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...

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist. 1.

Auberon Waugh, whose diaries I was enjoying recently, was also, for some years, a novelist, publishing five titles before abandoning the form in 1972, ostensibly in disgust at the fact that authors at that time received no money at all from public library loans of their titles (which in those days could run into huge numbers). Perhaps he was also tacitly recognising that he could never escape the shadow of his father's achievements as a novelist and that comparisons were always (and rightly) going to be to Evelyn's advantage. But what were Bron's novels like? I know I read them at the time, but have only the blurriest memories, so I thought I'd have another look, beginning with the first, The Foxglove Saga (1960 – long out of print but easily available from online bookshops).
  The title is misleading, as it's no saga. What it is is an accomplished, often very funny comic novel that at times is well worthy of comparison with Waugh pere's works. Beginning with a wry account of backbiting and petty rivalries among the monastic brothers at a Catholic monastery-cum-public school, it gradually introduces a group of pupils who are to be the central characters in the story that unfolds. Among them is Martin Foxglove, beautiful and charming son of the widely adored and apparently saintly Lady Foxglove. Oddly he does not remain at the centre of the unfolding action, most of which revolves around his school friends and their various misadventures. There is also, early on, a brilliantly managed comedy of confusion involving the elderly and ailing Brother Thomas's stay in an NHS hospital – which he is thoroughly enjoying until the do-gooding Lady Foxglove gets busy...
  The most prominent among Martin Foxglove's old school friends are the hapless Stoat and the reckless O'Connor, whose paths – and sometimes Martin's – repeatedly overlap as life takes them from school to an Army training camp, and into the murky world of trading in stolen goods from a Petticoat Lane stall (with a deeply dodgy character who styles himself Joseba da Farratoga). Again and again, Waugh sets up and executes brilliant comic set pieces involving these three and various authority figures and walk-on characters. Misunderstandings, confusion and crossed signals abound, and there are many laugh-aloud scenes and moments (which is a great deal more than you can say about many supposedly comic novels).
  Up to somewhere near the end, The Foxglove Saga is a joy to read. Then, I think, something goes wrong with the tone, and the latent cruelty in Waugh's (both Waughs') comedy comes too near the surface, in the shape of a monstrous baby, born to Dooley, a hospital doctor turned blackmailing biographer, and his ex-nurse wife, Herring. The farcical climax of the novel reads more like Tom Sharpe than either Waugh, and really doesn't work (at least for me). And then Waugh (A.) rounds things off with a thumbnail sketch of what happens next, over a good many years, to each of the major characters. This is seldom a good idea, especially in a comic novel.
  So, a novel full of promise, which for much of its length is brilliantly achieved and very funny, fails to carry through to the end. Never mind – the best bits are truly comparable to Waugh pere at his funniest, and suggest a great comic novelist in the making.  Bron, incredibly, was only twenty when he wrote this one. What happened next? Well, three years later, he published a second novel, Path of Dalliance. I have a copy, and am going to read it. I'll be reporting back...

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Top Marx

I've had this little book for years, and am very fond of it (it's an excellent selection, as well as being a pleasure to handle), but it wasn't until I dropped in on the Enid Marx exhibition at the House of Illustration on Granary Square that I realised the cover design is one of hers. Marx, best known for her classic London Underground textiles, also, among many other things, designed the jackets for Chatto & Windus's Zodiac Books and Phoenix Library (and many another book, including several King Penguins).
  One of the prodigiously talented Royal College of Art generation that included Ravilious and Bawden, she was versatile and prolific as well as gifted. Rather amazingly, at the RCA, Sir Frank Short banned her from his wood engraving classes on the grounds that she couldn't draw, but Ravilious used to let her in to the studio after hours to engrave with him. Marx worked all her long life as painter, printmaker, textile designer and anything else that came her way. She even designed stamps, including a set for Christmas 1976 based on Opus Anglicanum embroideries. All her work has the vigour, exuberance and strong sense of pattern so characteristic of her generation, and she was especially fascinated by animals and fish and by English folk art (she co-created the Batsford volume on English Popular Art). This small but wide-ranging exhibition, full of delightful things, exudes a very English kind of good cheer, and is more than likely to leave you with a smile on your face.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

'I Say!'

