intrigued to learn that we owe the invention of the world-conquering choc ice on a stick to the legendary actor Roger Moore, that master of the mobile eyebrow. Well, sort of. This is one of those stories that hovers somewhere between fact and urban myth...
  After Sir Roger's death, a journalist friend recalled that he had told her how, in an interview in the Sixties, he once said that, if he could have one wish and meet one person, he would like to meet 'Mr Wall's' and ask him why they didn't make a choc ice on a stick. 'I didn't know at the time,' recalled Moore ruefully, 'but other people like Claire Bloom were being asked the same question and they wanted to meet Gandhi or Jesus.' But apparently 'Mr Wall's' was delighted with Moore's answer and sent him some kind of prototype Magnum, but as it was in the form of a cake it was clearly a very long way from the finished product, which indeed didn't appear until the Nineties.
  Happily Sir Roger lived long enough to enjoy many a Magnum (despite being diabetic). His favourite was the Black Espresso, of which he permitted himself two a week. He claimed to be able to make one last a full half hour, which is impressive. The Black Espresso is my favourite too, but I rarely come across it these days, amid all the fancy new flavours.
  If I had one request to make of 'Mr Wall's', it would be to find a way to stop the chocolate falling off the ice cream as you bite into your Magnum.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

First Thoughts

Well, call me a sentimental dotard, but wasn't that the best royal wedding ever? The most human and likeable of all the current royals marrying a stunningly beautiful woman, and both of them clearly in love head over heels. A brilliantly orchestrated ceremony, individual but traditional, with lovely music and glorious (and very English) floral decorations – not to mention the bride's timelessly elegant dress. Windsor in the sun never looking better, huge crowds full of genuine enthusiasm and affection – and of course magnificent, meticulous pageantry. It's hard to believe there can be all that much wrong with a country that can still put on a show like that (even if, as some might point out, it does depend heavily on the armed forces, arguably the last enclave of dutiful efficiency in our society). It was grand.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Where Are the Swifts?

Mid-May and something's wrong. Despite warm and sunny weather, the swifts seem to have deserted our road. Last year they lost no time in settling down, and by now were performing their glorious screaming flypasts and dizzying ascents every day. By the end of the season their numbers were higher than they'd been for several years, and our hopes (my next-door neighbour is a fellow swift fan) were high for another good year when they returned. But no. Since the first sightings, punctual to their usual arrival date, I have seen only ones and twos, either in transit or circling aimlessly, and have only heard the telltale scream a couple of times. The other day one bird was flying purposefully close to the gable of a house down the road, but nothing seems to have come of it.
  What is happening? Is it the same in other places? (Bristol is certainly having a very odd start to the season.) In my travels around South London and Surrey, I've seen very few swifts, martins or swallows – even on the river at Kingston. Is this just a stuttering start to the season, or is something more ominous going on? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's noticed a similar mysterious lack of swifts – and delighted to hear from anyone who's having a good start to the swift year.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Crying all the way to the bank

The computer dramas continue, but naturally I could not leave the birthday of Liberace unmarked. The egregious showman pianist, who through the Fifties and Sixties was the highest-paid entertainer in the world, was born on this day in 1919, to working-class immigrant parents. A talented pianist to begin with, he moved swiftly away from the classical repertoire towards his own peculiarly schmalzy brand of easy listening (and easy playing – his technique, such as it was, became appallingly sloppy), presented with an unparalleled degree of flamboyant showmanship.
 A particularly shameful episode in his career was the disgraceful libel case  of 1956 in which the famously red-blooded heterosexual Liberace sued the Daily Mirror columnist William Connor ('Cassandra') for making the outrageous suggestion that there was something of the effeminate about him. Of course, having hired on the of the best barristers money could buy, Liberace won and, in a phrase he popularised, 'cried all the way to the bank'. And how had 'Cassandra' described Liberace in the offending column? As 'the summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love'. Phew.
 Not one to mince his words, William Connor. They don't make them like him any more – nor, thank heavens, do they make them like Liberace...

