Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Last?

This could be my last butterfly of the year – and a wonderful surprise it was. I was sauntering home from the shops when I spotted him, a fine Speckled Wood looking remarkably fresh and velvety, basking on the ivy. He wasn't exactly bursting with energy – well, it is mid-November – but he had enough to fly from one sunny spot to the next, settling each time with wings open to absorb the unseasonally warm sunshine.
  It's cheering to reflect that this beautiful butterfly – which in my boyhood was a summer flier, pretty much restricted to the the kind of sun-dappled woodland that so perfectly matches its wing markings – now turns up practically anywhere, and at almost any time of year. A good news story from the butterfly world.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Apsley

If you like, you can read my piece on the remarkable but easily overlooked Apsley House on the Pooky (fine lighting, etc) website. Here's the link...

'The tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby'

To my surprise, my recent post on Old Spice's bizarrely sweet Wolfthorn deodorant spray proved one of the most popular in a while, in terms of hits – perhaps Wolfthorn is big in Norway?
  I had no intention of returning to the subject, still less trying another of Old Spice's 'Wild Collection' range – but there I was the other day, scanning the shelves in vain for my preferred brand (Tabac), when I spotted another Old Spice fragrance (if that's the word), Hawkridge. I pondered a while, then what the heck, I thought, I'll chance it – even if it's vile, it might help my statistics. And it's nothing if not cheap.
  The Boots website, I subsequently discovered, goes into ecstasies over Hawkridge:
'When your body flesh is covered in Hawkridge Body Spray, there is nothing for women to do but smell the tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby and accept that science cannot explain the feeling in their hearts.'

 Lordy – is this stuff safe to wear? Is my 'body flesh' worthy of this irresistible potion?

   Then I came across a user review elsewhere which was frankly rather worrying: 

'The sweet and refreshing smell of coconut morphs into a dark, noxious, bitter mess that leaves me smelling like a stale piña colada.'
  Oh dear. Other reviews speak of 'strawberry donuts' and 'really sweet cherry cough syrup'. 
So, what was I in for – stale pina colada or tingly freedom? I raised a trepidatious arm and sprayed...
  And I have to report that what came out of the can was quite unexceptionable, and really, I must say, rather pleasant. I can't detect coconut in it, let alone strawberry or sweet cherry. Compared to Wolfthorn, Hawkridge is manly stuff indeed and pretty much what you'd expect of a modern Old Spice spin-off. It's a bit woody, a bit spicy, with a dash of citrus, and it seems to last very well – what more could a man ask? Sorry, ladies, science cannot explain that Hawkridge feeling in your hearts...

Monday, 12 November 2018

Jobations

Here's a word that was new to me – 'jobation'.
  I came across it in Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, which I'm reading in an edition that is heavily footnoted – but not with notes that are likely to tell you anything you don't already know. Rousseau? 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), major philosopher and writer.' Mrs Gaskell? 'Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), important novelist.' Who knew? But 'jobation'? The editor falls silent, forcing the reader – this one anyway – to reach for the dictionary.
  I'm glad I did. 'Jobation' is a fine and useful word which sadly seems to have fallen out of use. It means a lengthy and tedious reproof, lecture or harangue – the kind of thing Mrs Caudle delivered nightly to her errant husband in Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures. The origin is in the book of Job, in the lengthy and tedious reproofs dished out to the suffering Job by his various 'comforters'. Their lectures are then followed by a lengthy contribution from God himself, speaking from a whirlwind to remind Job that he is but a lowly worm by comparison with Him, the almighty, omnipotent and omnicapable God, who laid the foundations of the Earth and created, among many other fine things, the horse, who 'saith among the trumpets Ha, ha'. The jobation of all jobations, you might say.
 Young Edmund Gosse, a boy of nine, is on the receiving end of a 'jobation' from his father, for having the temerity to cry out when a fearsome-looking beetle crawls menacingly up his counterpane towards his face, while his father, beside the boy's bed, is fervently addressing God. Gosse writes:
'It is difficult for me to justify to myself the violent jobation which my Father gave me in consequence of my scream, except by attributing to him something of the human weakness of vanity. I cannot help thinking that he liked to hear himself speak to God in the presence of an admiring listener. He prayed with fervour and animation, in pure Johnsonian English, and I hope I am not undutiful if I add my impression that he was not displeased with the sound of his own devotions.'

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Thankful Villages and Angry Words

The other day I caught a programme on Radio 4 that was being broadcast from a 'Thankful Village' (Herodsfoot in Cornwall it was). The Thankful Villages – a term popularised by the indefatigable Arthur Mee (The King's England) – are those that lost none of their men who went to serve in the armed forces in the Kaiser War. There are fifty-odd of them in England Wales, and perhaps a third are 'doubly thankful', having lost no men in the Hitler War either.
  If these numbers seem low, reflecting the devastating impact of the Great War, they need to be kept in perspective. France suffered far greater losses, and one of the results is that the Republic has only one Thankful Village – Thierville in Upper Normandy, a village in the 'Norman Alps'. Remarkably, Thierville also suffered no losses in any other war, including the Hitler War and the Franco-Prussian. I passed through this village, all unknown, a couple of years ago, walking to nearby Le Bec Hellouin.


Today, amid all the ceremonies of Remembrance and the ubiquitous (subsidised) art installations marking the centenary of the 1918 armistice, I wonder if it might now be time so start rethinking the whole business. As, with the passage of years, Remembrance comes to have less and less to do with actual memory, would it not be better to honour the dead of the two world wars by focusing less on the 'fultility' of their sacrifice and paying more attention to what they thought they were sacrificing their lives for? In particular, should we not be cherishing and preserving the freedoms that we have been all too happy to surrender to dubious supranational entities, or fritter away in response to confected outrage and spurious offence? And, in general,  should we not be encouraging better, more honourable behaviour, better education, common decency? Surely that would do more to honour our war dead than any number of poppy cascades. If it's not too late...
I think of the angry words of Geoffrey Hill in The Triumph of Love

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
Battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off. Honour the young men
whose eager fate was to steer that droopy coque
against the Meuse bridgeheads. The Fairey
Swordfish had an ungainly frail strength,
cranking in at sea level, wheels whacked
by Channel spindrift. Ingratitude
still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.

By what right did Keyes, or my cousin's
Lancaster, or the trapped below-decks watch
of Peter's clangorous old destroyer-escort,
serve to enfranchise these strange children
pitiless in their ignorance and contempt?