Born on this day in 1911 was Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, who changed his name to Terry-Thomas and built a glittering career as a comic actor, playing the archetypal upper-class English cad or bounder. He was, like many actors of his time (e.g. Charles Hawtrey), his own creation, having entirely reinvented himself, name and all. Born to a lower-middle-class family – his father was a merchant at Smithfield meat market – he soon began the process of turning himself into 'Terry-Thomas', beginning by imitating all the posh actors and comedians he saw or heard, and adopting the dandyish style that he was to develop to a high, almost absurd pitch (Beau Brummel would not have approved of his excesses). After his parents had managed to send him to a minor public school for a few years, he made his debut in the world of work at Smithfield, dressed in a taupe double-breasted suit with carnation buttonhole, olive-green pork-pie hat and yellow gloves, and flourishing a long cigarette holder and silver-topped malacca cane. He did not last long at Smithfield, believe it or not, and was soon making his way in show business, becoming, by the Fifties, a star of the silver and the small screens, of cabaret and the comedy circuit.
  One of his stranger film roles was in the dire John Boulting version of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. Terry-Thomas was wildly miscast as Bertrand Welch, the most odious and pretentious character in the novel. Amis notes in his memoirs that 'the hash he made of the part was so comic that the result was a large net gain'. The author took an immediate liking to T-T, whom he found to be just the same off-screen as on, and with whom, of course, he shared an avid interest in drinking and womanising. On an epic pub crawl in Edinburgh, they got on like a house on fire.
 And here's a curious footnote. In 1960, when T-T was playing the Liverpool Empire, a prized cigarette holder, decorated with 42 diamonds, disappeared from his changing room, much to his chagrin. The police investigated, and found 40 of the diamonds inside a roll of carpet in the home of a 20-year-old unemployed would-be comedian called James Joseph Tarbuck. Yes, that one – Jimmy Tarbuck (who pleaded guilty and was given two years' probation).

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Golden Booker

Now that it's become humid and oppressive – and even hotter – this heat has made all physical and mental effort something of a challenge. However, my sluggish brain has registered a few blurry impressions of the larger world. Today I learnt that Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient has won the Golden Booker, having been voted (by 'the public') the best Booker winner in the prize's 50-year history – or, rather, voted the best of the five nominees, one from each decade, chosen by the illustrious judges.
  Well, something had to win, and it could have been worse (The Bone People, anyone?), but I remember reading The English Patient at the time, on the fervent recommendation of a friend, and finding it, for the most part, hard going and quite uninvolving, though a good many passages seemed rather brilliant. It is certainly a representative Booker-winning novel, a loose baggy monster with a wide sweep, big ambitions and a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-everything mise-en-scène.
  To his credit, Ondaatje modestly – and surely accurately – declared on winning the award:
'Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list, especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul [In a Free State], one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall. I suspect and know more than anyone that perhaps The English Patient is still cloudy, with errors in pacing.' He also acknowledged that the big Oscar-winning movie of his novel 'probably had something to do with the result of this vote', and went out of his way to praise some of the fine authors who never won the Booker, naming William Trevor, Alice Munro and Barbara Pym. Good for him. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Seriously Imposing

