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It was unpublished in his lifetime, and some think it unfinished, but it works perfectly well as it stands.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.