Friday, 9 November 2018

A Very Good Haul

I don't want to give the impression that I spend all my waking hours scouring the bookshelves of charity shops, but this week, I must say, I've had a very good haul. A couple of days ago I picked up Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (Penguin Modern Classics, with extensive footnotes carefully restricted to things you already know). I'm now reading (technically rereading) this, with mingled pleasure and astonishment. An extraordinary book... And then I spotted The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – hardback, good as new, £2.99 – which of course I had to have.
Then today, on the £1 table at another charity shop, the irresistible volume pictured above (oddly enough, the first American edition) turned up, demanding to be bought and taken to a good home. The illustrations alone are a delight, let alone the poems. Supposedly 'for younger people' – but this was 1962 – it's a good selection from Betjeman's poems, divided into sections, each of which begins with a related passage from Summoned by Bells and an Ardizzone frontispiece. I guess the notes at the back are aimed at the 'younger readers' of 1962, but they are well written, often useful and interesting, unlike those in the Penguin Father and Son. 'Flannel dance' anyone? It's 'a dance where people went in informal clothes such as flannel trousers and blazers'. 'Ted'? 'Spread out for drying'. Lionel Edwards? 'An artist who specialised in sporting and hunting pictures with the rainy, grey skies of the English winter'. Good to know.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

How Studying Eng Lit Stopped Me Reading

Yesterday on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp wrote of how 'even dedicated readers tell horror stories about teachers who tried their damnedest to sour them on literature'. In Patrick's case, a teacher managed to turn reading Julius Caesar into 'an exercise in vivisection'. At school I had a similar experience with Henry IV, Part One, a play that became a torment to me, largely because I had difficulty sorting out who was who and what exactly was going on (I've always been weak on plot), and the teacher in question made a point of interrogating me relentlessly on precisely the things I didn't know. Happily his efforts did not put me off the play for life.
  Far worse, for me, was the effect of what is quaintly called the English Tripos at Cambridge. I arrived in the 'city of perspiring dreams' (copyright Frederic Raphael) a fresh-faced youngster in love with literature, and staggered out of the place three years later quite literally unable to read any substantial literature for pleasure or even profit. For about a year I read very little at all, and my appetite for reading only revived when I found myself working in a university library and my wanderings in the stacks left me in no doubt of the vast extent of my ignorance. It was time to start again...
 But what on earth had happened in those three dazed years at Cambridge (a question that applies to more than my literary studies)? What had managed so effectively to put me off literature altogether? I think it was partly the 'exercise in vivisection' aspect – so much probing of the text, so little genuine engagement with it. The work in question was not something to be appreciated on its own terms but a mere springboard for displays of intellectual gymnastics and contortionism, the more modish and far-fetched the better. I even had an early immersion in what I daresay was deconstructionist criticism, which made everything that much worse, and probably put the tin hat on the whole sorry business. Although I managed a decent degree (thanks in part to a gift for creative plagiarism – a very English thing, according to Peter Ackroyd's Albion), I left university thoroughly alienated from the thing I had loved, English literature. Thank heavens the effect was short lived.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Word Needed

In an essay on V.S. Pritchett (collected in Life Sentences), Joseph Epstein quotes Pritchett as saying, 'I have talent, but no genius.'
'This may well be true,' writes Epstein, 'but it has always seemed to me that the English language is deficient in not possessing a word that lies between the two; it would be a word that described how far talent, honed under the pressure of unrelenting hard work, can take one. The missing word would, I think, apply nicely to V.S. Pritchett.'
  It surely would, and it's a shame that no such word is available in English (is it in any language?). Pritchett, who admired and appreciated Chekhov so hugely, wrote short stories that were often decidedly Chekhovian, but the distance between the best of his stories and the best of Chekhov's is precisely that between the highest pitch of talent and genius.
  In painting, it's the distance between Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. In music, the distance between Telemann and Bach. In architecture, between Adam and Soane... A word would indeed be useful.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

A Glass of Blessings

I've been at the Barbara Pyms again – A Glass of Blessings this time, which I rate about the best of those that I've read. Philip Larkin thought it 'the subtlest of her books', in which 'the sparkle on first acquaintance has been succeeded by the deeper brilliance of established art'.
  Unusually for Pym, it's narrated in the first person, so we see events through the eyes of the gloriously named Wilmet Forsyth (her Christian name comes from a Charlotte M. Yonge novel). Wilmet is comfortably off, married to a slightly stodgy husband, childless and decidedly under-occupied. She observes the world with amused detachment, finding plenty of scope for amusement in the goings-on of her London parish – extremely high and ritualistic, with celibate clergy and a small army of officials and acolytes, assisted by another small army of 'excellent women', on the fringes of which Wilmet, feeling she ought to do something, finds some occupation and much comic material.
  As the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent (though not, of course, to her) that Wilmet has a way of missing the most obvious things – for example, that the object of her romantic crush (a very Pymian thing) is clearly gay. He's not the only gay character either: for an English novel published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is pretty relaxed about such things. Wilmet also fails to spot not one but two impending marriages, and that her husband is up to something. She also makes a wholly wrong assumption about the source of a romantically anonymous Christmas gift.
  Towards the end, the endearing Wilmet realises how much she's missed and got wrong – but with that realisation comes another: that perhaps her life has been, and is, rich in blessings. This sense of being blest is prompted by a friend whose life has taken a wholly unlooked-for turn for the better:
'Oh, Wilmet,' she exclaims, 'life is perfect now! I've everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it's like a glass of blessings. Life, I mean,' she smiled.
  'That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn't it?' I said.
                       'When  God at first made man,
                        Having a glass of blessings standing by...'
Then her friend's vicar husband chips in:
'But don't forget that other line ... how, when all the other blessings had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass. That's so very appropriate for a harassed suburban vicar. What an afternoon! I'm simply exhausted.'
  In Barbara Pym's world, everyone can be expected to have George Herbert at their fingertips. She's a great one for the seventeenth-century poets.
  Here is the poem they are quoting from, The Pulley (with its wonderful last verse)
When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.” 


