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'.

Sunday, 15 April 2018


Yesterday I dropped in on the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece at the British Museum (which seems to be a great favourite with Chinese tour parties – though this particular exhibition was not on their itinerary). The aptly named Charmed Lives celebrates the warm creative friendship between the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (mercifully better known as 'Ghika') and the writer, adventurer and fabulist Patrick Leigh Fermor. Their charmed lives were conducted against idyllic backdrops on the islands of Hydra, Crete and Corfu and at PLF's beautiful home at Kardamili (of which I've written before).
  As well as paintings and drawings by Ghika and Craxton, the exhibition includes letters, book-jacket artwork, personal possessions (including PLF's typewriter and rather weedy-looking binoculars), and lots of black-and-white photographs of the three men in various combinations, with fellow artists and writers, celebrities and wives/boyfriends. Here's one of the supremely photogenic PLF with a goat on board a caique...
Both he and Craxton were fascinated by goats and felt great affection for them. Here's one of Craxton's lively goat paintings...
Craxton also loved cats, but PLF was not keen, describing them as 'interior desecrators and downholsterers' – was this the first use of the word 'downholsterer'?
  As for the paintings, it was interesting to see a range of Ghika's work, which I didn't know at all (that's a poster design of his above). He was clearly a gifted painter and draughtsman with a strong feeling for Greek landscapes. At some points in their careers, his and Craxton's paintings are strikingly similar in approach – bright colours and strong design, mixing abstraction and naturalism across a strongly patterned field. However, there is usually something lighter and somehow easier about Craxton's works, and he is clearly more interested in structure than the looser, brushier Ghika, whose later paintings tend to get larger, freer and more complicated, while Craxton keeps it simple and, usually, smaller in scale.
  However, Craxton was certainly capable of ambitious large landscapes, like this superb Landscape, Hydra, 1963-7...
  His figure paintings are, I think, weaker, though the images of dancing sailors and cafe life are full of energy and charm. For my money, the star of the show is another of Craxton's larger landscapes, the extraordinary, ravine-shaped Moonlit Ravine, which is painted, believe it or not, in tempera mixed with volcanic dust.
  I'm glad to have caught this fascinating little exhibition – not least because I'm flying off to Kardamili for a few days' walking next week.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Seventh Worst Butterfly Year...

Yesterday's news reports found room for Butterfly Conservation's annual Jeremiad about declining butterfly populations – and a good thing too, as a broad-brush consciousness-raising exercise: the more aware people are of butterflies, the threats to them and the ways in which we can help them, the better. However, it was something of a stretch to make headline news out of 2017 being the seventh worst butterfly year 'since records began' (i.e. 1976). As was acknowledged further into the story, it was actually the usual mixed picture of some species having a good year, others a bad one, against a background of undeniable long-term population decline caused by a combination of widespread habitat loss, 'climate change' and other environmental factors (e.g. rising nitrogen levels). No prizes for guessing which of those factors got the most attention (clue: it's the one in quotation marks), though it's hard to see how a tendency towards cold, wet springs and warmish winters (interrupted by two or three harsh winters and a couple of sunny springs in recent years) equates to anything more than fluctuating weather.
  As it happens, my own butterfly year bucked the trend to some extent, as in May I quite unexpectedly saw a couple of Grizzled Skippers – one of the fastest declining species – in a place where I had no idea they occurred, and in late summer I enjoyed such numbers of Adonis Blues as I had never before seen. If only this spring would brighten and warm up, 2018 might yet be a good year. We certainly had a properly cold winter, with plenty of frost and snow, and that always helps. If the forecasters are right, things could be warming up by next week. Here's hoping it’s not too late...

