Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Venice 3: And Yet...

And yet it was, for most of the time, a joy to be back – the place is just so beautiful. There were new wonders to discover, or rediscover after many years (I'd forgotten, for example, just how enchanting the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni are). There were new drink experiences even – Chinotto (a kind of pleasantly bitter Coca-Cola, flavoured with myrtle-leaved oranges), a fine rosé from the Bekaa valley (Chateau Ksara), a honey-flavoured Greek grappa...
 In Ca' Rezzonico there was a small exhibition of superb figure drawings (very much in the Piazzetta style) by Giulia Lama, a Venetian late Baroque artist whose name was quite new to me.

 The art collection at Palazzo Cini I had never visited before. Indeed it seems to be little visited, even though it's very near the ever popular Guggenheim. We had the place to ourselves, our only company being two patrolling guards, one female, one male with notably squeaky shoes. When I chanced to rest my hand on a marble table top as I examined a picture, the male guard pounced and told me, in time-honoured fashion, not to touch.
 The Cini collection is strong on 'primitives', but might seem barely worth the visit but for two stunning masterpieces – a powerful double portrait of two young men by Pontormo

and a glorious Judgment of Paris by Botticelli.

Despite everything, Venice remains as inexhaustible as it is beautiful.

Venice 2: The Death of Venice?

Ah Venice, 'human awful wonder of God'. Okay, that was Blake on London, but as I fought my way through the hordes of selfie-stick-touting, wheelie-case-hauling visitors to the most beautiful city ever made by man, that phrase kept occurring to me...
 Having always believed that Venice can ultimately withstand anything, I'm beginning to wonder if the city might finally have signed its own death warrant by allowing such numbers of vast 'floating hotel' supercruisers to tie up and debouch thousands of extra visitors into the already crowded tourist hotspots every day. The crowding has now reached such a level that, in ever growing areas around San Marco and the Rialto, it is all but insufferable. And it will only get worse, so long as the Venetian authorities persist in chasing the tourist dollar (or yen or yuan) at any cost to the city.
 Things are fast reaching the point where some visitors (especially if they haven't done their homework) must find the experience of visiting Venice so unpleasant and stressful that they wish they hadn't bothered and had kept their money. And yet the numbers will continue to grow, especially as more and more Chinese tourists find themselves able to afford the journey. Venice could, if it continues on this course, end up as little more than an overcrowded, overpriced theme park, cynically devoted to parting visitors from their money.
 Even I, a lover of Venice who has been visiting the city for half a century, am beginning to wonder if it's really worth going back again. How crowded will those streets around San Marco and the Rialto be in two years' time? In four? And, alas, there is no way of avoiding the crowds: both areas have to be passed through if you want to cross the Grand Canal. (The vaporetto is an alternative, of course, but boats on the main routes are bursting at the seams with people at almost any time of day, and you certainly see more of the city by walking.)
 Many Venetians are deeply unhappy about this state of affairs. There have been angry protests against the degradation of city life by mass tourism (and there is conspicuous anti-tourist graffiti in the so far tourist-free eastern district of Sant' Elena). There is widespread hostility to the floating hotels; another large waterborne demonstration is scheduled for this weekend, though nothing seems to have any impact on the money-crazed city fathers. If the visitors keep on coming, that is proof to them that their policy is working, even if it has also degraded and compromised the very thing the visitors are coming to see.
 At which point, it's time to look on the bright side. It remain true that the tourist throng can be escaped. Many parts of Venice, and many of its churches and museums, are still quiet and peaceful, as yet unreached by the crowds (though fewer and fewer are entirely tourist-free). And, gratifyingly, the native population is still hanging on, perhaps even thriving; there seem to be more babies and children in evidence each time I visit – the children careering around the campi and playing street games with all the freedom that life in a car-free city confers. Venetian Venice still exists, thank the Lord, as well as tourist Venice. And, as an indirect result of the tourist influx, churches that were once obscure, dilapidated, little visited and seldom open are now in much better shape, restored and open at sensible times – and, in some cases, charging an entrance fee. Well, that's Venice.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Venice 1: The Hospital

In the event I didn't get to see either of the Tintoretto blockbuster exhibitions – but I still saw lots of wonderful Tintorettos (including those in his parish church of Madonna del Orto). Blockbusters or no blockbusters, the churches of Venice are still full of the works of this astoundingly productive master.
 A Tintoretto exhibition I did see was in the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a magnificent room that I hadn't visited in many years. This Tintoretto, however, was Domenico, Jacobo's son. Having secured the commission to paint a series of pictures for the Scuola (extorting various favours on top of his fee), Tintoretto senior then failed to oblige, finally handing the job over to his equally reluctant son, who, having failed to pass it on to someone else, was eventually compelled to honour the commission – and a fine set of paintings he produced, in the end.
  The Scuola (which is nowhere near San Marco but next to Ss Giovanni e Paolo) is housed in an upstairs room off what is now the vestibule of the city hospital – that's it below. Only in Venice...

Elsewhere in the complex of buildings that houses the hospital is the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, a large one with an imposing classical facade. I have never known this church to be open, but on this occasion, for a wonder, the door was indeed open, so I slipped in – and found that a well attended funeral service was in full flow. Making myself as inconspicuous as possible, I sidled gradually along the north wall until I had a view of what I had come to see.
  It was not a pretty sight, nor was I expecting it to be. The monument to the condottiere Alviso Mocenigo, who won a famous victory over the Turks at Crete, covers the entire west wall, rising to the full height of the building. On its uppermost level stands a statue of Mocenigo, flanked by bombastic reliefs of battle scenes. This unpleasant assemblage is of interest (to me anyway) solely because the English sculptor John Bushnell – whose work at Fulham I recently wrote about – is known to have worked on it, in the course of his travels in France and Italy. If he was responsible for the statue of Mocenigo, then it was nothing to be proud of, though he liked to boast of having done great things in Venice. The statue is a clumsy and lifeless affair – but at least Bushnell had the distinction of being perhaps the only English sculptor to have worked in Venice in the seventeenth (or any earlier) century.
  I had hoped to get a photograph, just for the record, but in the circumstances I could hardly start behaving like a camera-clicking tourist. I sidled out again. Below is a photograph from the archives.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

It's Raining Conkers

As I was strolling in the park just now, the ripe conkers were crashing down from the horse chestnut trees in quite incredible numbers. I was surprised, and mildly disappointed, not to be hit on the head by a falling conker (there were several near misses). It's another mast year, of course, and every fruiting tree has been amazingly productive – even my tiny miniature plum tree yielded a substantial harvest this year.
  It was at just this time of year that I first arrived, at the age of nine, in the suburban demiparadise I still call home. After the first day of school, I joined a gang of boys heading straight to the park to climb trees and harvest conkers. We had to throw sticks – there was nothing like this year's easy largesse – but that only made it more fun. I looked around me at the park, lit by a mellow September sun, and knew I'd arrived in a rather special place...

But I'll be leaving all this behind tomorrow, when I head for Venice on my biennial (not Biennial) visit. Whether I'll have the stamina for the Tintoretto quincentennial exhibitions remains to be seen...