Monday, 5 November 2018

A Touch of Gaudi in Knutsford

Strolling with my cousin around the very pleasant little town of Knutsford, Cheshire – yes, Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford, the original of Cranford – I suddenly came upon this extraordinary building. The tower with the curiously irregular top is the Gaskell Memorial Tower, and it's just one element in an architectural extravaganza that also includes what were originally the council offices and a coffee house, all together in one crazy, randomly fenestrated whole. The walls, of sandstone and Portland stone, are inscribed with what seem to be the names of every historic figure ever associated with Knutsford (and the titles of Mrs Gaskell's novels), and the Tower is decorated with a bust and a bronze relief of Mrs G. A second, lower tower, with a domed top, rises beside what was originally the King's Coffee House, designed to attract the locals away from the pubs.
  The building, completed in 1907, was the masterwork of a local amateur, Richard Harding Watt, with some architectural assistance. It is of course completely out of place in Knutsford  – as it would be anywhere – but it's great fun, in its blatantly incorrect, wholly 'tasteless' way, and parts of it are really rather attractive. It's probably as close to Gaudi as any building in England. Pevsner, unsurprisingly, was not impressed, remarking that 'any Fine Arts Commission now would veto such a monstrous desecration of a small and pleasant country town'. Not a great one for fun, Sir Nikolaus.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Off again

Above, as if you didn't know, are the Three Graces by the great Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, who was born on this day in 1757. I was recently admiring, if that's the word (rather than, say, laughing at), his gigantic nude statue of Napoleon, which was eventually presented to the Duke of Wellington, who installed it at the foot of the staircase in Apsley House. It looks very silly indeed.
  Tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels again for a few days. Pip pip.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

'This day is my Birth day'

On this day in 1818 – his 23rd birthday – John Keats finished a long letter he had been writing over the previous fortnight to his brother George and his wife Georgiana, who were living a precarious existence in America, trying to start a new life, and with a baby on the way. Meanwhile, Keats's other brother, Tom, was dying of consumption.
Keats's letter ends:

'I hope you will have a Son, and it is one of my first wishes to have him in my Arms – which I will do please God before he cuts one double tooth. Tom is rather more easy than he has been; but is still so nervous that I cannot speak to him of these Matters – indeed it is the care I have had to keep his Mind aloof from feelings too acute that has made this Letter so short [!] a one – I did not like to write before him a Letter he knew was to reach your hands – I cannot even now ask him for any Message – his heart speaks to you – Be as happy as you can. Think of me and for my sake be cheerful. Believe me my dear Brother and Sister
           Your anxious and affectionate Brother
                                                                   John.
   This day is my Birth day –
   All our friends have been anxious in their enquiries and all send their remembrances'

Two years later, Keats – whose unfailing consideration for others is one of the most conspicuous and attractive features of his Letters – was himself in the final stages of the consumption that was to kill him.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Birthday Girl

Here's a fact to make you feel old: Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane/ Starship fame) is 79 today.
She retired from the music business nearly thirty years ago, with the wise words, 'All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.' In a later interview, she expanded on this theme: 'You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you're 150, but rap and rock and roll are really ways for young people to get their anger out ... It's stilly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.' If only more ageing rock-and-rollers knew when to give up.
Here's Grace in her prime, giving it some at Woodstock...


Monday, 29 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon

The other day I dropped in on the British Library – well, I say dropped in, as if this were an everyday event, but, to my shame, I haven't set foot in the place for years. I'd quite forgotten what a vast and beautifully designed space the entrance hall is, rising to the full height of the building, with the King's Library enclosed in a smoked-glass tower at its centre. And the whole thing is greatly enhanced by a huge, brightly coloured tapestry of Kitaj's great Waste Land-inspired painting, If Not Not.
 I was at the BL to see the current exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, which seems to be doing very good business. It was interesting, but not exactly thrilling, being understandably heavy on books and manuscripts, a few of them spectacular but the rest much of a muchness to the untrained eye.
Still, it was good to see the famous 'Alfred jewel' (normally resident in the Ashmolean) and study some fine specimens of illumination. And the Lichfield Angel, well lit and displayed, looked terrific. The historical information was well presented and told the story of Anglo-Saxon England concisely and efficiently. But the main effect of the exhibition was to send me back to Geoffrey Hill's great Mercian Hymns...

'King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne....'

Sunday, 28 October 2018

'in his little orb'

Tiny though it is, this is surely one of the most touching and tender monuments in England. It is all the more heart-wrenching for its isolation, lying alone on a window sill in Ickenham church (Middlesex/ London Borough of Hillingdon), having been dug up in the churchyard in 1921. What was its original setting? Did it form part of a larger monument? There is no knowing now.
  The little figure, carved with perfect naturalism, shows Robert Clayton, his eyes closed in death, his shroud wrapped about him. The son of Sir Robert Clayton, an Alderman of the City of London, and his wife Martha, he 'dyed ye 16th August 1665, within a few howres of his birth...' The Claytons were probably in Ickenham to escape the plague.
  They have their own monument – a splendid piece of Dutch-flavoured Baroque (Sacheverell Sitwell calls it 'the finest monument of the Baroque in England')  – in Bletchingley church, in Surrey. The setting for the figures of Sir Robert and Lady Martha is theatrical, almost like a proscenium, but they stand four square and down to earth, with no exaggerated expressive gestures. And between them, at the centre of the monument, lies another little sculpture of their dead son Robert, this time not in his shroud but, more consolingly, in a fine lace-trimmed gown and bonnet. When the Betchingley monument was made, this son had been dead forty years and more – yet still his parents' grief for his loss was alive, and still they wanted to commemorate his few hours of life.
 Why do some historians like to persuade themselves that parents barely mourned their children in pre-modern times? Surely they did, but their mourning was perhaps unlike ours in being tempered by a lively faith in the blessings of heaven. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Jeremy Taylor in 1656: 'Sir – I am in some little disorder by reason of the death of a child of mine, a boy that lately made us very glad. But now he rejoices in his little orb; while we think, and sigh, and long to be as safe as he is.'

Friday, 26 October 2018

Whatever Happened?

On this day in 1953, Philip Larkin wrote (or signed off on) one of his more mysterious poems, 'Whatever Happened?'
At once whatever happened starts receding.
Panting, and back on board, we line the rail
With trousers ripped, light wallets, and lips bleeding.

Yes, gone, thank God! Remembering each detail
We toss for half the night, but find next day
All's kodak-distant. Easily, then (though pale),

'Perspective brings significance,' we say,
Unhooding our photometers, and, snap!
What can't be printed can be thrown away.

Later, it's just a latitude: the map
Points out how unavoidable it was:
'Such coastal bedding always means mishap.'

Curses? The dark? Struggling? Where's the source
Of these yarns now (except in nightmares, of course)?