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Queeney According to Beryl

As one who's been browsing the book shelves of charity shops for many years, I've noticed how, from time to time, a particular author or title will suddenly start cropping up repeatedly. Leaving aside discarded dross such as Fifty Shade of Grey (still multiple copies everywhere) or the works of Dan Brown, literary authors and titles are also subject to these spates and gluts. Iris Murdoch has been turning up a lot in recent years, and Muriel Spark is an oddly persistent presence, while Hilary Mantel's Fludd continues to show up, invariably in the Penguin edition and often accompanied by Wolf Hall.
  But the most recent phenomenon I've noticed is a curious one – a sudden glut of Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney (published 2001). I've no idea why this should have happened, but in the past couple of weeks I've come across it four times, in three editions. I rather fancied re-reading it, as it had been a long time and I wasn't sure I still had it at home, so I bought a copy – the American first edition, as it happened. 
  It's a very clever piece of work, spry and sparely written, presenting the relationship of Samuel Johnson with his sometime protectors and friends, the Thrales, largely through the cool, sharply observant eyes of the young Hester 'Queeney' Thrale, for whom Johnson had a special fondness (I think I have a copy of The Queeney Letters somewhere). Bainbridge also skilfully recreates the bizarre goings-on in Johnson's house, recounting farcical and macabre incidents and misunderstandings in her usual matter-of-fact tone, and making surprising, under-the-radar connections. The narrative revolves around certain key incidents, each of which is given a chapter, and between the chapters are dismissive letters from the grown-up Hester to the inquiring biographer Laetitia Hawkins, letters that often seem to disown the novel's narrative. This injects an intriguing note of uncertainty into this fictional version of the best-documented life in English literature, while suggesting new levels of meaning and emotion barely hinted at in the biographies.
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Beryl Bainbridge found a new lease of authorial life when, quite late in her career, she turned to the historical past for inspiration. According to Queeney was her fourth historically-based novel – and, as it turned out, her last published work. If you spot it in a charity shop near you, do pick it up. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Ben, Bill and Billiards

Born on this day in 1894 was the artist Ben Nicholson, son of the illustrious William Nicholson. In contrast to his father, Ben embraced abstraction, and as a result his fame came to eclipse Sir William's, who never strayed from the unfashionable figurative path. This imbalance has been corrected to some extent in recent years; the big William Nicholson exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2004 surely opened many eyes (mine included) to his greatness.
  When young Ben was studying at the Slade, he spent most of his time (according to his fellow student Paul Nash) playing billiards. Nicholson claimed that the abstract formality of the green baize and the ever changing relationship between the coloured balls stimulated his aesthetic sense. Hmm.
  That's his First Abstract Painting (Chelsea, 1924) above.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Eggs and Eggmen

On my Mercian travels I came across this handsome memorial tablet in Southwell Minster. It commemorates a chap I'd never heard of, but his contribution to 'oology' (the scientific study of eggs) was indeed considerable. His huge collection of eggs was catalogued as the Ootecha Wolleyana and donated to the British Museum after his death. But, being a Victorian, he packed a great deal more than oology into his short life, travelling in Spain, Germany, Switzerland (where he climbed Mont Blanc), Arctic Lapland, Norway and Finland, studying law, then medicine, and taking a special interest in the Dodo and the Great Auk (as who wouldn't?). And then, in 1911, more than half a century after his early death, his admirers and relatives were moved to give him a fitting monument in the glorious surroundings of Southwell Minster. Incidentally, readers with any kind of interest in birds' eggs should read Tim Birkhead's brilliant book on the subject, The Most Perfect Thing.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018


I'm going to be in Mercia for a few days, so there might be a bit of a hiatus...

Burning Injustice?