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Blank Wall

And then I spotted a novel called The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Neither title nor author's name rang any kind of bell, but as it had been reprinted, in a typically handsome edition, by Persephone Books, I decided to give it a go.
  It turns out that Elisaberh Sanxay Holding is indeed an all but forgotten author, one whose best work was in the rather surprising genre of suspense fiction. Raymond Chandler praised her as 'the top suspense writer of them all', and her biggest success, The Blank Wall, was filmed twice – in 1947 (by Max Ophuls) as The Reckless Moment, and in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton. Reading the novel, it's easy to envisage it as a movie: there are plenty of cinematic set-pieces, the dialogue is sharp, and the narrative is well paced.
  For a suspense story, it's unusually homely and down-to-earth, and its characters are perhaps unusually well drawn. Lucia, through whose eyes we see the action and through whose sensibility we experience its impact, is a housewife valiantly keeping her household going while her husband is away fighting the Pacific war. What sets events in train is a commonplace enough situation: Lucia's anxiety about her teenage daughter's relationship with a dubious older man, and her clumsy attempt to put an end to it. When her daughter's suitor meets a grisly end in the boathouse of Lucia's lakeside property, she finds herself in an impossible situation, and the decision she makes at this point is the 'reckless moment' from which all else springs.
  Holding builds the action, and the tension, expertly, entangling the unfortunate Lucia in a terrible situation from which there seems to be no escape. Caught between low-life blackmailers and a clearly suspicious police officer, while trying all the while to maintain her regular domestic life, she discovers that she is tougher, more resourceful – and indeed less scrupulous – than she ever knew. But still she is caught in an ever tightening net...
  All this was fine, but I found the denouement – heavily dependent on a criminal belatedly discovering his virtuous side – less than fully convincing. I guess that's the trouble with suspense novels: it's always going to be something of an anti-climax when the screw stops turning and the tension finally breaks. For most of its length, The Blank Wall is an engrossing read, tense and psychologically convincing, something a good deal more than a genre page-turner. It deserved its reprint.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Who Was Changed

Having recently bought Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead purely because I remembered enjoying her The Vet's Daughter, I wasn't at all sure I was going to like this one nearly as much. A tale of flood, fire and raging madness set in a Warwickshire village in the early years of the twentieth century, it looked rather too highly coloured and over-the-top for my taste, and suggested the dread prospect of 'magical realism'. The sentence quoted on the back cover (of my VMC paperback edition) also sounded dishearteningly reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm:
'The grandmother cried, "Don't go yet, tell me more. What about my rose beds?" Her son seized the trumpet ... and shouted down its black depths, "Dead animals floating everywhere. Your roses are completely covered."'
  This grandmother with the ear trumpet – the violently tyrannical matriarch of the Willoweed family – is indeed a monstrous character, but Comyns manages to make her as believable (in context) as the other members of her variously dysfunctional household: her weak, self-pitying son (a would-be author) and his three children, of whom the gentle, thoughtful Emma is the most attractive and the one through whose eyes we see much of the action. However, Comyns's skill is to keep switching the point-of-view from one character to another to give us an all-round view of the events that unfold.
 These are, to say the least, dramatic. The novel begins with the river flooding: 'The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.'
The flood waters subside, but far worse is to come, in the shape of an outbreak of fatal madness that afflicts the village, the result of ergot poisoning. There are deaths and funerals galore in the course of this short novel, but Comyns's matter-of-fact tone, sharp eye and macabre humour – and her swift, light-footed narration – ensure that things never get bogged down in misery, and moments of quiet and serenity punctuate the action. The setting is evoked with great skill, the characters are deftly drawn, and all the principals (with the possible exception of Granny Willoweed) are fully rounded. Amazingly, this tale of horrors achieves a quite unforced happy ending – but then, even at its darkest, it always (apart from one scene of pure horror) feels more like a comedy than a tragedy. It is certainly an exhilarating read – and, I think, a bit of a masterpiece. Barbara Comyns is such a good writer; she deserves to be much better known.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018


The charity shop that keeps returning my boyhood to me – in the form of Ladybird bookscigarette card albums, etc – has done it again. Yesterday it had a window display devoted to another staple of my childhood – I-Spy Books. These were little illustrated books that encouraged children to look about them and score points for the things they spotted, graded according to rarity value. Titles – a dozen or so of which were lined up in the window – included such categories as 'At the Seaside', 'On the Farm', 'Cars', 'Churches' and even 'People'. I restricted myself to buying one title – 'Butterflies and Moths', one of the 'I-Spy Colour Series' (only a third of which, the middle 16 pages, is in colour). This edition was published in 1964 by The Dickens Press, a publishing offshoot of the News Chronicle newspaper, and priced at one shilling.
  The introduction does not inspire a lot of confidence, with its bold statement that there are 700 species of butterflies in the UK (the actual figure is 59, with around two and a half thousand moth species), but the illustrations are competent, and about as useful as they can be when two-thirds of them are in black-and-white. Of the 63 species shown, 30 are moths – 'you need only leave your light on, your window open, and on a summer evening they'll come to you!', the introduction breezily declares. My copy was apparently owned by a child living in the Coulsdon area in the late Sixties, who doesn't seem to have put much effort into his/her I-Spying – a couple of moths spotted 'at the shops', a few common butterflies 'on the downs' and, on 26 June 1967, also 'on the downs', a Swallowtail, scoring a maximum 50 points and entirely shattering the credibility of this particular I-Spyer.
  For the serious butterfly-and-moth I-Spyer, the aim would have been to spot everything in the book, send it in, and score the maximum 1,500 points, thereby earning the 'Tribal Rank of LEPIDOPTERIST – First Class'. Failing that, 1,250 points would earn 'Second Class Honours'. The duly filled-in book had to be sent to this address:
Big Chief I-SPY
4 Upper Thames St
London, E.C.4.
  Big Chief I-Spy (originally a former headmaster called Charles Warrell) was the head of the I-Spy Tribe of 'Red-skins'*, who wore a badge, used secret signs to make themselves know to fellow tribe members, and had a code book to decipher messages from the Big Chief. At its peak in the Fifties, the I-Spy Tribe numbered a million and a half young Red-skins. (I was not of their number.)
  In the words of Big Chief I-Spy, 'Odhu/intinngo, Redskin!' Anyone out there got a code book?

* Cultural appropriation alert.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018


It was strange being back in Edinburgh. I lived there (if lived is not too strong a word) for a year in the early Seventies, and had only been back on a couple of flying visits. The intervening years, it seems, have brought big changes: parts of the city that I remember as dismal, menacing and derelict are now smart, colourful, thronged with tourists and bursting with cafés, restaurants, trendy bars, artisan bakeries and all manner of hipster havens (amid the tartan tat). As for the Royal Mile, tourists on the more popular stretches form an all but impenetrable mass of cosmopolitan humanity. It's like St Mark's Square or the Riva degli Schiavoni in high season – except that, alas, it's not Venice but craggy old, windy old Edinburgh. Frankly, it's not my kind of city.
  However, there are compensations  – not least the Scottish National Gallery, which is now high on my list of favourite art galleries. When we visited, about a third of the building – including all the Renaissance galleries – were closed for refurbishment, but there was more than enough to enjoy in what remained open. The gallery now proudly displays a recent acquisition that can truly be called iconic – Landseer's The Monarch of the Glen. The original is startlingly fresh, full of light and depth and plein-air sparkle, quite unlike the gloomy image familiar from the countless prints that once hung on the walls of seaside boarding houses. It's a painting with tremendous presence, and the gallery is right to be proud of it.
  Hanging near the Monarch is a huge and characteristic work by Frederic Church, a view of Niagara Falls from the American side. This mighty canvas is a dizzying tour de force that does full justice to the grandeur of its subject – and it's all the more cherishable for being the only large-scale work by Church in any public collection in the UK. And, in the same room as the Church, is one of Constable's finest paintings, a dazzling view of The Vale of Dedham.