The question mark in the tile is apt. Whatever could have happened to leave its victims (apparently all male) with ripped trousers, lightened wallets and bleeding lips? The references to photography suggest perhaps a shore visit on a pleasure cruise, gone horribly wrong, but 'coastal bedding' and 'mishap' suggest something closer to shipwreck (or is there a double meaning in 'bedding'?). 'What can't be printed can be thrown away' (placed at the turn of the sonnet) links photography and the writer's craft. It's a poem that won't be pinned down to any particular significations but hovers just beyond them – perhaps, as the closing line suggests, in the world of nightmares?
The tone is darkly comic, playing on the comedy of embarrassment (an English speciality). The form of the poem is interesting too – an English sonnet unusually divided into four aba triplets rather than three quatrains before the closing couplet. It's a fascinating oddity.



Thursday, 25 October 2018

Morris's Double Elegy

Towards the end of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris writes of the Nazis' brief annexation of Trieste:
'Their local newspaper, Deutsche Adria Zeitung, forecast that it would know splendid times again, revived by the "European idea", but in the event almost the only use the Germans found for the port was the transport of coal and bauxite up the coast from Istria...'
Always good to be reminded of the murky origins of that 'idea', still so precious to the grands fromages of the EU.

  But that's by the by. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is a lovely book, one that I enjoyed so much I was reading it more and more slowly towards the end to make it last that bit longer. Morris has written other brilliant books about cities before, but this one is special. Consciously written as her last book (in 2001), it is also a farewell, a poignant double elegy, a wistful look back over her own life as it has intersected with the life of Trieste, a city to which she kept returning, endlessly fascinated by its particular qualities.   
 Trieste for her evokes a feeling 'like our Welsh hiraeth, expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what'. It is a melancholy city – indeed 'melancholy is Trieste's chief rapture'. There is nothing obvious or iconic about it, it's not one of the world's great cities, it has seen better days (the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire), it has a confused history, a mixed ethnicity and no obvious nationality – and yet its elusive identity is potent and distinctive, and it can haunt the memory like no other city. As well as hiraeth, Morris detects in Trieste 'the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error' – and heaven knows that is good to find.
 I have only been in Trieste a couple of times, in the late Sixties / early Seventies, both times in transit. But I still remember something of the haunting quality of the place, and my specific memories are unusually sharp for that blurry time of my life – sitting a very long time over a single espresso in a grand imperial cafe; sleeping rough on the edge of the city having been turfed off the railway station steps; then another time on those same steps sitting down and memorising Yeats's Among Schoolchildren. I think I had the feeling, even then, that I would not forget Trieste.


Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Autumn: Maples, Rosemary, Haze

As the leaves fall from the maples, here's a seasonal beauty from Richard Wilbur, one of his more overtly religious poems, dense with Christian imagery...


October Maples, Portland
The leaves, though little time they have to live,Were never so unfallen as today,And seem to yield us through a rustled sieveThe very light from which time fell away.
A showered fire we thought forever lostRedeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street.
It is a light of maples, and will go;
But not before it washes eye and brain
With such a tincture, such a sanguine glow
As cannot fail to leave a lasting stain.
So Mary's laundered mantle (in the tale
Which, like all pretty tales, may still be true),
Spread on the rosemary-bush, so drenched the pale
Slight blooms in its irradiated hue,
They could not choose but to return in blue.

For myself, I'd have preferred this poem shorn of its last five lines. However, the legend of Mary and the rosemary also inspired a poem by Marianne Moore...

Rosemary

Beauty and Beauty's son and rosemary -
Venus and Love, her son, to speak plainly -
born of the sea supposedly,
at Christmas each, in company,
braids a garland of festivity.
    Not always rosemary -

since the flight to Egypt, blooming differently.
With lancelike leaf, green but silver underneath,
its flowers - white originally -
turned blue. The herb of memory,
imitating the blue robe of Mary,
    is not too legendary

to flower both as symbol and as pungency.
Springing from stones beside the sea,
the height of Christ when he was thirty-three,
it feeds on dew and to the bee
'hath a dumb language;' is in reality
    a kind of Christmas tree.

Only Marianne Moore could end up likening rosemary to a Christmas tree.
The words in quotation marks are from Sir Thomas More, a lover of rosemary: 'As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.'

Richard Wilbur also wrote one of the great autumn poems, a beautiful piece, full of longing for lost summer and spring yet to come...

In the Elegy Season
Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls':
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.
Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind
Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,
And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,
Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.





Monday, 22 October 2018

Food for Non-Tasters

Radio 4's dull-it-ain't food discussion programme The Kitchen Cabinet is one I tend to avoid, but I caught something interesting on this week's show. A scientist type was talking about 'super-tasters' – people with an exceptionally acute sense of taste – the less acute 'normals tasters' and the still less acute 'non-tasters'. What interested me was that, when tested, most chefs fall not into the 'super-taster' but into the 'non-taster' category.
  Suddenly I realised why so much restaurant food these days is seriously over-seasoned and over-flavoured, with too many powerful ingredients clashing with each other, sometimes with almost uneatable (to me) results. This kind of food, even when it works, is more like being punched than being pleased. Similarly I find that recipes from 'top chefs' (Tom Kerridge is a prime offender) often include at least one element (often more) so strongly flavoured that it's bound to drown everything else. Such recipes need to be closely examined and edited down to something properly balanced if you're trying them at home – unless you happen to be a non-taster.
  What we're getting offered, then, is the kind of food non-tasters need to tickle their deficient taste buds. I used to think it was just that so many chefs are heavy smokers – another sure-fire way of destroying taste – but clearly there's more to it.
  Why, though, should non-tasters, of all people, want to become chefs? Maybe it 's because ordinarily flavoured food tastes bland to them, so they start experimenting with spices and fiery sauces, chorizo and vinegar and the full range of blockbuster taste-killers, until they're concocting the kind of knock-'em-dead dishes so popular in high-end cookery. Maybe in due course the wheel of culinary fashion will turn back to more subtle, balanced flavouring. I do hope so.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Monument – and a Walk