Today my researches took me to St Peter's, Titchfield, down in Hampshire, to marvel at the grand – not to say grandiose – monument to two Earls of Southampton, Thomas and Henry Wriothseley, and Thomas's wife, Lady Jane. That's a view of part of it above, seen through a doorway from the chancel. The whole thing, made by the Dutchman Garret (or Gerard) Johnson, is seriously imposing, occupying most of the South chapel of the church. At each corner stands an obelisk of all things, modelled on the famous red granite obelisk in Rome, and the tomb is on three levels, with Lady Jane, surprisingly, lying above her husband (Thomas) and son (Henry). There are extravagant displays of heraldry – achievements, coats of arms and heraldic beasts – all over the monument, and four kneelers, children of Henry, in pairs on the long sides of the tomb chest. One of them, kneeling to the right of the picture above, was another Henry, the Third Earl of Southampton, who was a major patron of the young Shakespeare, among other poets. He was the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and has been widely identified as the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.
  His grandfather Thomas, the First Earl, by contrast, put all his energies into advancing his career, unhindered by any scruples, in the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI, until he finally fell from grace, losing the office of Chancellor and his place on the Privy Council. In the course of a deplorable career, Thomas, despite his supposed Catholic faith, played a big part in the dissolution of the monasteries and profited hugely from his endeavours. Along the way, he personally tortured the supposed heretic Anne Askew in the Tower of London, turning the wheel of the rack with his colleague Richard Rich – yes, the same Rich who is memorialised in one of Epiphanius Evesham's greatest monuments.
  On the Titchfield monument, Thomas lies in his Garter robes, bland and blameless, his hands together in prayer – but this is a generic image. In real life, Thomas, though slim and handsome in his youth, became, like the King he served with such zeal, fat and bloated – so fat that, at the time of his death, a horse could not be found strong enough to bear his body. No man, or woman, is fat on their monument – at least, not until post-Restoration times, when true likenesses came into fashion and a gentleman was expected to look well fed and a little corpulent.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Larkin's Magician

Yesterday I caught a curious Radio 4 programme called I Was Philip Larkin's Magician – a rather misleading title, suggesting a retainer employed to provide entertainment at the glittering court of the poetic potentate. In fact the chap being interviewed was an eminent biochemist, Edwin Alfred Dawes, who is also an accomplished conjuror. He got to know Larkin when he arrived at Hull university to set up a Biochemistry department and went to see the university librarian (our Phil) about setting up a departmental library. Larkin was having none of that, but the two became good friends, and Dawes in due course became chairman of the library committee. And the poet was, we were told, greatly amused by Dawes's conjuring tricks. In the programme, the Professor demonstrated a few of his best ones to the interviewer, who was also impressed, though it remains true that magic on radio does not make for radio magic.
  There wasn't very much about Larkin really, and the discreet Dawes had no revelations. However, we were treated to a few of Larkin's better known poems (including the inevitable This Be the Verse, suitably bleeped) and excerpts therefrom, all read by the poet. As for Dawes, he went on to develop a successful biodegradable polymer that could be used to make disposable plastic items. It didn't catch on at the time, but is, unsurprisingly, attracting renewed interest now. Dawes also holds a Magic Circle gold medal, and is chairman of the Philip Larkin Society.
  Well, it was a nice programme, very Radio 4 in the best sense (one that, alas, is more about what Radio 4 once was than what it is now).

Monday, 2 July 2018

A One-Off

I've been reading a very strange, but hugely enjoyable, book by Antal Szerb, a Hungarian writer who was recommended to me by an unfailingly reliable source. He is best known – inasmuch as he's known at all over here – for his novel Journey by Moonlight, which I intend to read very soon, but I decided to start with his first, The Pendragon Legend (first published in 1934 and reissued in 2006, newly translated, by the excellent Pushkin Press).
  The Pendragon Legend is best described as a romp – but a romp like no other I've ever come across. This is a Hungarian writer throwing himself full tilt at a very British kind of action adventure, mixing into his particular blend elements of supernatural thriller, romantic fiction, murder mystery, gothic horror, modern psychoanalysis, ancient alchemy and historical memoir – all of which are lightly parodied and satirised. As are the curious ways of the English and Welsh upper classes, observed with bemused wonder by the Hungarian narrator, who is himself presented as a kind of parody of the stereotype fiery Hungarian, with his weakness for adventure and romance (and indeed sex, of which there is a surprising amount, though all of it is discreetly presented).
  The novel was the product of a year spent in England, much of it in the reading room of the British Museum, where the learned Szerb was researching for his compendious histories of English and of world Literature. He was also pursuing a keen interest in Rosicrucianism, alchemy and the occult, and he puts his knowledge of those fields to good, but far from serious, use in The Pendragon Legend, much of which involves spooky goings-on in a castle whose previous occupants included a pioneering alchemist who, it seems, might have discovered the secret of eternal life.
  It's an introduction to the Earl of Gwynedd, a descendant of the great alchemist, that plunges our hero, Dr Janos Batky, into the headlong thrills-and-spills adventure that then unfolds, at dizzying speed. Eagerly accepting an invitation to the Earl's Welsh seat, Blatky immediately encounters some very rum goings-on, and some pretty rum people, as the spicy goulash of a plot thickens at an alarming rate. Soon, without quite realising it, Blatky is in way over his head...
  The Pendragon Legend is surely the least Hungarian of Hungarian novels, and it's impossible to think of any parallel. Perhaps there's something of the dashing tone of the young William Gerhardie (Futility), but no further resemblance. As a read, it's a highly entertaining page-turner, whose preposterous plot is strangely compelling, probably because of the unexpected sidelights, jokes and insights that keep popping up among the nonsense. There's a decidedly modern, ironic – and, of course, Hungarian – sensibility in evidence amid all the Gothic set pieces. Journey by Moonlight is, by all accounts, an entirely different kettle of fish, much deeper and darker. I look forward to reading it.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Peter Firmin