   I was happy to discover a top-notch Tiepolo, The Finding of Moses – a symphony in Venetian colour and light – and one of Bellotto's very finest views of Verona. Also a wonderful, Rembrandtesque Portrait of a Young Man by Jan Lievens  – and, right up my street, another Dutch painting, Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose Branch, by William Gouw Ferguson, a Scottish painter who worked for some years in Holland.
  The poster girl of the gallery is, with good reason, Lady Agnew, whose large portrait by Sargent is a glorious specimen of his free brushwork and luminous colour – an absolute stunner.  Nearby hangs a portrait that is every bit as impressive, in its very different way – Degas's very informal but cleverly designed portrait of Diego Martelli, who, viewed from a strangely high angle, sits to one side of the picture, staring out of it with arms folded, looking bored.
In the same room as these two hang two Van Goghs (a spring orchard and a summer olive grove), two fine Cézannes (The Big Trees and a study of Mont St Victoire), a couple of Monets, a late and free Degas study of dancers, and Gauguin's famous (and strange) The Vision of the Sermon: you know the one – this one...

Thursday, 6 September 2018

So Long As It's Black

Walking past a car park the other day, I noticed a line of bulky black cars and thought, 'Ah, looks like there's a funeral.' Then I looked again and realised that no, there was no funeral – this is what cars look like these days, black and bulky. Streets of parked cars often resemble some kind of cortege, and many slab-paved former front gardens around my way contain nothing but one big black monster parked in front of the living room window. How did it come to this? Surely it wasn't that long ago that black seemed the last colour anyone would choose for their car – too redolent of the fusty old days and police cars with blue lights on top?
  Actually it was that long ago. The trend towards black in all things began well before the end of the last century, and it shows no sign of going into reverse now, at least as far as cars go. One of the many little things that make Wellington such a pleasant city is the fact that cars there are overwhelmingly white. No one seems to know quite why, though it probably has something to do with importing so many of them from Asia, where nearly half the cars manufactured are white (again why? Why does Asia prefer white cars to black? Why don't we?). Over here car owners seem to be living out Henry Ford's 'any colour so long as it's black' maxim. But even Ford probably didn't mean it – from the start, his cars were usually available in a wide range of colours. Only now and only here in the UK, it seems, have we finally embraced the black-only ethos. After all this time, have we finally succeeded in painting it black? If so, I don't think this is quite what Presuming Ed (see Withnail and I) had in mind.

Tomorrow I'm off to Edinburgh for a few days  – a family wedding. I shall not be wearing a kilt.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

A Fulham Monument

Having been laid low (well, lowish) by what is laughingly called a 'cold', I thought I'd recollect in tranquility my recent visit to All Saints, the parish church of Fulham, which stands on the edge of the Bishop's Park, by the river.
  All Saints is something of a treasure house, especially for a monument maniac like me. Perhaps the most outstanding monument is the one pictured above, doubling up as a handy place for displaying leaflets, a collection box and a scale model of the church. All these are arrayed on the black marble table on which stands the white marble statue of John Mordaunt, 1st Viscount Mordaunt (died 1675), in all his martial glory. The gauntlets and coronet that stand on the two outlying pedestals are part of the monument – which is, in design, a quite extraordinary one. Pevsner (or Bridget Cherry) describes these corner balusters as 'bleak, hard, bulging', and the monument as a whole as 'curiously dry and bare'. For Margaret Whinney (Sculpture in Britain, 1530-1830), however, the Mordaunt monument, the work of John Bushnell, is 'probably the finest tomb of the period'.
  For myself, I'm inclined to side with Whinney, while having doubts about the overall design. The figure of John Mordaunt – in particular the great sweeping folds of his cloak (very Baroque) – is carved with striking brio. Mordaunt's pose is bold and swaggering, the drama enhanced by the black backing that shows off his Roman profile. The projection of his right leg and the rightward turn of his head are balanced by the baton he is holding and the mass of gathered cloak around his waist and left arm. On closer examination, the swagger looks a little less assured, and it's hard not to smile at Mordaunt's elongated legs and Roman boots (a good thing there's a mass of cloak behind to soften the effect).
  Mordaunt was an ardent Royalist who was engaged in countless uprisings and conspiracies on behalf of Charles II, but who was widely mistrusted by others on the same side. Only the King seems never to have lost his faith in him, even pardoning him after he was charged with having imprisoned the Surveyor of Windsor Castle and raped his daughter. After this, however, Mordaunt retired to France for a long sojourn, returning to England to spend his last years quietly at Parson's Green.
  As for the maker of this monument, John Bushnell, he was a sculptor of great but wayward talent, who, having worked abroad for some years, returned to England with an arrogant attitude that did him no favours. High-handed and professionally unreliable, he became increasingly eccentric, spent much time pursuing futile law-suits, and in the end descended into madness. After his death, his house on Park Lane was found to contain the remains of several grandiose projects, including a Trojan horse designed to contain twelve men. He died intestate as well as insane, leaving two half-mad sons living among the ruins.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Wordsworth on the Bridge

On this day in 1802, William Wordsworth wrote what was to become one of his most anthologised and memorised poems. Or rather, 'September 3, 1802' was the date he added to the title of his sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, published in Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807. The actual date of composition seems to have been the 31st of July, when, as Dorothy Wordsworth writes in her journal, 'we left London [en route to France] at half past five or six ... It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand Spectacles.'
  It's a fine poem that proceeds smoothly and musically, the tight interlocking structure of the Petrarchan sonnet curbing Wordsworth's bloviating tendencies (though there's a touch of bathos in the penultimate line). In the early morning sun the City lies in a state of suspended animation, for this short interval no longer a city but a beautiful and strange phenomenon to which the poet can respond as if it is 'one of nature's own grand Spectacles'....

Earth has not anything to show more fair: 
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by 
A sight so touching in its majesty: 
This City now doth, like a garment, wear 
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 
Open unto the fields, and to the sky; 
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. 
Never did sun more beautifully steep 
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; 
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! 
The river glideth at his own sweet will: 
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; 
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Up North (London)