I sometimes worry (in a small way) about Theresa May. Does she really believe what she's saying when she declares that today's 'gender pay gap' findings represent a 'burning injustice'? Wouldn't it be better to save that kind of talk for, say, burning injustices (the world is never short of them)? As Jordan Peterson pointed out on the Today programme this morning, the methodology used to come up with these 'gender pay gap' figures was so staggeringly crude and inept that a first-year social science student would have been failed if they [note gender-neutral pronoun] presented such work. He ran through a few of the obvious reasons why, if the figures are totted up in this way, men will usually come out as earning more money than women – one of the chief ones being that most women are not mad enough to devote their lives, hearts, souls and all their waking hours to becoming 'top executives' and clinging on to their place on the corporate greasy pole. They have better things to do. As someone else pointed out later in the programme, if you ran the same methodology on part-time work, you'd come up with a marked 'gender pay gap', but this time in favour of women. No one seems to regard that as a 'burning injustice'. Hey ho.
  And then there's Radio 4's Book of the Week – Factfulness by Hans Rosling, the Swedish physician, statistician and showman (who died last year). The subtitle of this book is Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think, and it's clear that he is using 'facts' to support a particular (liberal, meliorist, Pinkeresque) argument. And that argument does have merit: thanks to capitalism, living standards have, by all kinds of measures, greatly improved, and continue to do so. But I put the word 'facts' in quotation marks because Rosling persistently equates statistical findings – often single statistical findings – with facts. The thing about statistical findings is that they are only as valid as the methodology that produced them, and that they can be used (and generated) selectively to support almost any thesis. They are not, in themselves, facts. We'd do well to remember the wise words of Mark Twain (okay, he didn't originate them*, but it isn't clear who did): 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'
  Incidentally, the 'gender pay gap' story, which was top of the news and monopolised discussion on Today, features nowhere on the BBC News website's 'Ten Most Read' stories. Apparently even Vince Cable's claim that the Lib Dems are a 'secret phenomenon' (?) is of more interest to those who follow BBC News.

* A fact.

Monday, 2 April 2018

J.C. Squire and T.S. Eliot: Strong Views on Cheese

Born on this day in 1884 was J.C. Squire, a once highly influential man of letters – poet, editor, critic and formidable networker – who is now one of those all but forgotten names of the interwar literary scene. He and his friends, who inevitably became known as the Squirearchy, were (as John Gross writes in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) 'associated with everything that an intellectual of the day was liable to wince at most – cricketing weekends, foaming tankards, Sussex-by-the-Sea, pale green pastorals, thigh-slapping joviality'. Squire founded a literary cricket club, the Invalids (which survives to this day), and was even an early radio commentator on the Boat Race and Wimbledon. Virginia Woolf described him as 'more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain' – so he can't have been all bad.
  Squire was also, according to an arresting sentence in Wikipedia, 'an expert on Stilton cheese'. Indeed he was at one time chairman of the Stilton Memorial Committee – and this brought him into conflict, not for the first time, with T.S. Eliot. In the latest volume of Eliot's letters is one to the editor of The Times in response to a 'spirited defence of Stilton cheese' written by J.C. Squire. Squire had proposed that a statue should be erected to the supposed inventor of Stilton cheese, a Mrs Paulet of Wymondham. Eliot questioned whether it was worth going to such lengths: 'In a few years' time the Stiltonian monument would be just another bump in a public place, no more inspected than the rank and file of statesmen, warriors and poets.'
  Eliot himself favoured the founding of a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses, in order that cheese might be 'brought back to its own in England'. The Society could, for example, 'visit all hotels and inns in Gloucestershire, demanding Double Gloster'. Eliot's own cheese preference was for the 'noble old Cheshire', though he also described Wensleydale as 'the Mozart of cheeses'. Clearly he was, like Squire, a man who took his cheese seriously.
  Alas, Squire's latter years were, as Gross puts it, 'a sad affair, with something of the macabre overtones of an Angus Wilson short story'. Drinking more and more heavily, he drifted into a semi-vagrant existence amid 'a chaos of unpaid bills and unfulfilled commitments'. Having grown a straggling beard and taken up residence in a suburban hotel, he took to calling himself 'the sage of Surbiton' (though he insisted on being addressed as 'Sir John'; he was knighted in 1933). On one occasion, he turned up at the Athenaeum wearing 'white flannels, black evening slippers, a badly moth-eaten, blue, high-necked pullover, a wing collar and an Old Blundellian tie'. But at least he died knowing that Macmillan's were planning to publish his collected poems. They came out in 1958, shortly after his death, with an introduction by John Betjeman, whose work Squire had been among the first to publish.
  Squire was certainly a clever parodist and achieved some of his earliest successes in that form. So, to wind up, here's a curiosity – his double parody of Gray's Elegy and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Surely this is the strangest fruit of Thomas Gray's great poem.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Happy Easter