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Sorry

Sorry, I've been having computer dramas – total keyboard failure following small tea spillage – and still am (trying to move my stuff across from the defunct MacBook to the new one). I'm hoping this will be sorted out soon...
Meanwhile, the resident mouse continues to demonstrate his genius, quite outwitting the latest sate-of-the-art Acme Mfg Co trap. Planning my next move..

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Pym Again

'... she crouched down, her fingers moving over the shelves among the Marie Corellis, Hall Caines and Annie C. Swans.'
Such was the choice of leisure reading available to guests in a South coast seaside hotel, circa 1960, as noted by Barbara Pym in No Fond Return of Love. Marie Corelli, bestselling writer of sensational romances, and Hall Caine, phenomenally successful 'serious' novelist, I knew, if only by name – but Annie C. Swan? She was, I learned, a Scottish writer who in her heyday was every bit as popular as the other two, and now even more surely forgotten. She wrote romances of Scottish life, the first of which, Aldersyde, was praised by both Tennyson and Gladstone, but her core audience were readers of The People's Friend magazine (which is still extant, and next year celebrates its 150th anniversary).
  But enough of Annie C. Swan. I was reading No Fond Return of Love to recover from my long immersion in Martin Amis's Experience. Published in 1961, it was the last to come out before the long hiatus in her career that began with Cape shamefully dropping her, continued with a string of further rejections from other publishers – and ended, happily, with both Philip Larkin and David Cecil naming her as their 'most underrated writer of the century' in 1977.
  Shirley Hazzard judges No Fond Return of Love 'one of her very best', and I'm inclined to agree. It gets off to a richly promising start – indeed the very first sentence is arresting:
'There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.'
The broken heart belongs to 'sensible' Dulcie Mainwaring, who, at the 'learned conference', meets flaky Viola Dace, who is nursing a helpless passion for the handsome Aylwin Forbes, a guest speaker on the subject of 'Some Problems of an Editor'. Before long Dulcie too has fallen for the irresistible Aylwin (ah, those Barbara Pym names!)
  From this germ, the plot unfolds with the kind of masterly precision we expect from Pym at her best. A colourful cast of characters is deployed, a range of locations deftly evoked, vicars and their female admirers turn up everywhere (as we'd expect), substantial meals are eaten at every opportunity, and even youth gets a look-in, in the shape of Dulcie's niece. The action is driven by Dulcie's natural curiosity, heightened by her professional abilities as a researcher. Determined to find out all she can about Aylwin Forbes and his family, she proves remarkably tenacious as she and Viola pursue their researches...
  But it is Pym herself, of course, who is controlling the action, and in a surprisingly self-conscious way. Dulcie's conversation is peppered with references to how events are beginning to resemble a novel (often a Victorian novel) and how things would play out 'if this were a novel'. There is even a scene in which Aylwin, under the influence of The Portrait of a Lady, starts speaking in Jamesian dialogue. As all the characters are drawn together in one place for the climactic scenes, Pym uses contrivances – including overheard conversation – worthy of Ivy Compton Burnett herself (whom she greatly admired), though she is never as blatant in her disregard for probability, or as stinging in her comedy. No Fond Return is, however, a very funny novel, its comedy typically never far from pathos. And it pulls off a bravura last-minute ending that might be summed up as 'They think it's all over... It is now!' A joy to read, and the perfect antidote to an excess of M. Amis.








Thursday, 10 May 2018

Fred and Cyd

Born on this day in 1899 (which really does seem improbably long ago) was the great Fred Astaire. Here he is with Cyd Charisse, Dancing in the Dark, strolling into an elegantly balletic little dance then out again, ending with an impossibly graceful ascent into a horse-drawn carriage...