For a South Londoner who tends to come over funny if he strays too far into North London, I seem to have been spending a lot of time in those northerly latitudes these past few days.
  On Friday I was on an architectural walk around Tottenham, enjoying the streets of late Victorian, Edwardian and later housing built for working-class (and latterly rather more prosperous) tenants. The earlier, less picturesque cottages, laid out in wide terraced streets, still look good, the potential monotony of the layout lent variety and rhythm by different arrangements of porches (mostly paired or shared), by the use of varied gables, occasional ornament and glazed bricks. On the streets developed later, the legendary LCC architects' department were building to a rather higher specification. The two-storey houses (with gardens) are more picturesque, with gables of various shapes and sizes, some tile-hung, others slate-hung, often tall chimneys and a variety of window sizes, all very Arts and Crafts, though with a certain Georgian restraint. The overall effect of these estates is quite delightful, and it's easy to understand why the houses are now so desirable. And yet they were built essentially as 'affordable' workers' housing, back in the long-gone days when, at least in London, talented and idealistic architects put real thought, imagination and attention to detail into building houses for working people. Compared to the gimcrack production-line housing of today, these cottages seem like works of art.
  And then yesterday I was walking on Walthamstow Marshes, on the eastern bank of the River Lea, a corner of London I had never visited before. Much of the area is now a nature reserve, with interpretation boards, signposts and laid-out paths (though it's still possible to get lost). The landscape is of course flat, a wide expanse with cattle grazing and a little woodland around the edges – nothing spectacular, but with the welcome feel of a quiet oasis of genuine countryside amidst one of the most built-up areas of London. When we visited, large numbers of Hassidic Jews – the men in full fig, their wives in their best dresses – were enjoying a Saturday afternoon stroll. It was all very agreeable – if uncomfortably far North for me.
  Although it was sunny and warm, there were few butterflies flying – some whites, the odd speckled wood, and two beautiful small coppers. It seems to be the same everywhere (down in the Southeast at least): after the prodigious abundance of the heatwave months, the butterflies have largely disappeared. Most of them seemed to have gone by mid-August, despite the fact that the warm, sunny weather soon returned after the brief cooler, wetter spell. This feels very odd. Normally there would be plenty of late-summer red admirals, commas, tortoiseshells, peacocks and brimstones flying – but not this year. I wonder what has happened, and what it will mean for next year.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Kingfish

Born on this day in 1893 was the great populist Governor of Louisiana Huey Long, aka 'The Kingfish', whose life was cut short by his assassination in 1935.
This is the perfect pretext for playing not one but two songs from Randy Newman's classic Good Old Boys album, complete with vinyl crackle. Here is Kingfish

And here is Every Man a King, Huey Long's theme song, which he co-wrote with Castro Carazo, band director of Louisiana State University –

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Again, with Differences

A year ago today, I put up a post about an end-of-season visit to my favourite Surrey hillside in search of late-flying butterflies. I could repeat that post almost word for word to describe my visit yesterday, in uncertain sunshine, to that same hillside. The differences were that there were rather fewer Meadow Browns and Small Heaths, and I saw two fewer Silver-Spotted Skippers (but to see any of those heat-loving sun-seekers was good going). However, the abundance of Adonis Blues was even more spectacular than last year, and the numbers of Brown Arguses were simply astonishing. Everywhere I looked was the celestial blue of male Adonises and the paradoxically silvery dazzle of Arguses in flight. A butterfly fancier of the Nabokovian type could have taken two or three of each at a single sweep on the net.
  It's chilling to recollect that Nabokov – who wrote so beautifully about the ecstatic joy of being among butterflies – had his net always in hand, and would kill any specimen he wished to keep by pinching its tiny thorax, folding back its wings and slipping it into a piece of folded card for safe keeping.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Found at the Fair

Yesterday was the day of the Environmental Fair, when wizened hippies, folkies, musoes, Lefties, Greenies and representatives of countless other tribes make their annual descent on Carshalton Park to mingle with the locals. I always rather enjoy it, but chiefly for the opportunity to scour the abundantly stocked second-hand book stalls.
  This year's finds were the jolly little threesome (all three are pleasingly compact volumes) pictured above. Sonnets from the Portuguese is a beautifully presented volume published by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York, printed in Janson types on excellent paper, with woodblock decorations on every page. La Grande Thérèse, a spin-off from Hilary Spurling's life of Matisse, tells the story of Thérèse Humbert and 'the scandal that nearly destroyed the French Third Republic'. Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is an earlier novel by the author of the extraordinary The Vet's Daughter, which I enjoyed a few years ago
  All this lot for £1.40. Not bad, eh?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Modern Baptists

'He was very, very funny,' said the BBC man, wrapping up an obit piece on Neil Simon (who died yesterday), 'but he could be much deeper than that too.'
  Well, it's the standard line on comic and 'serious' writing. Only the latter can carry the 'deeper' truths and meanings. Hence the general undervaluing of comic writing and writers in our literary culture. A case in point is James Wilcox.
  I had never heard of James Wilcox until, a week or so ago, my eye alighted on one of his novels in a local charity shop. It was a Penguin Classic with the curious title of Modern Baptists. I noted a puff from Anne Tyler on the back – 'Wilcox has real genius. He is a writer to make us all feel hopeful' – and of course I bought it.
  James Wilcox, I learned, has spent his writing career accumulating rave reviews but never selling enough books to make a living. He doesn't have the kind of self-promoting chutzpah that is so important to a modern literary career; being something of a one-off, he cannot be easily classified – always a handicap; and, worst of all, he writes comic novels, and no one's going to take them seriously (except the more discerning critics and fellow writers). All the same, Modern Baptists  – his first novel, published in 1983 – found its way into Harold Bloom's The Western Canon.
  Having now read it, I'm inclined to agree with Anne Tyler: Wilcox does have a measure of comic genius. Modern Baptists is one of the funniest and most deftly executed comic novels I've come across in recent years. It's set in Louisiana (Wilcox's birthplace), but in a very particular corner of Louisiana, among the panhandle parishes that were never part of the Louisiana Purchase and so are less French and more Baptist.
  In the small town of Tula Springs, Mr Pickens, an unprepossessing middle-aged man, works at the Sonny Boy store and tries to cling on to respectability and lead a regular life. Under the impression that he's dying of a skin cancer, he invites his reprobate half-brother, F.X., to come and stay with him when he gets out of jail. This is his big mistake, the one from which all else follows, though there's another one – a silly prank he plays on a workmate, Toinette – that also has dire consequences. Toinette unfortunately falls for the handsome F.X. on sight, just as Mr Pickens finds himself falling in hopeless love with her. He is himself the equally hopeless love object of chunky checkout girl Burma LaSteele.
  From this initial scenario, the comedy grows, drawing in more characters, confusion, chaos and confrontations as it builds into a fine comic imbroglio that mingles satire, slapstick and farce, while remaining true to its characters. Modern Baptists is at the same time a vivid evocation of life in a small town in a particular corner of Louisiana, and a convincing psychological account of one man's increasingly desperate struggle to do the right thing.
  As for the title, the phrase 'modern Baptists' first occurs in a scene in which Mr Pickens (Bobby) and Burma are sitting by the canal, talking over the latest hair-raising developments in the F.X.-Toinette saga.

'"Bobby, do you think you drink too much?''
''I guess so.''
''And we're Baptists.''
''Modern Baptists can drink. It's only stuffed shirts like Dr McFlug who don't.''
''Well, I guess I"m a modern Baptist, then.'' She was still looking at the sky. ''Want to get drunk?''

The definition is expanded later, after Mr Pickens, with his life falling apart around him, decides he's going to be a preacher.

'Mr Pickens knew that once be got his preaching diploma, he would open a church for modern Baptists, Baptists who were sick to death of hell and sin being stuffed down their gullets every Sunday. There wasn't going to be any of that old-fashioned ranting and raving in Mr Pickens's church. His church would be guided by reason and logic ...'