Sad news today that Peter Firmin, the surviving half of the greatest creative pairing in children's television, has died. Sixty years ago, with Oliver Postgate, a kindred spirit, he set to work in his barn in Blean, Kent, lovingly creating a string of utterly original, joyous, characterful and enduring classics – Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Pogles' Wood (as well as, with Ivan Owen, co--creating Basil Brush). Firmin was also a fine illustrator and print-maker. RIP one of the greats.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Sheer Abundance

Sorry to return so soon to the subject of butterflies – but really this has been a quite amazing summer, an object lesson in the dramatic impact of a good long spell of sunshine and real warmth on the butterfly population. Barely a month ago, the situation was not looking good, despite signs of promise. The terrible early spring weather seemed to have left a lasting mark on the early fliers. Now, however, things could hardly look more different. I haven't seen such sheer abundance in years – sometimes it's hard to believe this is England.
 Last week I returned to Mitcham Common and was immediately rewarded, several times, with close-up views of purple hairstreaks, and having got my eye in, I realised that many of the oaks on the common were alive with these little beauties, flying about the tree-tops in such numbers as I've only seen once before in my life. And there were many more purple hairstreaks in the oak trees on Bookham Common yesterday when I led my walking friends (whose interests lie chiefly in old buildings) on a butterfly walk. Silver-washed fritillaries and white admirals were flying in huge numbers, to spectacular effect, and all that was lacking was an encounter with the purple emperor. He, however, was settled somewhere in the treetops, with no intention of showing himself, even on such a gloriously sunny day. Ah well, you can never count on the emperor.

Talking of butterflies, here's an addendum to my recent post, Seventh Worst Butterfly Year. Last year's figures – reported, inevitably, as a tale of dramatic declne – showed that several species, including common blue, white-letter hairstreak, orange-tip, pearl-bordered fritillary and wood white, had increased in numbers, in some cases dramatically,  year on year. And over the long term (i.e. since 1976) 22 species (over forty percent of UK butterflies) have actually become more abundant. That is hardly a picture of unrelieved doom and gloom – and, if this weather continues, next year's figures should paint a much more hopeful picture. They might even be presented as a good news story – can such things be?

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Eight Miles to Breakfast

On this day 200 years ago, John Keats, on a walking tour of Northern parts with his friend Charles Brown, wrote a letter to his brother George (whom he had left, with his wife Georgiana, at Liverpool, where they took ship for America). 'I have slept,' he began, 'and walked eight miles to breakfast at Keswick on derwent water  – We could not mount Helvellyn for the mist so gave it up with hopes of Skiddaw which we shall try tomorrow if it be fine – today we shall walk round Derwent water and in our way see the falls of Low-dore...'
  Eight miles to breakfast! Keats, like most of the Romantics, was a serious walker. The stereotype of the Romantic poet as a kind of Fotherington-Thomas ('Hullo clouds hullo sky') wandering vaguely through the fields in a state of abstracted rapture could hardly be less appropriate. These people were heroic walkers as a matter of routine, thinking nothing of 20 miles a day and more – and Keats was no exception, as he showed day after day on his 1818 walking tour. Speaking as one who, in his younger days, would sometimes walk 20 miles or more, I can confirm that it's no joke, and to do it day after day would have been a major challenge. For someone of Keats's height – barely five feet – it would have been even more so, and yet he took is all in his surely rather short stride (his legs must have been a blur), and still had energy left over to write substantial letters to his family and friends. He was – until his health failed – as tough physically as he was mentally.
  In the course of this letter to George, Keats drops in a charming little lyric:

Sweet sweet is the greetings of eyes,
And sweet is the voice in its greeting,
When Adieux have grown old and goodbyes
Fade away when old time is retreating –

Warm the nerve of a welcoming hand
And earnest a Kiss on the Brow,
When we meet over sea and o'er Land
Where furrows are new to the Plough.

  (Has anyone ever set that to music?)
  Keats then jokes about the sheer volume of his letter-writing: 'We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one who you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadilloes die away – I mean to say that the Booksellers will rather decline printing ten folio volumes of Correspondence printed as close as the Apostles creed in a Watch paper...'
 Keats had to end his walking tour prematurely when he caught a particularly bad 'cold'. Returning to Hampstead in August, he found his brother Tom seriously ill with tuberculosis. Keats nursed him tirelessly until his death in December. Barely two years later, John Keats would himself be dead from the same terrible disease.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Dangerous Moonlight, Black Air and Marginalia

At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime by A. Roger Ekirch had been languishing on my bookshelves for some while, largely because it's such a damn'd thick, square book. But then, the other day, it occurred to me that if ever there was a book for bedside reading, this was it.
  I haven't got far into it yet, but am enjoying its wide-ranging and, er, illuminating treatment of its subject – the nighttime world of our pre-industrial ancestors. I was reading the other night about the fearful power attributed to the moon, which could so disorder the 'moistures' in a person's body as to turn them into 'moonstruck' lunatics, or even strike them dead. 'The moon,' writes Ekrich, 'also impregnated the night air with pestilential damps, widely deemed an even graver menace to human health. Darkness signified more than the temporary absence of light. According to popular cosmology, night actually fell each evening with the descent of noxious vapours from the sky.... Some individuals described themselves 'within night', as if enveloped my a mammoth black cloud.'
  This sounded familiar... Of course – the philosopher de Selby (known only from commentaries on his works) in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman had rather similar ideas about the nature of nighttime. Darkness, he declared, was 'simply an accretion of "black air", i.e. a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye, and also to certain "regrettable" industrial activities'. As for sleep, that was 'simply a succession of fainting fits brought about by semi-asphyxiation' caused by the 'black air' of nighttime. As various of de Selby's commentators point out, there are one or two problems with this theory – not least that darkness can be instantly dispelled by striking a match or turning on a light. De Selby's answer to this was that 'black air' was 'highly combustible, enormous masses of it being instantly consumed by the smallest flame, even an electrical luminance isolated in a vacuum'. However, his strenuous efforts to bottle 'black air' in containers of black glass or opaque porcelain seem to have come to nothing. The commentator Bassett took de Selby's 'black air' theory as 'final proof that the great brain was out of gear'. A few centuries earlier, he might have been taken more seriously.

As for my daytime reading, this has been devoted largely to a novel of which I'll be writing later. My copy is amusingly embellished with pencil-written annotations by a tireless Welsh pedant whose self-appointed mission is, it seems, to correct all Anglicised Welsh names back into their unsullied original forms. He also finds time to correct any perceived errors of fact. How very thoughtful of him.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Dignified or Efficient?