 As Mel Brooks fans will know, Dancing in the the Dark was the song that finished off many a cardiologically compromised elderly Jew enjoying an evening of borscht belt entertainment. They always started too high...

Last night's round of Man v Mouse was indecisive, though I suspect it was another mouse win. I got up at 2.30 and found the door of the trap once again firmly shut, so I took it down to the bottom of the garden (in a soft early-morning rain) and opened the door. As far as I could make out, nothing emerged – but the light was dim, and I figured the mouse might anyway be staying in the trap a while to assess the situation. I left the trap, open, where it was and went back to bed. Round three tonight.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Mouse Trap

I found myself strangely prostrated on Monday, quite exhausted and unable even to read. Having spent yesterday recovering, I am now back in my habitual rude health. I don't know what caused this malaise – possibly a touch of sunstroke or dehydration following a sunny afternoon of butterfly hunting on the Surrey hills (Grizzled Skippers, Dingy Skippers and a single Green Hairstreak, breaking last year's duck).
 While I was out of action, in-house entertainment was provided by a field mouse (or maybe mice) that was making merry in various cupboards about the house, and was to be glimpsed from time to time skittering across the floor. Last night I set a trap – a humane one that catches the mouse alive – are awaited results. It was one of the tilting kind, with the bait at the far, raised end: mouse goes in to get the bait, its weight tips the entrance end into the air, door snaps shut, mouse trapped. Rising early this morning, I found the trap firmly shut, so clearly it had done its job. I carefully carried it down the road to the allotments, opened the door, tapped the far end, shook it, looked inside (in approved cartoon fashion). Nothing. The mouse had somehow managed both to escape and to shut the door politely behind it. Round one to Timmy Willie – but that trap will be set again tonight, and I'll be waiting...

On Monday I tottered into the garden in the early evening, heard a familiar aerial scream, looked up – and there they were, the first swifts of the year! Three of them, circling quite low down. Summer is here.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Full Marx

The 200th birthday of Karl Marx certainly didn't pass unnoticed, with much discussion of the old monster and his legacy in the press and on the radio over the weekend. Clearly much can justly be laid at his door, but I wonder if a lot of the bloody stuff mightn't have happened anyway, even if Marx had never written a word. After all, the template for murderous, all-devouring terror in the name of remaking the world (of course on 'scientific' principles) was set by the French revolution, and arguably the horrific Chinese and Cambodian revolutions, if not the Russian one, could have taken their 'thinking' straight from the French model. That the Russian revolution occurred as it did was the result of a particular freakish combination of events, and could never have been predicted – it certainly wasn't foreseen by Marx, nor has any revolution ever happened along the lines envisaged by the German sage (industrial proletariat seizes power as capitalism collapses under the weight of its own contradictions).
  So here's a thought experiment: what essential difference would it have made to the course of history (as against the history of ideas, social sciences, etc) if Marx had never existed, and the line of revolutionary terror had run straight from French 'Enlightenment' ideas to the revolutionaries of the 20th century? (Pol Pot and Deng Xiaoping both spent several years in France and Pol Pot greatly admired Rousseau.) Indeed, might not the roots of bloody revolution be traced still further back, to religiously based (Christian and Islamic) millennarian ideas about remaking and redeeming the human world at any cost? Or maybe even to something destructive and delusional in human nature itself...

Sunday, 6 May 2018

A Juicy Morning, A Livelier Iris

'After breakfast I lit a cigarette and went to the open window to inspect the day. It certainly was one of the best and brightest.
"Jeeves," I said.
"Sir?" said Jeeves. He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master's voice cheesed it courteously.
"You were absolutely right about the weather. It is a juicy morning."
"Decidedly, sir."
"Spring and all that."
"Yes, sir."
"In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove."
"So I have been informed, sir."
"Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I'm going into the Park to do pastoral dances."