Unsurprisingly, Mr Pickens never does get to be a preacher, though he does, on one occasion, get to rant and rave with the best of them...
  I'm glad to have found this book and discovered James Wilcox. I'll certainly be looking out for more titles by him.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Creatures of Consensus

Another fine post on Stephen Pentz's wonderful First Known When Lost blog. This one is about what he identifies as 'the current form of puritanism', i.e. the 'liberal', right-on, virtue-signalling form, in all its self-righteous, repressive glory. Among the luggage unpacked in the Norman MacCaig poem he quotes we could now include Diversity, Inclusivity, Tolerance (and its mirror image Zero Tolerance), Multiculturalism, etc.
  But is it, quite, puritanism? Marilynne Robinson would say not. In her essay Puritans and Prigs, she mounts an eloquent defence of historical puritanism against the common charges levelled at it, and carefully distinguishes puritanism from another phenomenon that she thinks more characteristic of our times – priggishness.
  Noting the modern 'liberal' antipathy to morality – 'a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills' – she identifies priggishness as an irresistibly easy substitute:

we have priggishness at hand, up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash.
True morality tends to quietism, self-interrogation and empathetic understanding of the failings of others, whereas

 priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. 

And priggishness has now reached such a pitch that it does more than embarrass dissent – it positively forbids it, often by legal or quasi-legal means.
  The behaviour of prigs, being (in their eyes) inherently good, can only have good consequences (and if they are shown to be otherwise, the intention was still good, and that is all that counts). They are in effect blind to the consequences, and, as Robinson notes, 

People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.

The hardest thing becomes the easiest. No wonder this new priggishness is so universally popular among the hard of thinking and the easily led.


Over on the Pooky website (fine lighting for the quality), I take a tour of Knebworth House.
Here's the link...

Wednesday, 22 August 2018


Born on this day in 1862 was the great French composer Claude Debussy.
Here is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Reflets dans l'Eau, from the first volume of Images. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Glottal Stops and Attitude

Wherever I go, there seems to be one question on everyone's lips these days: What on earth has happened to Radio 4? Why is so much of its output becoming simply unlistenable? Including (or perhaps especially) the Today programme.
  I was having dinner with B last night, and it was only a matter of minutes before the subject came up. We agreed, I think, that elements long present in Radio 4's output (and that of the BBC in general) had now reached critical mass, a tipping point or whatever metaphor you like, with the result that a network that had once been at least listenable, and often enjoyable and rewarding, nearly all the time had suddenly become something that is all too frequently unendurable. Those long present elements are the kind of things Mrs N likes to call 'cultural Marxism' – an unexamined, cost-free mix of moral relativism and hostility/indifference to traditional institutions, along with the relentless pushing of an agenda of 'diversity', 'inclusivity', intersectional feminism (don't ask) and multiculturalism. Lately on Radio 4, the most conspicuous symptom has been an apparent drive to foist female presenters – and ideally all-female line-ups – on as many programmes as possible (and if the women are from ethnic minorities and/or don't speak RP, so much the better). There are, of course, many excellent women broadcasters, including some of my own radio favourites, but they owe their success to their excellence, not their sex. Once you embark on what is in effect ideological quota-filling, quality will inevitably suffer. For evidence of how dire the effects can be, I would refer you to the two recent series mentioned here... If the aim had been to prove that women aren't funny, they could hardly have done a better job.
  The metropolitan 'liberal' bias of the BBC – so deep-seated and all-pervasive that the BBC itself genuinely cannot perceive it – used to be something that we could put up with and easily discount. But now, as it takes on more and more of the trappings of cultural Marxism, it has spread out from its traditional strongholds – notably Woman's Hour (the continuation of the Guardian women's page by other means), topical 'comedy' and arts programmes – to encompass more and more programmes, thereby making more and more of Radio 4 unlistenable. Everywhere there are glottal stops, attitude and reflex leftism (Trump evil, all migrants good, Brexit bad, 'Europe' good, socialism moral, conservatism immoral, etc, etc.). As Jeremy Corbyn says on that brilliant Private Eye cover, 'Enough already.'
  However, all is not lost: though much is taken, much abides. Radio 4 still has some very good programmes, and continues to come up with things that are well worth hearing. Just this morning, I was listening to Reflections, in which Peter Hennessy encourages politicians to look back over their careers and reflect thereon. This can be pretty tedious stuff, but today it was Iain Duncan Smith, a man fatally lacking in charisma but one of the more decent and thoughtful politicians of recent times (and one with an interesting back story). When the conversation got round (inevitably) to Brexit, he told of meeting with a group of EU ambassadors and presenting them with a thought experiment. Could you not, he asked, entertain the notion of 'British exceptionalism'? To the bemused ambassadors, he elucidated: Britain, because of its very different history and its island status, has never felt the same way about the EU as they have, and has never made an easy fit with it or been fully committed to it. We, for example, don't feel that we owe the postwar decades of peace and prosperity to the EU (in its various incarnations), nor have we had any reason to. Still less do we feel the need for 'ever closer union'. Could the EU not recognise that we are not just another member state, one whose departure will open the floodgates for the rest; the rest will have as many reasons to stay in after Brexit as before. We have always stood apart, we are not representative but exceptional. Surely we could be accommodated in such a way as to recognise that fact and enable us to live with the EU as a friendly, co-operative but independent neighour?
  A stunned silence fell. All were aghast.
  Finally one of the ambassadors spoke up. 'Only a British citizen could say that,' be declared. Which rather made IDS's point.

Sunday, 19 August 2018


On the happy day when I retired (a little over three years ago now) I had a list of things I was going to do with the new-found leisure I was fondly expecting to enjoy. Some of them I have managed, including, I'm happy to say, 'get more sleep'. However, 'stare vacantly into the middle distance' is one that I've not often achieved – in fact I probably did more of that in my working years, from sheer exhaustion / boredom. Retirement has turned out to be pretty much as busy as work was, just busy in wholly different ways, mostly familial, domestic and hedonic (under which title I include research for my book). Which is all by way of explaining why this blog tends to fall silent more often now than in my hard-pressed working days. 
  Never mind. Today I can report that, happily, the swifts have not left after all – or not all of them. Though their screams – the true sound of summer – are no longer to be heard, there are still stragglers up there. I saw one over the garden on Monday, then another over the road the next day – and today, sitting in the garden after (granddaughter) Summer's birthday party, I looked up and saw another – then another, and another, three flying together, lazily circling while drifting generally southward, to Africa. Come to think, I might well have been staring vacantly into the middle distance when I saw them – but upwards, at the sky.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The King

It was on this day in 1977 that Elvis Presley died. I remember getting off the train to work the following morning (the news reached the UK overnight) and seeing that someone had already scrawled, high up on a wall opposite the station, the words 'Are you lonesome tonight?'
  As music star deaths go, Elvis's was more unglamorous than most, and less premature (he was 42). His best work was surely behind him – and so much of the material he had recorded (not to mention the films he made) had anyway been unworthy of him. Compared to the loss, much earlier in their lives and  careers, of two other Seventies casualties, Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley, Elvis's death did not deprive the world of much musical potential. Who knows where either of those two might have taken their music if they had lived?
  However, with all that said, Elvis Presley's death felt like a great blow and a palpable loss. For a few years, Elvis simply was rock 'n' roll, and even to the end and in spite of everything, he had an aura, a magic, an almost numinous quality about him, something that singled him out from all others (and was strangely blended with an almost childlike vulnerability). Perhaps the best musical tribute paid to him – one that capture that strange and special aura – is Gillian Welch's beautiful Elvis Presley Blues (a song that links him with the American folk hero John Henry). The King is dead, long live the King.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Ain't It Grand...