A glorious autumn day yesterday (and another one today), so I was off into the country for a walk – one that would happily combine with a church visit. Taking the train to Ashurst in the Weald of Kent, I walked South and East and back over the Sussex border to Withyham, where the church of St Michael and All Angels houses the Sackville Chapel, in which stands one of the finest church monuments of its time.
 It commemorates Thomas Sackville, who died in 1675 at the age of 13, his father, who died two years later, and his mother.  The grieving parents kneel beside the chest tomb on which their dying son lies, their anguished faces turned towards him, their postures eloquently expressive of their grief. It's an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, very Baroque (Italian by way of Dutch Baroque) but with the inward, unself-conscious melancholy of monuments from an earlier time.
 While the figures on most Baroque monuments are thoroughly self-conscious, turning their pose and gaze outward to an imagined audience, in this one the grieving parents seem quite unaware of any presence but that on which they are so intensely focused – their dying son. This makes it a great rarity for its time, and a much greater and more moving work of art than many another carved and designed with equal skill. And skilful the Sackville monument is, the figures and clothing far more convincingly carved than the generically similar Ashburnham monument by John Bushnell (as written about elsewhere on this blog). The relief carvings on the sides of the tomb chest, showing the dead boy's siblings, are beautifully done too. It's impossible not to be reminded of Epiphanius Evesham's work, especially the Lewin monument at Otterden.
 The maker of the great Sackville monument was Caius Gabriel Cibber, a Danish sculptor who worked successfully in England (among other things, he carved the impressive relief at the base of the Monument in the City of London). He was paid £350 for the Withyham monument – not a huge sum for such an ambitious work – and full payment was apparently dependent on the finished work being to 'ye well liking of Mr Peter Lilly [Lely], his majesty's painter'. Presumably this proviso was to ensure that the likenesses of the parents – the Earl and Countess of Dorset – were satisfactory. Amazingly, considering the quality of the Sackville monument, Cibber seems never to have made another church monument. Perhaps this one was too far out of the ordinary run of English Baroque monuments of the time, too out of kilter with fashionable taste.
 And then I went to the pub – the Dorset Arms – for a little lunch, and walked back over the rolling, wooded hills of the Weald in glorious autumn sunshine. Wide views, enamel blue skies, the endlessly varied colours of the turning leaves and ripening hedgerow fruits... Is there anything better than walking in the English countryside on a sunny autumn day?

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Enjoying Albion

For a good many weeks now, I have been reading Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination – reading it off and on, a chapter here, a chapter there, then putting it aside for a while (it's a damn'd thick square book, not one to carry with you on your travels). Now I have finally reached the last page, I feel mildly bereft, as if a journey with a particularly agreeable and informative companion has come to an end. 
 A 'journey' – that overused word – is appropriate, I think, for Albion, but it's a journey of wanderings around a vast subject, most definitely not a systematic itinerary, leading from A to B. That vast subject is what it says on the tin – the origins of the English imagination – and Ackroyd traces them from their Anglo-Saxon beginnings through their expression in such various fields as art, architecture, music, history writing, translation, gardening, scholarship, portraiture, biography, decorative arts, antiquarianism, etc, etc, etc. Along the way he convincingly identifies a range of distinctively English traits: a gift for absorbing and transforming outside influences, a deep distrust of theories and systems, a particular strain of melancholy, a readiness to conflate history and fiction, a certain diffidence, a love of private space, a taste for decorated surfaces, again etc, etc, etc. This is a compendious book, if ever there was one, yet it opens out in all directions into other, endless possibilities and fields of inquiry – and no wonder, with such a vast subject. Reading it, I felt more than ever the absurdity of our official modern identity as 'British'. English identity is far stronger, far older, far deeper-rooted, far more real. Albion (though it doesn't have any such programme) leaves no doubt of that.
 It is not only a book about Englishness, it is an embodiment and demonstration of the very nature of Englishness, with all its (to some critical eyes) faults. As Ackroyd puts it in his introduction: 'If this book is diverse and various, digressive and heterogeneous, accumulative and eclectic, anecdotal and sensational, then the alert reader will come to realise that the author may not be entirely responsible.' No, Albion is.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Centenary Girl

An anniversary worth celebrating today – the centenary of the birth of Rita Hayworth, one of the loveliest and most talented stars to grace Hollywood. Fred Astaire, when pushed on the subject, acknowledged that she was his favourite dance partner, and they were certainly well matched in their cool artistry and professionalism.
 However, to watch, they are never as eye-poppingly, soul-stirringly, exultantly right as Fred and Ginger. Really Rita is too tall for Fred, and with her long limbs her dancing tends to be that little bit too big for him. She doesn't have that effervescent joie de vivre joie de danser - that was Ginger Rogers' trademark and that so perfectly set off Astaire's cool perfection. With Fred and Rita, the romantic element was never convincing, because it was always clear that he was absolutely not the type of man she would go for. As Joseph Epstein puts it in his book on Fred Astaire: 'Rita Hayworth needed ... to play off a man she could betray for high stakes; a dangerous man, tempestuous, someone possessive and violent, as likely to slap her around as to make steamy love to her. Fred Astaire did not meet this job description.'
 However, Fred made his brief screen partnership with Rita – just two movies – work beautifully, and Hayworth, looking back, said, 'I guess the only jewels of my life were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire.' Here they are dancing an ultra-elegant rumba to Cole Porter's So Near and Yet So Far in You'll Never Get Rich. It was the only time Fred let his partner lead. Enjoy the amazing 'armography' towards the end...

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The House in Paris

Undeterred by reading The Death of the Heart (nine years ago!), I have returned to Elizabeth Bowen, this time to read The House in Paris, partly because Susan Hill and others rate it as Bowen's best.
  I can see why; it's an extraordinary novel by any standards, one in which nothing happens (twice) and everything happens. The two outer sections of the novel trace the course of a day in which two children, Henrietta and Leopold, both in their different ways unwanted, both in transit, find themselves thrown together in the Parisian house of the imperious invalid Mme Fisher and her unmarried, unfulfilled daughter Naomi. Leopold's mother, whom he has never met, is supposedly coming to pick him up and take him to London with her, but the first section of the book ends with news that she is not coming after all.
 The novel then goes off on a great loop back into 'The Past' to give us some at least of the back story, with Leopold's mother, Karen, at the centre of things, along with Naomi and the man they both love. A tale of multiple betrayals, great and small, this section takes us up to the time when Karen finds herself pregnant with Leopold. After which it's back to 'The Present' for the resolution, such as it is, of Leopold's unhappy situation, and the departure of Henrietta to stay with her grandmother.
  The House in Paris is a dark, dense and knotty read, and has little good to say about humans and the things they do to each other – and yet it exerts a tenacious grip. Bowen's extraordinarily effective creation of atmosphere is achieved largely by cumulative means, by what Peter Ackroyd calls her 'munificence of detail'. Her long descriptive passages – especially in 'The Present', parts of which are set in County Cork and in Hythe – are luxuriant, intense, almost clotted. And they work; they do the job of building atmosphere, creating an unmistakable Bowen world, and lending a tremendous potency to those scenes in which the atmosphere-building stops, emotions break cover and secrets are spoken. Bowen's fictional world is not one in which you'd want to live, but it's a bracing experience to plunge into it from time to time, and emerge chastened, sadder but wiser, and with that bit more insight into some of the darker byways of the human heart.