[P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves]

Bertie Wooster's quotation – the kind of thing every young man about town once had on his lips – is from Tennyson's Locksley Hall, and is slightly wrong (Jeeves forbears to correct it): 'In the spring, a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove.'
Locksley Hall is a fascinating, if overwrought, poem, a monodrama in a similar register to Maud but with a much wider sweep. It even, bizarrely, appears to foresee aviation, both civil and military, when the narrator
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue...

Friday, 4 May 2018

Poet Voice Latest

I've written before about the distressing phenomenon of 'poet voice'. Now I learn that there is an algorithm for it. I  do hope this can be weaponised, perhaps enabling a device that would administer a salutary non-lethal electric shock to the offending poetry reader.
  Meanwhile, on Radio 4, things go from bad to worse. While prime offender Paul Farley continues the great work of putting listeners off contemporary verse with The Echo Chamber, a form of 'poet voice' has spread from the poetry programmes into the 'factual' arena. Grace Dent – a woman who in other circumstances speaks perfectly normally – adopts an intimate crooning tone when voicing the links on a perfectly ordinary documentary series called, for some reason, The Untold. Every word is spoken as if it is some kind of secret that can only be whispered into the ear of you, the listener. The impeccably banal sentences are loaded with faux portent and punctuated by random pauses, as if Ms Dent has just heard someone coming and isn't sure if she dare continue. It is so irritating that I now have to turn off at the sound of her voice – or switch over to Radio 3 where things are so much more agreeable.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Experience

I've been avoiding reading Martin Amis's Experience for years now. It keeps crossing my path, I pick it up, weigh it in my hands, maybe flick through it abstractedly, think about it, but somehow can't summon the energy to read it. The thing is, when Amis's early novels came out I was about as avid a fan as could be imagined, but by the time of The Information I was already having my doubts, and over the subsequent years I found that I just wasn't interested any more. Nor was I tempted to revisit those early novels, for fear of further disappointment. But then there was Experience, the big fat autobiography, and part of me badly wanted to read this one, even as another part kept me putting it back on the shelf unread.
  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted it yet again in a charity shop, and this time I took the plunge, bought it and read it. It was a curious reading experience, reminding me why I had been such a fan – and, more or less simultaneously, why I had gone off the author so decisively. I found the book compulsively readable – Amis certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages – but as I neared the end I was beginning to find his tricks and tropes, his slick phrase-making, his bottomless self-consciousness, irritating. Also I was beginning to get fed up with the endless grisly accounts of surgery inflicted on his mouth and jaws (this by way of justifying his huge advance for The Information – he did not, he wants you to know, spend it on cosmetic dentistry). There's altogether too much score-settling and setting the record straight, and the book as a whole could have been cut by maybe a third with no great loss. The footnotes are often interesting, but too numerous, and some are punishingly long – and there's an entire Appendix devoted to the deplorable behaviour of Kingsley's biographer immediately after KA's death.
  However, Experience has a terrific tale to tell, of a life not short of incident, unexpected turns of events, and downright tragedy (Amis's cousin Lucy was one of the victims of the serial killer Fred West). And, of course, Martin is the son of Kingsley, so there is masses of good stuff on KA, some of it very funny indeed, and all of it illuminating. Anyone seriously interested in Kingsley should certainly read Experience. As usual with autobiographies, the earlier, family-focused parts are the best, but Amis managed to keep me gripped, despite my growing reservations, to the very end, and I read the whole thing in half the time such a fat volume would normally take me. An unlikely page-turner, but a page-turner none the less.


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Big in Norway

Looking at my stats just now – something I seldom do, as they tell a dismal story – I discover that this blog is once again more popular in Norway than in any other country. As a token of my gratitude to the people of that fine country, today I mark the 170th birthday of one of their most accomplished painters, Adelsteen Normann.
  Normann was the artist who launched Edvard Munch's international career, inviting him to join him in Berlin to exhibit his works – which duly divided critical opinion and caused a great commotion. Normann's own works, on the other hand, were safely naturalistic, and he built his career around annual return visits to his homeland, where he would paint grand views of the fjords. These splendid images are credited with helping to popularise the fjords as a tourist destination.
  Adelsteen Normann, this blog salutes you, and your fellow countrymen.