Among Radio 4's more annoying features – which currently include a jaw-droppingly infantile 'history' series, with 'jokes', called Did the Victorians Ruin the World?, and the least funny topical comedy ever broadcast (and God knows it's got a lot of competition), Where's the F in News – where was I? Oh yes, and then there's the habit of larding every factual programme with snatches of music, or even a 'music bed', to the point where some become unlistenable: I recently had to turn off a perfectly decent programme on economics because the accompanying music was, as Danny Dyer would say, 'doin' me 'ead in'.
  The use of music is usually either crassly literal or entirely irrelevant – but sometimes something turns up that catches the ear, in a good way. It happened the other day with a programme about undertakers, which kept giving us snatches of a wonderfully macabre song called Ain't It Grand to Be Bloomin' Well Dead, which I knew only by title and had never heard. Sung in a broad old-fashioned cockney accent, with a sneer in every verse, it's a little gem of black, cynical, deeply misanthropic comedy. Looking it up, I discovered that it's a traditional song of obscure origin, and was popularised by the man singing it on Radio 4 – Leslie Sarony! Yes, Leslie Sarony, the jolly songster who gave us such jaunty classics as Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors and I Lift Up My Finger (And I Say Tweet Tweet), not to mention Jollity Farm. And here's something for fact fans: Sarony, who was also an actor and busy to the end of his long life, played Uncle Stavely in the final series of Peter Tinniswood's fondly remembered I Didn't Know You Cared. 'I heard that! Pardon?'

Monday, 13 August 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 2

A day devoted to wrestling with technology – fending off an online scam bombardment and trying to get my new printer working. After an hour and ten minutes on the phone with a helpful, if sometimes bemused, operative, I do at least have a working printer. Long may it last (and thereby buck my past record with printers).
  On the upside, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a belated swift circling desultorily over the garden – just when I thought I'd seen my last of the year.
  But to the matter in hand: the novels of Auberon Waugh. I have now read his second, Path of Dalliance, published in 1963. A kind of modern picaresque, it's a less ambitious affair than his debut, The Foxglove Saga – looser, more relaxed, even a little baggy (it could have shed thirty or forty pages). But it's every bit as funny – which is rather the point with comic novels, though sometimes you'd never know it – and it's written throughout in Waugh's beautifully managed prose, with never a dead sentence.
  Like The Foxglove Saga, Path of Dalliance begins at Cleeve, the Catholic school, whence it follows several ex-pupils out into the world – chief among them, Jamey Sligger, an ineffectual, slightly priggish (but in practice often amoral) young innocent who hasn't much of a clue about the outside world. He is off to Godolphin Hall, a highly exclusive Oxford college where he is to share rooms with his rich Cleeve friend Guy Frazer-Robinson. Jamey finds Oxford life as bewildering as everything else, and blunders through it in much the same way as he will blunder (after his inevitable sending down) through his first foray into the world of work – as a journalist, for heaven's sake.
  Waugh's satirising of student life at Oxford – the endless talking (in lieu of doing), the intrigues and snobbery, the posing, the casual cruelty, the abortive love affairs and, in particular, the mad world of student activism – is spot-on. It's striking how little the idiocies of the student left have changed in the half century since Path of Dalliance. though perhaps their methods are rather less insanely devious than the futile plots hatched by the activists of yesteryear. The fellow students who cross Jamey's path are a mixture of university types and more convincingly drawn individuals – and the latter category also includes Mrs Price-Williams, principal of St Rachel's, and her husband, a philosophy don with infantile urges. Later there is some satirising of the modern art market which is rather more, er, broad brush, but Waugh's picture of life in newspaper journalism in the days when the print unions still ruled is much more successful.
 As he blunders through Oxford, and for some while after, Jamey remains under the influence of Cleeve, sending regular reports to one of the Brothers – and of his monstrous, endlessly embarrassing mother, who is perhaps the strongest character in the book. By the end of the story Jamey is, perhaps, beginning to break free and grow up, but you wouldn't want to bet on it. Path of Dalliance ends back at Cleeve with a reunion of old boys and others. It's a satisfying and immensely enjoyable read, and surely deserves to be reprinted. My copy was reissued by Robin Clark, along with the other novels, in the Eighties – and that was a long time ago.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Quid Pro Crow

Never mind the Boris-Burqa row, here's a real news story – a team of trained rooks is being deployed to pick up litter, and generally spruce things up, at a French theme park. There's an uncharacteristically concise account of this heartening development on the BBC News website. While you're there, do follow the links to 'Crow with Yorkshire accent filmed' and 'Police rescue man from baby squirrel'.
Meanwhile, this is surely an occasion to rehearse Kay Ryan's great crow poem...

Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Journey by Moonlight

Having limbered up with The Pendragon Legend, I last week read Antal Szerb's acknowledged masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight. This one is a very different kind of novel, but the tone of voice – playful, quicksilver, endlessly ironical – is very similar. Szerb has a gift for making his material at once deadly serious and not serious at all (is this a Hungarian thing?). Journey by Moonlight chronicles what is in effect a catastrophic mental breakdown, but it is closer to a fast-moving, unpredictable, often funny adventure or escape story than to a psychoanalytical study. Szerb's is, decidedly, a comic imagination – and a very distinctive one.
  Journey by Moonlight has the kind of opening paragraph that defies you not to keep on reading:

'On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.'

Mihaly, we learn, is on his first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon. He has travelled a good deal, but always avoided Italy:

'Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.'

But now he was married, on his honeymoon, so 'now, he reasoned, there was nothing to fear from the danger Italy represented'. Until, that is, he felt the irresistible pull of those Venetian back alleys and, unplanned and unannounced, spent the night wandering in a daze among them. This is the beginning of Mihaly's 'journey by moonlight'.
  Trying to explain this nocturnal fugue to Erzsi, his long-suffering wife, he tells the story of a phase in his boyhood when he came under the spell of a group of free-spirited friends, dominated by the beautiful, death-obsessed Eva and Tamas Ulpius. It is in that luridly intense period of Mihaly's past that the key to all that follows resides, and it is to that phase of his life that Mihaly's flight from present reality repeatedly returns him. When one of those friends of his youth, the unreliable Janos, turns up in person, Mihaly is shaken and knows he cannot carry on with his life as it is. Soon he leaves Erzsi behind by half-consciously boarding the wrong train and taking off on his own, with no idea of where he's going. His journey takes him from one Italian city to another, and to various remoter locations, guided only by hints from Janos, who keeps turning up wherever Mihaly finds himself. But can the troubled Mihaly ever find a way of breaking free of the past that haunts him?
  That bald (and very incomplete) synopsis makes Journey by Moonlight sounds a lot more solemn than it is – indeed solemnity is a note that Szerb's writing never strikes. Reading him is always, for all sorts of reasons, fun; he's a great storyteller, and Journey by Moonlight is a real page-turner. It is also one of those books that is, I think, liable to haunt you for a long while after you've put it down.