Monday, 15 October 2018

'The referee has spoken'

I gather the BBC has a new editorial policy on reporting climate change.  A briefing note from the director of news and current affairs warns of the dangers of 'false balance' thus:
'Manmade climate change exists. If the science proves it we should report it. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.'
'Climate change IS happening ,' the note asserts, going on to warn against such 'common misconceptions' as that 'not all scientists think manmade climate change is real' and 'climate change has happened before'.
Both of those 'misconceptions', it seems to me, are rather closer to the statement 'Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday' than is the statement that 'Climate change IS happening'. Though that is, on the face of it, unexceptionable, as climate is never static, the implication is clearly that 'Catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' (memorably acronymised by Clive James as 'CACC') is happening. To assert that that kind of climate change 'IS happening' looks more like a statement of faith than one of scientific fact. For a start, it isn't even falsifiable, is it? 
What's more disturbing is that 'deniers' is now the BBC's default term for all those with any doubts about the story we're being told. People who used to be described, accurately, as 'sceptics' are now tacitly aligned with the swivel-eyed antisemites who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Even the amiable Roger Bolton, discussing the issue on Radio 4's Feedback, referred to sceptics throughout as 'deniers'. I guess that's going to be the new normal on the BBC now.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Street Preachers

A curious scene on my local high street this morning. Local Muslims had set up a 'Discover Islam' stall, with leaflets and banners, and right next to them was a very vocal group of evangelical Christians, taking it in turns to preach in a loud and forthright manner and break into impassioned Christian song, all on the same theme – that Jesus is not only the Lord but the only Lord.
 The Muslims, who were offering free tea and coffee, and even free Qurans in English translation (was this wise?), looked the other way and adopted stoical, not to say bored, poses. They were getting scarcely any takers – but neither were the Evangelicals, despite their energetic efforts to buttonhole passers-by. Everyone was far more intent on getting their shopping done than letting Jesus or Allah into their lives. There was no sign of Christian-Muslim animosity. It was all very polite and very English.
 Let's hope things stay that way long into the future.

Friday, 12 October 2018

So Many Memorials

Not all that long ago, Remembrance of our war dead was an annual ritual that looked to be gradually dying out as the years passed. How times have changed: now Remembrance is bigger than ever, with ceremonies thriving and proliferating, and so many memorials being unveiled that we are in danger of becoming, in Geoffrey Hill's words, 'a nation with so many memorials, but no memory'. With the teaching of our national history now seriously distorted by post-imperial guilt and political correctness, and actual knowledge of our past getting sketchier with each generation, how much of this modern Remembrance is more than fuzzy feel-good sentimentality, fed by an increasingly imperfect understanding of what actually happened and why? I must admit there's something about the whole business that makes me feel a little queasy.
  War memorials used to be places to which ex-(and serving) servicemen would gravitate annually – or not (many, perhaps most, abstained) – for acts of communal remembrance. Such superbly restrained monuments as the Cenotaph still are. However, the new memorials and places of remembrance are designed more as tourist destinations, visitor attractions, offering something for everyone. Which brings me to the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield – a tourist attraction if ever there was one, winner of Gold Large Visitor Attraction of the Year and Coach Friendly Attraction of the Year.  I visited for the first time yesterday, and enjoyed it very much, with some (you'll not be surprised to hear) reservations.

  It's a wonderful site – 150 acres of former gravel beds, now planted with something over 30,000 trees – and the overall design is well thought out. To combine an arboretum with a memorial site seems to me a rather brilliant idea. In time, I guess, the memorials will be found standing in woodland groves, seeming almost part of the landscape, and to walk around the site will be a rather different experience from what it is now, when the trees are young and low. The visitor centre is an attractive, low-lying building with a cloister and garden, and the hub of the site, the Armed Forces Memorial, built on a mound and crowned with an obelisk, is an excellent design. The outer curved walls, which have the same diameter as the dome of St Paul's, enclose inner walls and a large, eloquent space. The walls are covered with the carved names of all who have died in service since 1945, and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the sun sends a beam of light through a slit between the outer and inner walls and projects it onto a wreath at the centre. Taken as a whole, this is, I think, a fine memorial.
  The other memorials, however – and there are a quite astonishing number, so many that the place sometimes feels like a remembrance theme park – vary in quality considerably, and I can't honestly say that I found any one of them (perhaps because of the quantity) especially moving. Generally speaking, the more abstract monuments are the most effective – and that points to a big problem with the Memorial as a whole: the figure sculpture is simply not good enough. Even the figure groups inside the Armed Services Memorial – which are probably the best on offer – are rather unconvincing individually, though they are very effectively grouped [that's one above]. I get the impression (which may well be wholly unfair) that figure sculptors today do not put in enough time studying anatomy. Few of the figures I saw yesterday were as convincing, in that respect, as the most routine academic sculpture of the 19th century. Too many were awkward, lifeless, ill proportioned and crudely characterised – and they also looked, like so much public sculpture these days, as if they had been moulded in resin (though clearly this was not the case).
 But enough of my gripes. Overall, I think the National Memorial Arboretum is a fine enterprise, parts of which – especially the Armed Services Memorial – work very well. And, as the trees mature, it will become an increasingly attractive place to visit, stroll around – and, perhaps, remember.





Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Birthday Boy

Today is the 95th birthday of broadcasting legend and model of old-fashioned English charm and good manners, Nicholas Parsons. Born on this day – fittingly at the height of the cravat season – in 1923, Parsons has been celebrated on this blog more than once. On the first occasion, launching an occasional series (long defunct) of Cravat Heroes, I briefly outlined his remarkable career., or some of it. Since then, he has achieved the distinction of becoming the oldest 'intermittent broadcaster' on the BBC,  just ahead of David Attenborough. When Parsons recently took a couple of weeks off (his first ever) from Just A Minute, it seemed an ominous event and the listening world held its breath – but no, back he came in fine fettle, and he remains firmly in the chair.
  Parsons once snaffled the world record for the longest after-dinner speech from Gyles Brandreth, but he held it only briefly before Brandreth, typically, snatched it back, managing twelve and a half hours against Parsons' mere eleven. To spare us further pain, Parsons graciously conceded.
 I saw Nicholas Parsons on stage at least once, playing the straight man to Arthur Haynes, at the time (the early Sixties) the most famous and popular comedian in Britain. I remember little about it, but I'm sure he performed impeccably, as always.
 Happy birthday, Mr Parsons.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Aurelian Matters

I see Butterfly Conservation has managed to extract a bad news story from the most amazing butterfly season in years. Analysis of figures from the Big Butterfly Count shows a steep drop in Red Admiral numbers, and a less dramatic fall for the Small Tortoiseshell (though it seemed a pretty normal Tortoiseshell year for me). The strange shortage of Red Admirals – despite perfect weather conditions – was a conspicuous feature of the summer, but might just have been a one-off. Otherwise, as BC acknowledges, it was a bonanza summer for all the Whites and for Holly and Common Blues – and if the Big Butterfly Count had been conducted a few weeks earlier, it might have given a much more cheerful picture, as the butterfly season was running very early, thanks to all that hot, dry weather.
  For me (as I've mentioned here more than once) it was a quite glorious butterfly summer in terms of sheer abundance and variety, though it ended strangely early and abruptly (hardly any late fliers, despite the autumn sun). That may well be the picture that emerges when BC's wider-ranging figures (covering many more species than the Big Count) are analysed. Let's hope so, and that for once it will be hard for the media to find a Bad News story – though there are always the Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells.

Monday, 8 October 2018

A Change of Plan

Following a radical (and, frankly, inspired) change of plan, we never made it to Cognac, but instead turned West for Brittany – for Dinard specifically, where a hotel apparently had three single rooms available at a startlingly low price. Pausing only for oysters and Muscadet at a roadside huitrerie and a stroll around a headland known for its views, we made our way to Dinard, that old-fashioned, unspoilt, rather genteel resort that still has something of the flavour of its century-ago Anglo-French heyday. As did the hotel, which had more charm and character than any I've stayed at in years. That's the sitting room above, like something out of a Vuillard painting, and the breakfast verandah below, which commands a spectacular view across the bay to St Malo.
  There was nothing that could really be called walking, but we had a good look around St Malo – spectacular, if tourist-heavy – and the medieval walled town of Dinan, of which much the same could be said. Our peregrinations ended with a night at another hotel (equally good but quite different) near Fontevraud, where we dutifully inspected the Abbey, a building of great historical and antiquarian importance, but sadly lacking in atmosphere, let alone anything remotely numinous. Over the centuries, French restorers have done it over with typical Gallic thoroughness, leaving it stripped and scraped and depatinated, little more now than a prodigious barn. The 'interpretation' too is notably bad, telling you little you need or want to know and much you don't, and at one point featuring a creepy hologram of an actor pretending to be a medieval monk. The Abbey does, however, contain effigies of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Coeur de Lion and Isabella of Angouleme, all of whom were buried there. Standing in the middle of the bare nave, they might as well be in a museum...
  The more I see of France, the more grateful I am for England's extraordinary wealth of parish churches. Leaving aside the abysmal architectural quality of so many small-town churches in France (and the habit, all too common in Catholic countries, of filling them with even worse furnishings and art), there is also the problem of what has been done over the centuries to even the more historic churches, many of which, like Fontevraux, survive as little more than impressive empty spaces, 'restored' to within an inch of their lives. This is partly the result of France's unfortunate history of religious upheavals, iconoclasm, political revolution and secularisation.  A church that has suffered the full French Revolutionary treatment is never going to be the same again. Nor, alas, is a church that has suffered the full French 'restoration' treatment, which so often amounts to a ruthless stripping down and/or an almost total reconstruction in a style deemed 'appropriate'. Even at their harshest and most programmatic, our English church restorers have seldom had such a destructive, deadening effect.
 But the French still have better hotels than us...







Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Gallivanting Again

Pausing only to mark the birthday of that interesting painter Pierre Bonnard ( born on this day in 1867), I depart on my travels yet again today. This time, I'm gallivanting off to France, to the Cognac region, for a few days' walking. After that, I think I'll be done with foreign travel for the rest of the year. A bientot, amis.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Wolf? Thorn?

In my boyhood and youth, gentleman's fragrances were thin on the ground. Apart from the (rather nice) Imperial Leather aftershave my father used, one brand had the field pretty much to itself – Old Spice, which turned up without fail every Christmas (often, oddly, in the form of talcum powder). It had a distinctive, pungent aroma that harmonised all too well with the smell of male sweat – a smell that was very widespread in those days of once-or-twice-a-week bathing and no showers except after organised sports.
 The effective monopoly of Old Spice ended, at least for the youngsters, with the coming of Brut, that industrial-strength eye-stinger rumoured to be packed with male pheromones. I must confess I fell under the spell of this stuff for a while – I was young, m'lud, and knew no better; the Penhaligon years were far in the future...  Since those days of youthful folly, I have never taken so much as a sniff of Brut – I'd rather not dip that olfactory madeleine, who knows what forgotten horrors it might resurrect? But Brut, after long years out of fashion, does appear to be back – I see it everywhere, and flinch.
 Also back, and also everywhere now, is Old Spice. The other day, having run out of Tabac (the finest deodorant spray available to man, apart perhaps from the hard-to-find Caractere), I noticed a range of revived Old Spice products lined up in Boot's and thought I'd try one of the deodorant sprays (which, I must say, were startlingly cheap). So I went for one called Wolfthorn, looking forward to a blast of retro manliness. I mean – Wolfthorn! If ever a name smacked of the rugged outdoor life, of man at his manliest pitted against nature at its wildest, surely this was it. I bought one, took it home, lifted an arm and pressed...
 What emerged from this ultravirile spray container was a haze of something so intensely sweet and fruity it could have been rendered down from several tons of Opal Fruits. I had never smelt anything like it – yet it was weirdly evocative, not of anything to do with manhood or male fragrances but of the sweetshops of yore. It was like plunging your head into one of those big old-fashioned sweet jars that had lately been filled with all the most pungent items in the shop. Happily the initial blast soon wears off, and what lingers is not actually unpleasant. It's also surprisingly effective, over many hours. According to online comment from members of the Old Spice community, women tend to find the smell of Wolfthorn very agreeable. So maybe that's what it is – a man's deodorant for women, cleverly disguised as a deodorant that only the manliest of red-blooded males could handle. Well, I'll finish the canister I've got, but I don't think I'll be back for more.