'... she turned herself back and saw Jesus standing, and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why  weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, "Sir, if thou have born him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus saith unto her, "Mary!" She turned herself, and saith unto him, "Rabboni"; which is to say, "Master".'
  This beautiful and mysterious incident in John's version of the Resurrection story can be glossed theologically: the risen Christ as gardener of the new Eden, culminating a gospel that begins, like Genesis, as a creation story. However, it also reads like one of those curious naturalistic details that give the gospel stories their particular flavour of truth-telling at many levels. Painters and engravers picked up on the homely image of Christ the gardener and ran with it: that's Dürer's version above, with Jesus, his wide-brimmed gardener's hat turned back, hefting a long-handled shovel as he tells Mary not to touch him, for he is not yet ascended to his Father.
Perhaps the most beautiful version is Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, which is in the Royal Collection, and which I've posted here more than once. The face of Jesus [left], lit by the morning light of the garden and tinted with the rose-apricot of his wide-brimmed hat, is so tender and human that it's hard to imagine this Jesus uttering the 'Noli me tangere'... He could almost be the gardening Christ imagined by Mrs Hurstpierpoint in Ronald Firbank's Valmouth:

'With angelic humour Mrs Hurstpierpoint swept skyward her heavy-lidded eyes. 
'I thought last night, in my sleep,' she murmured, 'that Christ was my new gardener. I thought I saw Him in the Long Walk there, by the bed of Nelly Roche, tending a fallen flower with a wisp of bast.... "Oh, Seth," I said to Him... "remember the fresh lilies for the altar-vases... Cut all the myosotis there is," I said, "and grub plenty of fine, feathery moss..." And then, as He turned, I saw of course it was not Seth at all.'

Happy Easter to all who browse here.

Friday, 30 March 2018

A Good Friday thought

Odd, isn't it, how much of the most beautiful music being written in our time is overtly religious. This wasn't supposed to happen; nothing was going to reverse the onward march of secularism, and the arts would surely secularise along with everything else. Arguably some of the arts have indeed done so, as demonstrated over the past fifty years or so by the poor quality of most religious art and the near-absence of religion from the literary mainstream. Music, however, is different. This most immediate and least didactic of art forms, the one that can bring us closest to God, has found new life by returning to its spiritual wellsprings. Nowhere has the effect been more dramatic than in countries that formerly laboured under the secular imperium of Communism and where now great religious music is being written by the likes of Arvo Part, Peteris Vasks and Valentin Sylvestrov. But the resurgence (or persistence) has spread far wider than that...
  The other day on Radio 3 I heard a beautiful psalm setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a young Icelandic composer whose name was new to me. I haven't been able to find that particular piece, but here is Thorvaldsdottir's simple but perfect setting of an Icelandic psalm – something to lift the spirits on this dark, wet Good Friday.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

'A slow singer'

R.S. Thomas, curmudgeon extraordinaire and one of our finest poets, would have been 105 today. His birthday is one that's always worth marking with a poem, and here's a seasonal one, at this time of year when the blackbirds are greeting the dawn and dusk more melodiously each day –

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark 
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Dockery and Son

On this day 55 years ago, Philip Larkin signed off on one of his relatively long poems, Dockery and Son. It is not, to put it mildly, one of his cheerier numbers, but a death-haunted affair  – Larkin, or rather his persona, even begins it 'death-suited' – and it relentlessly stresses his alienation from what most of us choose or have: family, home, companionable love. 'Visitant', 'ignored', he is even alienated from his own past. Doors are closed on him – 'the door of where I used to live', the tight-shut warped doors of 'what We think truest or most want to do'. He sees his life as the product of habit and choices made by 'something hidden from us', signifying nothing – 'Whether or not we use it, it goes', having brought with it 'age, and then the only end of age'. Sheesh, that's one potent miserabilist cocktail you've made there, Phil.
 And yet, somehow, Dockery and Son is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully made, with its simple rhyme scheme giving it shape and the mostly regular metre broken enough to make it entirely believable as interior monologue (enjambment galore helps the effect). There's nothing of the confessional splurge about this poem – there never is with Larkin; he is an artist, and he is always in control, working through a persona, however close that persona might be to the real-life Larkin in some respects (he was of course resolutely unmarried and family-free). Dockery and Son is a poised, well-wrought work of art, and that is what saves it, and makes it read as freshly today as when it was written.

‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’   
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with—’ Or remember how   
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight   
We used to stand before that desk, to give   
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?   
I try the door of where I used to live:

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.   
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,   
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows   
How much ... How little ... Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,   
And ate an awful pie, and walked along   
The platform to its end to see the ranged   
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,   
No house or land still seemed quite natural.   
Only a numbness registered the shock   
Of finding out how much had gone of life,   
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:   
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what   
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style   
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear   
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying   
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.   
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

Monday, 26 March 2018


Today is Housman-Frost day, the date on which both A.E. Housman (1859) and Robert Frost (1874) were born – two poets very different in their outlook but similar in their preference for simple poetic forms and (at least until Frost began to spread himself) brevity. Here are two spring poems - first Housman:

Spring Morning

Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter's pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

Easily the gentle air
Wafts the turning season on;
Things to comfort them are there,
Though 'tis true the best are gone.

Now the scorned unlucky lad
Rousing from his pillow gnawn
Mans his heart and deep and glad
Drinks the valiant air of dawn.

Half the night he longed to die,
Now are sown on hill and plain
Pleasures worth his while to try
Ere he longs to die again.

Blue the sky from east to west
Arches, and the world is wide,
Though the girl he loves the best
Rouses from another's side. 

This is Housman at his cheeriest, though inevitably undercut with darker notes (''tis true the best are gone', 'Half the night he longed to die'). The beauty of the spring morning just about wins out. 'Star and coronal and bell' is a lovely first line, and 'gnawn' makes a daring rhyme with 'dawn'.

And here is Robert Frost, for whom spring is, more simply, an occasion for prayer and thanksgiving:

A Prayer in Spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

The evocation of the darting hummingbird is particularly good: 'And off a blossom in mid air stands still' is a perfectly poised line, one that seems itself to stand still in mid air. 

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Gill Country

Yesterday I was walking on and below the South Downs with my walking friends – a rather gruelling circuit beginning and ending high up on Ditchling Beacon. It's a beautiful landscape: the Downs, with their big skies, wide views and rolling contours, still look very much as they do in the paintings of Ravilious, Nash and co; and the villages below are the stuff of picture-postcards. The churches are modest buildings that sit perfectly in the landscape. Their interiors are plain and contain little to catch the eye of a monument man (but one we visited, Clayton, has some truly astonishing twelfth-century wall paintings).
  As we walked from church to church, we noticed how many of the modern headstones in their graveyards bore decently, and more than decently, hand-carved inscriptions. It's a rare treat, in these days of machine lettering and incongruous black marble/granite, to come across hand-carved lettering on appropriate stone. Why was there such a pleasing concentration of good letter-carving here?
  The answer only occurred to me after I got back. I knew that Ditchling (where we lunched) was a place with artistic associations, but I couldn't think what they were. A moment's search online and I was reminded: it was at Ditchling that the great letter-carver, sculptor and print-maker Eric Gill [above] founded his first community of artists and craftsmen, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an idealistic enterprise modelled on the medieval guild system and founded in work, communal domestic life and Roman Catholic faith. According to its mission statement, it was a community of 'Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses'.
  'Men' was accurate enough – women were denied membership until 1972 – but Gill himself could hardly be described as a man 'rich in virtue'. Indeed, since the publication in 1989 of Fiona MacCarthy's revealing biography, Gill has been notorious for an untrammelled sexual appetite that extended to just about anything with a pulse. As a result he has become a popular focus of arguments about whether really bad people can create really good art, and how much our knowledge of its creator's vices should colour our judgment of a work of art. In my own opinion, the answer to the latter is 'as little as possible' – especially if the art is as impersonal and as far removed from direct self-expression as lettering. (It's harder, of course, to enjoy Gill's erotic prints in the knowledge of his incestuous and bestial habits.)
  Although Gill left his Guild to its own devices after a few years, it thrived without him, attracting a wide range of talented artists, writers, engravers, stone carvers, weavers, silversmiths, graphic designers and craftsmen and women of every kind. The Guild was dissolved in 1989, but its legacy lives on – not least in having kept alive the art of headstone lettering in this corner of Sussex.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Charlie and Judy and Ernest and Ivy