  Szerb was a glittering star of the Hungarian literary firmament, the author of three major scholarly surveys of English, Hungarian and world literature, as well as the novels and numerous short stories. But he was Jewish (the son of assimilated Jews, and a baptised Catholic), and therefore vulnerable in the Hungary of the times. In 1944 he was removed from his professorship at the University of Szegad and sent to a forced labour camp. Friends and admirers offered to save him with falsified papers, but he turned them down, wishing to share in the common fate of his people. He was beaten to death in 1945, at the age of 43, and buried in a mass grave.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Giles Cooper

Today is the centenary of the birth of Giles Cooper – a name that might still mean something to lovers of radio drama (if they're of a certain age). Cooper was a prolific dramatist who wrote for both radio and TV – among much else, he adapted Simenon's Maigret novels for the hugely successful TV series starring pipe-smoking Rupert Davies. Perhaps his best known radio play was Unman, Wittering and Zigo, which also became a TV drama and a feature film (screenplay by Simon Raven).
  Cooper, who was born into a landed Anglo-Irish family, confounded family expectations by enrolling in drama school, but before much longer he was conscripted into the Army and sent to Burma, where he fought for three years in the jungle in that most gruelling of campaigns (see George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here). After the war Cooper worked as an actor (encountering Kenneth Williams and Harold Pinter in rep), then moved into script editing and playwriting. He died at the age of 48 after, bizarrely, falling from a train as it passed through Surbiton. He had been attending the Guild of Dramatists' Christmas dinner at the Garrick and was perhaps excessively refreshed. The coroner's verdict was misadventure.
  Happily his name lived on for some years after his death, in the shape of the Giles Cooper Awards for radio drama, jointly sponsored by the BBC and the publishers Methuen. These awards ran from 1978 to 1992, and winners included Tom Stoppard, William Trevor, Fay Weldon, Anthony Minghella, Rose Tremain and bloody Harold Pinter. I remember being at several of the (pretty minimal) awards ceremonies back in the days when I was writing about radio for the late lamented Listener. A pity there isn't a prestigious award for radio drama these days – it might raise the standard.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018


And I got back to find that the swifts have flown – already (but then it always feels like 'already'). I thought they looked as if they were getting ready to go when we left for Dieppe, but was hoping they might hang on a little longer. After all, they got off to a belated start, not settling down until mid-May – but, like the butterflies, they recovered to enjoy a prodigious season, thanks to weeks of warm sunshine. I hadn't seen so many over our house in years.
  Susan Hill, writing in the Spectator, reports a complete absence of swifts in her neck of the woods (North Norfolk?) until, one July evening, they suddenly arrived – 'a few, then dozens, soaring, diving, swooping, crossbows in the blue sky'. Since then, she claims, she has done nothing but watch them, and she urges the rest of us to 'gaze while you can. Neglect everything. These are not birds, they are angels.' I hope they are still with her.

Back from La Canicule

Blue skies and unbroken sunshine meant that this Dieppe jaunt was – unusually in a part of France not famous for brilliant weather – something of a beach holiday, and all the more enjoyable for that. However, I did find time to visit the two great churches and check on progress. The restoration of St Jacques continues at an arthritic snail's pace – but at St Remy things are really moving, with impressive progress on the decayed Northern facade, most of which is now convincingly restored.
  This visit also added a word to my French vocabulary – 'canicule', meaning heatwave. This word was everywhere, all over the papers and television, where, in addition to alarming 'scorchio' weather reports, there were endless, very French discussions of the implications of 'La Canicule' for the future of the planet, etc.
  And then it was back to England, and to endless, very English discussion of a subject encapsulated in another single word – Burqa. The brouhaha over Boris Johnson's 'letterbox' remark – in the course of a piece arguing for the 'right' to wear the burqa – seems peculiarly fatuous and confected, even by the standards of such brouhahas. And nobody seems to have pointed out that it's based on an erroneous use of words: it is not the burqa but the niqab that lends the wearer the fetching letterbox look Boris remarks on. The burqa offers its wearer complete insulation from the lustful gazes of men by covering the entire body, eyes included. You don't come across it too often over here, but I've seen women shopping in the full burqa on Kensington High Street. They order this matter better in France, where the burqa is banned.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

To D***** Again

No prizes for guessing which French port-resort I'm heading for tomorrow. Mais oui – it's Dieppe again. In what seems set to become an annual tradition, Mrs N and I are spending a few days there with son, daughter-in-law and ever adorable granddaughter. There might be the occasional dispatch; if not, normal service will be resumed some time next week.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Welsh Claude

Born on this day in 1714 was the Welsh painter Richard Wilson, who turned out lots of fine restful landscapes, suffused with the spirit of Claude Lorrain and the Dutch landscapists, and reflecting his early experience of painting in Italy. Wilson was a rarity in his time for concentrating so heavily on landscape painting – and he seems to have been the first to notice that his native Wales had a few landscapes that were worth painting (that's Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris, above).
  Wilson, Ruskin opined, 'paints in a manly way, and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour'. Ruskin also acknowledged that 'the Welsh Claude' had a significant influence on his hero Turner. Good to know he painted in a manly way.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

His Lordship's Spit, Mick Jagger's Underpants, etc.

Yesterday to Knebworth House, where I noticed that the guides seemed to be looking at me with more than usual interest. It transpired that I am the spit and image of David Lytton Cobbold, the 2nd Lord Cobbold, who ran the show until handing over to his son Henry. Or rather the spit and image of His Lordship as he was a few years back (he's 80-odd now). This was quite pleasing. We are, as far as I know, entirely unrelated.
  In the course of the guided tour of this masterpiece of High Victorian Gothic, I also leaned that Mick Jagger, after one of the Stones' epic performances at Knebworth, slept in the best bed, in which he left behind a pair of his minuscule red underpants. These are now in the Knebworth archives. Noel Gallagher didn't sleep in the house, but took a long bath in the best bathroom, where he recalled being served a bottle of champagne by the butler. That was no butler – it was the 2nd Lord Cobbold, my ermined doppelganger.

(I write as one who was recently mistaken for Jacob Rees Mogg by the proprietor of a Turkish restaurant. My proudest moment.)

Sunday, 29 July 2018

This and That

The eagerly awaited return of rain to the scorched earth of Carshalton and environs gave me the opportunity to wheel out that fine word 'petrichor', which denotes the smell rising from sun-dried earth after rain. There was petrichor galore during Friday's intermittent thundery downpours. Then came a day of strong winds, blowing in fresh air at last. And today hours of lovely steady English summer drizzle. I'm not that keen on rain (certainly not as keen as Geoffrey Hill, our Laureate of Rain), but there are times when there's nothing like the feel of good English drizzle on your face.
  The cooling of the air seems to have roused my brain from its sun-stunned torpor, even to the point of taking some interest in the passing scene. Today I notice that the row over Labour's antisemitism might even lead to Jeremy Corbyn losing his precious allotment. In point of fact it seems unlikely that he will, but at least the story gifted the Mail On Sunday subs a great headline opportunity.
  In the Sunday Times, meanwhile, Mr Appleyard explores the curious absence of women novelists from the modern 'literary canon', whether the canon we carry half-consciously in our heads or the more official and approved canons. For myself, I discover a curious absence of male novelists when I survey my own 20th-century English-language canon; the men are grossly underrepresented, crowded out (as readers of this blog will know all too well) by the likes of Willa Cather, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Penelope Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Hazzard, Muriel Spark, etc, etc. And I might add that I've never felt the slightest embarrassment about reading women's novels in public. The only thing that matters about fiction – or pretty much anything else – is whether it's good or bad.
  One more thing. Listening to the endless coverage of the supposed threats posed by 'fake news', outside intervention in the democratic process, and the wicked wiles of the social media, I entertained a little thought experiment. Suppose Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and Remain had prevailed in the referendum – suppose, that is, that the stars had stayed in their courses and all had turned out as expected  – would we be hearing quite so much of this outcry against the social media, etc?  'Fake news' is only a problem if it favours the side you don't want to win.