Monday, 30 April 2018

'And since 'tis a bad day...'

Here I am, hunkered down in my front parlour while the rain siles down, the North wind blows and the mercury falls to midwinter levels. The last day of April, and, for all the lush, rain-fed green out there, it feels more like December.
  Here, on the same date in 1829, amid similar weather, is Walter Scott, writing in his diary –

Dr Johnson enjoins Bozzy to leave out of his diary all notices of the weather as insignificant. It may be so to an inhabitant of Bolt Court, in Fleet Street, who need care little whether it rains or snows, except the shilling it may cost him for a Jarvie [coachman]; but when I wake and find a snow shower sweeping along, and destroying hundreds perhaps of young lambs, and famishing their mothers, I must consider it as worth noting. For my own poor share, I am as indifferent as any Grub Streeter of them all –
                  '– And since 'tis a bad day,
                   Rise up, rise up, my merry men,
                   And use it as you may.'
I have accordingly been busy. The weather did not permit me to go beyond the courtyard, for it continued cold and rainy. I have employed the day in correcting the history for Cyclopaedia, as far as page 35...

[The Cyclopaedia would be Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia, an ambitious enterprise running to 133 volumes, including Scott's two-volume history of Scotland.]

And so, with Scott's example before me, I must use this bad day as I may, and get down to some work. Not, happily, a history of Scotland...

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Not That Cranford

Yesterday I went to Cranford. No, not that one* – my destination was Cranford Park, one of those curious survivals of ancestral parkland that dot the outer fringes of West London. This one lies almost literally in the shadow of the M4. Approaching on foot from the North, you follow a succession of unlovely suburban streets until you come to a pedestrian subway that passes under the motorway – and you emerge on the other side into another world, one of decayed parkland, huge old trees, lush grass and new-growth woodland through which paths lead in all directions. The roar of the motorway is unignorable, but mute the soundtrack and you'd never think you were anywhere near London.
  Following the high brick wall of what must have been a kitchen garden – now in use as a community orchard – I came to the dismal 18th-century stable block that is all that remains of the demolished great house. And there, its brick and stone tower showing among the trees, was my target, the little church of St Dunstan with Holy Angels. My researches had led me here to see a tomb by William Cure II, one of a dynasty of monument makers of Dutch origin who did much distinguished work over here. I knew, too, that the church has a monument by Nicholas Stone, but as it's one that seldom gets much of a mention (and I'd never seen a picture), I wasn't expecting anything very exciting.
  So I was in for a glorious surprise. Stone's marble effigy of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley – who, 'after her pious pilgrimage of 59 yeares, surrendered her soule into the hands of her redeemer, the 23rd day of Aprill, anno domini 1635' – is one of his most beautiful. Sculpted in surprisingly low relief, it shows Lady Elizabeth lying atop her tomb chest in a relaxed pose, knees to one side, as if peacefully asleep – but in her shroud. This is quite extraordinary: a shrouded effigy is usually portrayed as if dead or at the point of death (as in John Donne's stark monument in St Paul's, also by Stone), but Lady Elizabeth is clearly alive, and young, and beautiful. The shroud is knotted above her head, but most of her lovely face is exposed, as are her elegant hands – this is more of a posing shroud than a burial shroud; it sets off the beauty of the body, and has no point to make about its imminent corruption.
  Elizabeth Carey's mother was the scholarly Elizabeth Spencer, patron of the arts and muse of Edmund Spenser, and she was as scholarly as her mother, and as interested in the arts. At the age of 18, she translated two of Petrarch's sonnets into English, and she was the dedicatee of Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night and Peter Erondelle's The French Garden. She married Sir Thomas Berkeley at 19, and it might well have been at their wedding that A Midsummer Night's Dream was first performed in public. Elizabeth certainly danced in one of Ben Jonson's masques.
  Unfortunately Sir Thomas was ruinously extravagant, running up colossal debts, to the point that Elizabeth had to take over the management of his affairs and, with the Berkeley family steward John Smyth, the whole management of their various households. By the time Sir Thomas died, at the age of 37, most of his debts had been paid, thanks to Elizabeth's shrewd management, and she had enough money to buy the Cranford estate (from the co-heirs of Sir Robert Aston, whose monument faces hers across the chancel of St Dunstan's). After a short second marriage, she lived her latter years at Cranford, 'amongst [according to John Smyth] her thousands of books'.