The great brouhaha occasioned by the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service has been hard to avoid – and, for me, equally hard to understand. Is there really that much to celebrate about an over-managed, producer-led health service that is excellent in some areas, terrible in others, and overall (certainly in world terms) second-rate? Why is it so widely loved and cherished, to the point where any attempt to reform it, rather than hosing it with ever larger sums of taxpayers' money, is fiercely resisted?
  Well, here's one way of looking at it. In his famous essay on The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot distinguishes between the constitution's 'dignified' and 'efficient' elements. 'Dignified' (or 'theatrical') institutions 'impress the many', exciting reverence and awe and creating loyalty and national cohesion (the supreme example is the Monarchy). 'Efficient' institutions unglamorously get on with the necessary work that keeps the wheels of national life turning smoothly. Now, a health service, however constituted, surely belongs in the 'efficient' category – it's there simply to handle our healthcare needs as best it can – but somehow 'our NHS' has ended up among the 'dignified' institutions. It is indeed, as Nigel Lawson once observed, 'the closest thing the English have to a  religion'.
  What's more, it seems to have been 'dignified' from the moment of its birth. Perhaps this was understandable in the immediate postwar years, when there was a widespread belief that central control could achieve great things, and there was a strong urge to build a 'New Jerusalem' in a nation bound together as never before by the experience of total war – and victory. It was also undeniable that the prewar system of healthcare was very far from satisfactory, and had stored up all manner of problems and huge pent-up demand. In those particular circumstances, it's understandable that the new health service might have seemed such an obviously good thing (though the doctors certainly didn't see it that way) and such a focus for hope and national unity that it belonged among the 'dignified' institutions. But seventy years on? Surely by now we should be able to look levelly at the NHS and see it as just another way of running healthcare, and by no means (at least in terms of outcomes) the best? Or would that be, in another of Bagehot's phrases, 'to let daylight in upon magic'?
 Still, it could have been worse if  Bevan had had his way, nationalising GPs' practices and turning the GPs into salaried employees of the state (the doctors won that battle). And we can be relieved that the Attlee government didn't adopt a similar approach to something even more essential to life than healthcare – food. If it had done, we may be sure that we'd have been living ever since with food shortages, rationing, little or no choice, and a bloated bureaucracy lurching from one food crisis to the next, while siphoning up ever more of our money.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

White Letter Day Again

A belated Father's Day outing, this sunny Sunday, with my favourite son and favourite granddaughter (I have only one of each, so no favouritism) was full of delights – and among them was a glorious profusion of butterflies. Marbled whites, ringlets, meadow browns and skippers were everywhere, flying in such numbers as I've rarely seen since the butterfly-rich days of my youth. It just goes to show what wonders a sustained spell of dry sunny weather at this time of year can work, even after such a late and shaky start as this butterfly season had. What's more, we spotted what looked very much like a dark green fritillary flying, fast and straight, overhead – and a little later, by way of a grand climax, a white-letter hairstreak flew down and posed briefly on a leaf, its wings neatly folded to show their beautiful markings. This happened just yards from my last encounter with this oh so elusive species. Truly a magical day.

Thursday, 21 June 2018


It's the summer solstice today (here in the Northern hemisphere) – and, as it happens, a glorious sunny morning. Radio 4 is celebrating with poems new and old scattered through the day's schedules. Just before 9, I was startled to hear Shakespeare's Sonnet XCIV being read:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

A great poem, of course, but hardly redolent of midsummer, I think?
I wonder if this much more summery sonnet, by Richard Wilbur, will make it onto Radio 4...

Praise in Summer

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour's in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The last shape of things

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

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

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

Monday, 18 June 2018


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

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Here Lies What Was Mortal

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

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Shriver Stirs It Up

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

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

An Unlikely Debut

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Poundworld: The Solution

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

Monday, 11 June 2018

Among the Happy

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

Thursday, 7 June 2018


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

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


A piece I wrote about the eye-popping Osterley House (pimp my pad, Mr Adam, and pimp it good) is on the website of Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. Here's the link –

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

'At last overcome'

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

Monday, 4 June 2018

Woof Woof

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

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

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Wisdom of Cooke

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

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

Friday, 1 June 2018

Ivy in the New Age

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

Thursday, 31 May 2018


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

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A Thousand Voices

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

Monday, 28 May 2018


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

Saturday, 26 May 2018

His Foot

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

Friday, 25 May 2018

Ten Years

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

Thursday, 24 May 2018

What Is Wrong with This Picture?

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

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Cornet Geary Ambushed

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

Mouse News

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

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

Monday, 21 May 2018

Buried Twice: Ronald Firbank

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

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Roger Moore's One Wish

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

Saturday, 19 May 2018

First Thoughts

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

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Where Are the Swifts?

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

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Crying all the way to the bank

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

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


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

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Pym Again

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