By way of light relief after the rigours of Molloy, I've been reading Roger Lewis's hugely enjoyable biography of Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey, a creature of unbounded gaiety and joie de vivre whose life somehow slid towards a sad and dismal end (in that strange coastal town, Deal). Lewis's footnotes alone are worth the cover price – e.g. this one on Kenneth Connor:

'What a pain in the arse he is. The only person I know who can abide Connor's going-to-pieces, swallowing-hard, nervous-wreck act is Jonathan Coe, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, What a Carve-Up! (1994). His The House of Sleep (1997) was filled with allusions to Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street set for which at Pinewood was used for exterior views of the Hawtrey character's boarding house in [Carry On at Your] Convenience. I await Coe's homage to The Shoes of the Fisherman, no doubt to be called Kiss My Ring!'

(In a later footnote, Lewis claims that Coe 'used to play the piano in a Lesbian pub called the Purple Passage in Welwyn Garden City'.)
  Hawtrey's stage career flourished in the age of the light revue, at which he excelled, particularly enjoying the ample opportunities for dressing up in female clothing – which he wore extraordinarily well – and even delivering the chanteuses' songs. A happy consequence of this was the show-stopping debut in wartime London of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, sung by Judy Campbell (Jane Birkin's mother) in the revue New Faces. Lewis quotes her memories of the occasion:

''Charlie was so good at my songs, I said, "Have them." He was much funnier than I'd have been, and he grabbed them. So he did the Vivandière's song, which was meant to be mine ("Vivandière, with a bottle of brandy on my derrière"); and that's how they got to give me Eric Maschwitz's "Nightingale" instead, which stopped the show in a most extraordinary way. You see – it was the early years of the war, when we thought we were losing. There was this incredible atmosphere of danger and uncertainty – and of excitement. The air raids were on. The show was constantly interrupted by bombs falling. The cast and the audience would sometimes be marooned in the theatre until two in the morning. We'd invite them up on the stage to dance with us. It's funny – up in the night sky, Hitler's bombers; down below, Charlie Hawtrey, with that beady face and huge specs, in a dress.'

  Among the names of the actors Hawtrey worked with at this time was one that rang a bell – Ernest Thesiger, with whom he performed in cod operettas and comedy sketches, often in drag. Was this the Ernest Thesiger who was for decades a stalwart friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett? It was indeed he, the man of whom Beverley Nichols declared that 'Nothing is more terrifying to me than the sight of Ernest Thesiger sitting under the lamplight doing his embroidery'. He was a keen and expert embroiderer who plied a very skilled needle – and there was indeed something oddly sinister about him, as became apparent when he played Dr Pretorius in his friend James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.
  Like Hawtrey, Ernest Thesiger (definitely not to be confused with his kinsman, the explorer Wilfred) was, in E.F. Benson's phrase, a 'not obtrusively masculine sort of person'. It was he who, on returning from the trenches of Flanders and being asked how it had been, made the immortal reply, 'My dear, the noise! And the people!' (Well, many say it was Thesiger, and it certainly sounds like him.)  Even in the trenches (whence he was sent home lightly wounded) he continued to ply his needle, as he would later do backstage and on set, and, in companionable silence, with Queen Mary herself. In 1941, he published a book titled Adventures in Embroidery (he also published an autobiography in which he oddly fails to mention his marriage or his wife – who was, in a common enough arrangement, the sister of a very special male friend).
  It's a shame Thesiger never secured Hawtrey an entrée to Ivy's exalted circle. They could have been joined by Charlie's fellow Carry On regular Joan Sims, who lived just round the corner, opposite T.S. Eliot. What a dinner party that might have been. Ivy might even have cracked open a second bottle of Cydrax.