Monday, 1 October 2018

'A master of the middle range'

'She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the feminine curves of absolute maturity. Anna had been a woman since seventeen, and was now on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. She wore a plain, home-made light frock checked with brown and edge with brown velvet, thin cotton gloves of cream colour, and a broad straw hat like her sister's. Her grave face, owing to the prominence of the cheekbones and the width of the jaw, had a slight angularity; the lips were thin, the brown eyes rather large, the eyebrows level, the nose fine and delicate; the ears could scarcely be seen for the dark brown hair which was brushed diagonally across the temples, leaving the forehead only a pale triangle. It seemed a face for the cloister, austere in contour, fervent in expression, the severity of it mollified by that resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment.'

Well, having recently been reading rather a lot of marginal or out-of-the-way fiction, I thought I'd immerse myself in a proper, well-made, old-fashioned, brass-and-mahogany novel – and the above is the kind of writing you're likely to get in that kind of work. It's the first (and weirdly exhaustive) description of the heroine in Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns (1902), which I have just finished reading.
  Happily, such passages are few and far between in Anna, which is quite a short novel (under 200 pages). Bennett does occasionally apostrophise the reader or offer airy generalisations, but his bravura descriptive passages more than earn their keep, vividly evoking the Potteries towns of Staffordshire as they were around the turn of the last century. At the centre of the novel is, of course, Anna, a character drawn with great subtlety and finesse, and her desperately unhappy relationship with her father, a pathological miser who seems to delight in inflicting mental cruelty on the sensitive Anna. Such is Bennett's skill in bringing the character of Anna to life that it is impossible not to be drawn into her story and to suffer (and occasionally rejoice) with her. As the playing out of the narrative is equally skilful, this turns out to be an engrossing, emotionally involving page-turner.
  Bennett described Anna of the Five Towns as 'a sermon against parental tyranny' – something he had experienced himself in his early life. But it is less a sermon than an exploration of the effects of such tyranny on a particular sensibility, the movements of which are traced with a sometimes almost Jamesian delicacy and precision. The world in which Bennett places Anna is a small, narrow one, dominated to what today seems an extraordinary extent by the Methodist church in its various manifestations. Bennett's focus is accordingly narrow and closely attentive to the telling detail.
The novel is not without weaknesses, especially in the characterisation – the male lead, the man who falls in love with Anna, is notably thinly drawn – but, reading it, you can appreciate John Gross's generous judgment of Bennett (in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters):
'If one wanted to explain to a ghost what it felt like to be alive – on the whole, by and large – Bennett is the English novelist one would turn to first. He is a master of the middle range, almost unsurpassed at showing how everything goes on as usual and nothing remains the same.'
  Bennett, a blatantly commercial writer who made no bones about his love of money and luxury, courted the distaste of daintier sensibilities – especially Bloomsbury ones – throughout his career, and towards the end deserved some of the contempt that came his way. He remains deeply unfashionable and somehow suspect, but the best of his novels remain in print – and, on the evidence of Anna, clearly deserve to. I fancy I'm going to be reading more.


Sunday, 30 September 2018

'The very last of late September...'

As September comes to an end, here's a seasonal poem by John Betjeman. For me, it chimes particularly well with a year in which I've spent far too much time cocooned in aeroplanes at an inhuman height. A beautifully managed Petrarchan sonnet with a perfect turn, I think it's one of Betjeman's best...


Back from Australia

Cocooned in Time, at this inhuman height,
The packaged food tastes neutrally of clay,
We never seem to catch the running day
But travel on in everlasting night
With all the chic accoutrements of flight:
Lotions and essences in neat array
And yet another plastic cup and tray.
"Thank you so much. Oh no, I'm quite all right".

At home in Cornwall hurrying autumn skies
Leave Bray Hill barren, Stepper jutting bare,
And hold the moon above the sea-wet sand.
The very last of late September dies
In frosty silence and the hills declare
How vast the sky is, looked at from the land.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Pickles Latest

Five years on from Picklefest – an event I reported on here – I was delighted to learn that Pickles, the canine hero who found the stolen World Cup, has now been honoured with a plaque, attached to a tree at the spot where he found the 'not very World Cuppy' trophy in 1966.
 One Adam Thoroughgood of East Dulwich was moved to order the plaque while watching the last World Cup on TV back in June. 'It seemed like the right thing to do, with football coming home and all that,' he recalls. 'It only arrived this month.' (The plaque, that is – not football.) And now it is in place, on a tree on Beulah Hill, South Norwood.
 Poor Pickles died just a year after his brush with fame. While chasing a cat, he got his choke chain caught on a tree branch, with fatal results. 'Finding out how he died a year later was tragic,' says Mr Thoroughgood. 'It was a short life, but a worthy one.'
 Pickles's collar is on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester. As for the Jules Rimet trophy, following the 1966 theft a replica was made in base metal for publicity use. Then FIFA, in a moment of madness, presented the original to Brazil in perpetuity after the 1970 World Cup. In 1983 it was stolen from the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation. Alas, there was no Brazilian Pickles to come to the rescue, and the trophy is still missing.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

'A very great lover'

Today I was down in deepest Sussex, on a mission to see a monument – this extraordinary piece of work, by the wayward John Bushnell, maker of the Fulham monument. It commemorates Jane, wife of William Ashburnham, and carries a touching epitaph which tells how William, 'coming from beyond sea, where he was bred a soldier, married her and after lived almost five and forty yeares most happily with her, for 'she was a very great lover'. The monument is suitably packed with emotion – William watches, grief-stricken, as a putto crowns his dying wife with a heavenly wreath – but, alas, it's rather clumsily expressed and unconvincingly carved. Bushnell didn't know enough anatomy to get the figures quite right and make them properly inhabit their robes. But, boy, he certainly went for the High Baroque emotion and drama, and, drawing on his continental experience, he gave England something the like of which it had never seen before.
  It's a terrific, audacious design, and in more competent hands it would be a great monument. As it is, it actually packs less of an emotional punch than Epiphanius Evesham's Teynham monument of half a century earlier. But it's a fascinating piece  – a failure perhaps, but a glorious failure.
  And, as I walked up the path to the church (St Peter, Ashburnham), a pale female Clouded Yellow flew down and settled briefly on the churchyard grass. My only one this year, and a fitting finale (if finale it is) to an extraordinary butterfly season.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Venice 3: And Yet...

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


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


and a glorious Judgment of Paris by Botticelli.


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

Venice 2: The Death of Venice?

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