Thursday, 26 July 2018


Two stories ripped from the headlines –

1. The UK's universities confirm what they now are by offering a record 67,915 unconditional places to applicants – up from 2,985 just five years ago. This means that an applicant now has almost a one in four chance of being offered an unconditional place. And you thought universities were about higher education for those qualified to benefit from it? Wake up, grandpa.

2. That delightful fellow Michel Barnier confirms what the EU is, was and ever will be (until its  probably not too distant demise) by rejecting even the deeply compromised 'Chequers agreement'. Time to wake up to the fact that this is theology, not politics, and the only way out is through the door marked 'Danger! Do not open this door.' And you thought Brexit meant Brexit? Ah, if only...

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Balm of Coolth, and Factor Ignotus

With Southeast England still in the grip of the Great Heatwave, the dear old C of E seems to have woken up to the fact that it has a Unique Selling Point in all those stone-cool church interiors that never warm up, whatever the weather, and often feel colder than the outside even in winter. Canterbury Cathedral's Twitter account has posted an image of the crypt, and the message 'With temperatures set to reach 30C in Canterbury this week, come and escape the heat in the tranquil environment of the crypt.' And why not? More churches should follow their lead and open their doors to sunstruck visitors seeking the balm of coolth. Indeed more churches should open their doors full stop, but that's another subject.
  Needless to say, my cousin and I were in many a cool church interior on our travels last weekend, including all the medieval churches of Stamford, surely one of England's most beautiful towns. Two monuments stand out from this latest jaunt – both of outstanding quality, and both of unknown authorship. At Exton in Rutland, amid one of the finest arrays of monumental sculpture in the land, stands the hauntingly beautiful monument to Anne, wife of Lord Bruce of Kinlosse, who died in childbirth in 1627.
On a tall tomb chest in black and white marble, Lady Anne lies in her shroud (like Lady Berkeley at Cranford), her head resting on a pillow decorated with two cherubs' heads. Her pose is not as languid and Berniniesque as Lady Berkeley's, nor is her face as delicately pretty; Lady Anne's feature are more like those of Mrs Coke (who also died in childbirth) in Nicholas Stone's great monument at Bramfield in Suffolk. It's hard to believe Lady Anne's monument is not also by Nicholas Stone, but if it was, it would, like all Stone's major works, be documented in his meticulous business records. Clearly some unknown genius was at work here.
  And one must reach the same conclusion about the second outstanding monument of this trip. It stands in the Farnham chapel of St Bartholomew's church in Quorn (or Quorndon), Leicestershire (a family chapel that is normally closed to visitors, but we struck lucky). This monument, to one of many John Farnhams and his wife, is quite extraordinary, for several reasons, but chief among them is the carving of the two figures that lie atop the ornamental tomb chest.
There's something almost Mannerist about the elongation of their necks in those extraordinarily high-collared ruffs, and the curious, unanatomical curvature of their praying hands. The figures too seem elongated, and the whole monument has a tendency to a kind of abstraction and simplifying of forms that also suggests something of medieval statuary. I've never seen anything quite like this in any English church, and the two figures make a startling impact. The monument is clearly work of the highest quality – an impression enhanced by the relief panel that stands against an adjacent wall, but has always been part of the monumental composition. It was probably this panel, portraying scenes of military triumph, that led Mrs Esdaile to tentatively suggest Epiphanius Evesham as the maker of the monument. That attribution has since fallen out of favour – but if not Evesham, who? Another unknown genius? Once again a mystery. Factor ignotus.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Today, Tomorrow

I spent today walking among the butterflies of Oxfordshire – I'll spare you the details, but a good many glorious Silver-Washed Fritillaries were involved – and tomorrow I'm off on another Mercian expedition with my Derbyshire cousin. There will be churches, and monuments...

That's Nigeness – your one-stop shop for butterflies, church monuments and obscure books. No wonder my numbers are going through the roof, hem hem.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Good News for Retroprogressives

A good day for retroprogressives, with two news items to gladden our reactionary hearts...
  One: Sales of what are now quaintly called 'physical books' have risen again, bringing in five per cent more income. Sales of hardback fiction were up by an eye-popping 31 per cent, while sales of digital books were down by two per cent. All this was supposed to happen the other way round, with e-book sales soaring at the expense of 'physical books'. It's the old story – over-hyping the new and expecting that it will consign the old to oblivion. Things seldom work out that way, as technologies have a habit of co-existing rather than devouring one another.
  Two: After 35 years of huge sales (totalling some 120 million) and competition from all manner of trendier and higher-tech vehicles, that enduring fixture of the album charts, Now That's What I Call Music, has reached its century. Now That's What I Call Music 100 is about to be released. Now that's what I call retroprogressive.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

How Not to Leave the EU

Call me a simpleton, but there's something I don't understand about this whole Brexit farrago. Didn't Parliament vote (by a very large majority) to hand over the decision on whether or not to stay in the EU to the people, the electorate, with no comeback and no further process (as per EU law)? In those circumstances, how can it be right that Parliament – which has always been overwhelmingly pro-EU and anti-Brexit (along with the rest of the political, administrative and cultural establishment) – now has a stranglehold on the entire process? This can only lead to a failure to actually leave the EU in any meaningful sense at all. Not that that's a great surprise (at least to the more cynical among us), but surely there was some effective way of getting from A (voting to leave) to B (actually leaving)? Shouldn't it have been an administrative, rather than a party-political, project?
  Never mind – this morning brings news (from arch-Remainer Anna Soubry) that Jacob Rees Mogg is running the country. I do hope she's right.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018


Having been, for several days, itching to get out and stroll among the butterflies on the Surrey hills, I finally made it today. Unfortunately I arrived at my destination just as banks of sullen cloud moved into place, completely obscuring the sun. It was decidedly cool too (after days, indeed weeks, of searing heat). However, much to my delight, I soon found a few Adonis Blues flying among the all-weather Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers. When, an hour or two later, the sun finally broke through, the effect was instant: suddenly Chalkhill Blues (milky blue to the Adonis's brilliant near-turquoise) were everywhere, flying along with Adonis and Common Blues galore – a glorious downland spectacle.
 There were more blues – many, many more – as I made my way down the dip slope of Box Hill. Marbled Whites too – and, as I neared the Burford Bridge hotel (where, in 1817,  Keats worked on Endymion), a lordly Dark Green Fritillary was flying along the margin of a copse. A thing of beauty indeed.

Monday, 16 July 2018


Born on this day in 1911 was the great danseuse and more than useful actress Ginger Rogers. She was the perfect partner for Astaire, as he was for her, and together they created a particular kind of dance magic that has never been bettered. And, of course, like all the true greats in every field, they made it all look as easy as breathing. Here's a little reminder of her loveliness...