A curious Cranford footnote: in the churchyard is a memorial tablet to the comedian Tony Hancock and his mother. Hancock's ashes were placed just outside the then boundary of the consecrated burial ground, as he was a suicide. A depressive alcoholic, he took his life in an apartment in Sydney, and his ashes were retrieved by Willie Rushton, who happened to be in the country, and brought back to England in his luggage.


* The original of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford is Knutsford in Cheshire.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Curious Case of Godfrey Winn

Auberon Waugh's diary entry for the 27th of November, 1973, finds him reading Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart's Diaries, which he is reviewing for (the late lamented) Books and Bookmen. After passing on a few titbits (including the startling claim that 'Professor Joad, the notorious sexual braggart, was impotent'), Waugh declares that 'by far the most important revelation is on the delicate matter of Somerset Maugham's sex life. "Maugham has had relations with women," claims Sir Robert, who goes on to reveal that "because of his homosexual nervosity he could not perform alone. The liaison was à trois. The third was Godfrey Winn."'
 'What an august sandwich!' remarks Waugh. But who was Godfrey Winn? A footnote identifies him curtly as 'a journalist'. I have faint memories of Winn (known to some as 'Godfrey Winsome' or 'Winifred God') towards the end of his career, when he was a minor celebrity and a regular feature writer in my mother's women's magazines (the diligent study of which made me the man I am today). While Beverley Nichols took care of cats, gardens and whimsy, Godfrey Winn was more of an all-purpose showbiz hack, recording his meetings with the stars – hence the picture above, with the Beatles, and below, in one of the more bizarre encounters in showbiz history, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
  The careers of Beverley Nichols and Godfrey Winn are, to an extent, oddly parallel. Both began with early promise – Winn's first novel, Dreams Fade, was published when he was 22, and he continued to turn them out, along with biographies and volumes of memoirs, to the end – and both went on to became mainstays of the women's magazine market. However, Winn in the post-war years was far more of a celebrity than Nichols, making frequent radio and television appearances, judging Miss World contests (yes, really), and even taking a few small film roles – the last of which was as 'Archbishop of All England' in Up the Chastity Belt (hard to imagine Beverley doing that. Actually it's quite hard to imagine Godfrey...).
  Winn was also more of a seasoned journalist than Nichols, working as a war correspondent after being invalided out of the Royal Navy. He was reputedly the first British war correspondent to cross the Maginot line, and he survived the terrible fiasco of the PQ17 Arctic convoy (24 out of 35 merchant ships lost), subsequently writing a book about it. It seems there was a good deal more to Godfrey Winn than that august sandwich and those star-struck showbiz interviews.
(Yes, that's Jonathan King on the left.)

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

'The lights are going out...'

On the evening of the third of August, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, looked out from the window of his room in the Foreign Office to where the lamps were being lit along the Mall. 'The lights are going out all over Europe,' he remarked. 'We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes.' Unlike many of the most famous quotations, this one was genuine, verbatim, and endorsed by the man to whom Grey made the remark, J.A. Spencer, editor of the Westminster Gazette.
 
It is a truly great quotation, one that evokes a whole world – one of European peace, imperial stability, the golden age of Edwardian England – as it faces its dissolution, localising the impending catastrophe in a simple image of St James's Park and the Mall in a summer dusk as the lamps are lit, one by one.
 Grey (who was born on this day in 1862) is still known for this quotation, but for little else, despite the fact that he was the longest-serving Foreign Secretary we have ever had (1905-1916). That he even became Foreign Secretary, let alone lasted so long in the post, seems wildly improbable in the light of his early years. The well-born Grey naturally went up to Oxford, but was so idle that, even with extra tuition, he only managed a Second in Mods. After this, he devoted most of his time to becoming university champion at real (royal) tennis. Sauntering back to Oxford after a break, he switched to jurisprudence, thinking it might be the cushiest available option, but was expelled after a few months. Allowed back to the university to sit his finals, he managed a Third, the 'gentleman's degree'.
  Not the most auspicious start, then, but after university Grey, putting his misspent youth behind him, suddenly and surprisingly developed a keen interest in politics, sought an opening, found one (he was nothing if not well connected), and became, at the age of 23, the youngest MP in the Commons. So began the illustrious career that would culminate in his long reign as Foreign Secretary.
  As well as his youthful sporting achievements, Grey was also an accomplished fly fisherman, fishing by touch in his later years when his eyesight was failing. Anticipating the legendary J. R. Hartley, Grey published a classic on the subject, titled simply Fly Fishing. He was also a keen ornithologist, writing a book on that too – The Charm of Birds. That's him below, with a robin on his hat.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Gunn's Caravaggio

Ever since my absurdly belated discovery of Thom Gunn, I've been looking out for his earlier collections – and today, on the shelves of a local charity shop, I spotted one: My Sad Captains (1961, first edition, with the tattered remnants of its Faber dust-wrapper, and an inscription, 'To Ann, with Love from Romney'). I opened it, and read this, the first poem in the collection, a brilliant work of ekphrasis that explores the meaning of Caravaggio's bravura representation of The Conversion of Saint Paul – or rather, Gunn seems to suggest, the blinding of Saul...


In Santa Maria del Popolo

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less
Conveniently oblique makes visible
The painting on one wall of this recess
By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,
I see how shadow in the painting brims
With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out
But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.

But evening gives the act, beneath the horse
And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,
Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,
Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.
O wily painter, limiting the scene
From a cacophony of dusty forms
To the one convulsion, what is it you mean
In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,
Casting the pain out under name of sin.
The painter saw what was, an alternate
Candor and secrecy inside the skin.
He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent
Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,
Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,
For money, by one such picked off the streets.

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel
To the dim interior of the church instead,
In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —
For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.


[Ananias was the Damascene disciple who, in a vision, was told by Jesus to seek out Saul of Tarsus. When he found him and laid hands on him, the scales fell from Saul's eyes and he could see again.]

Sunday, 22 April 2018

And Back Again

The Mani in April continues to give a very convincing impression of paradise on earth. The air is full of butterflies – we spotted thirty-odd species, with swallowtails, fritillaries and Cleopatras especially abundant – and the scent of flowering broom and orange blossom, and birdsong and the humming of innumerable bees. The walking is good, if sometimes a little challenging, the views are magnificent, and the profusion of little Byzantine churches, in various states of decay and repair, is quite astonishing.
   It was a dry and forward spring this year, so at lower altitudes such beauties as the scarlet anemones, the wild cyclamen and many of the orchids were already past their best or altogether over – but higher up, they were still in their full glory. And we did get high up – one day by four-wheel drive along a seriously unmade, rock-strewn, rutted and fissured road, to something like 1,100 metres, where we paused by a flower meadow spangled with Star of Bethlehem and dotted with orchids, and enjoyed a sweeping, almost Alpine view spread before us.
  Sadly the inhabitants of this earthly paradise are finding it ever harder to make a living, burdened as they are with a government (EU-imposed) and banks that function chiefly as engines of extortion. But the black economy and the Greek resilience of spirit keep things ticking over, even if more and more of the smaller villages are becoming all but depopulated, and the tourist trade, outside of the high season, is not what it was. If you fancy visiting this part of Greece, book your accommodation direct (not through an agency), and take cash rather than plastic.
  My holiday reading this time was Peter Ackroyd's short novel The Lambs of London, about Charles and Mary Lamb and their (fictional) relationship with the Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland. It's a fine piece of work, and very readable, so I thought I'd recommend it to the great Lambian Patrick Kurp – but of course he'd already written about it, nine years ago. Here is his characteristically perceptive review.
  And then I got home to discover that the country I had left in what felt and looked like winter had, in a matter of days, been transformed into a lush, verdant, flower-strewn, blossom-decked land, basking in warm sun – as warm as the Mani. And the butterflies are flying.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Off Again

The long gallivant that is my post-retirement life continues when I fly off at an ungodly hour tomorrow to the Mani, for a few days of walking etc. (mostly etc, with any luck)...

Waugh's Crowded Years

For bedtime reading, I recently plucked Auberon Waugh's Four Crowded Years: Diaries, 1972-76 (Private Eye/ Andre Deutsch) off the shelf. It must be the best part of 40 years since I last looked at this collection, and I wasn't at all sure it would still work – but I needn't have worried: these 'diaries', set in a personal fantasy world loosely based on reality, are as funny as ever, yielding a laugh-aloud rate of at least once a page, which is very good going (if not terribly conducive to sleep). What's more, the volume is illustrated by the great Nicolas Bentley, whose pictures perfectly fit Waugh's humour, and it even has helpful footnotes to identify some of the forgotten figures of the Seventies.
  Amid all the comedy, there are moments of real insight and even foresight (I hesitate to say prophecy). As an equal-opportunities offender, the rectionary Waugh was very much in the vanguard. I hadn't realised quite how much until I read this passage, from 1973:

Thursday 14th March
Delighted to see they have burnt down the British Council Library in Rawalpindi again – this time in protest against the shooting of two Pakistani youths in London. The last time they burnt down this particular library was in February 1970, in protest against an article I had written in The Times, telling a joke about Allah which I had heard in the Army. This burning remains the only public recognition my little jokes have ever received.

The story is told in A.N. Wilson's Our Times. Waugh, it seems, had 'jestingly referred to the baggy trousers worn by Turkish men in the days of the Caliphate. British soldiers used to call them "'Allah-catchers". There were demonstrations by Muslims outside The Times building in Printing House Square. In Rawalpindi an angry mob, many of whom, it is safe to guess, were not readers of The Times, stormed the British Council building and burned the library to the ground. Far from being supportive of Waugh, The Times sacked him, and this was the usual pattern of behaviour, from employers and governments in our time, when confronted with an angry Muslim mob.'
  So, the reflex appeasement of Islamic fanaticism had begun as early as 1970. I had always thought it started with Rushdie's Satanic Verses, when our boys in blue cheerfully stood around watching Muslims burn copies of the book and demand the death of Rushdie and all other 'blasphemers'.   Talking of Rushdie, here's Waugh later, writing in the Way of the World column in the Telegraph in 1993. He commiserates with 'poor Bill Clinton, who has been called the most hated man in Islam since he received Salman Rushdie in the White House. I am sure that Clinton, like most of us, has never read a word of Rushdie's novels and probably thought he was a carpet salesman. That won't save either of them from the fundamentalists. In Egypt, the fundamentalists have taken to murdering anyone they suspect of being lukewarm towards the Mohammedan religion. Once again, they claim that under Islamic law, Muslims have the right to kill any apostate.'
 A quarter of a century on, nothing has changed (for the better) on that front. But happily such serious matters don't often impinge on Waugh's comic world, one firmly based on the puncturing of self-importance and pomposity – neither of which is ever in short supply, especially in the worlds of politics and the 'yarts'.