Tuesday, 16 July 2019


Even before hearing from a fellow graveyard aficionado (see comment under previous post), I was pondering why it is that I am so drawn to these places. Leaving aside historical, biographical or (sometimes) aesthetic interest, what is the nature of the pleasure that I get from walking around cemeteries and churchyards? It occurred to me today that I find the experience consoling.
  It is consoling and somehow reassuring, I find, to be surrounded by numbers of the dead from former times, a small battalion of that great army that will always outnumber us*. The world of the living, in this perspective, seems merely the point at the tip of an iceberg – or, perhaps, the narrow neck of an immense hourglass (aeonglass) through which the army of the yet to be born passes on its way to join the army of the dead. Such reflections might lead some to conclude that life is futile and our individual lives are as nothing, but for me it tends to concentrate the sense of wonder that life, as we experience it, should be of such infinite significance, to lend it an even sharper brilliance against the great unknowable darkness ahead and behind and all around. A populous graveyard puts us in our place, reminding us how fleeting – and how precious – life is. That is a reminder we cannot have too often.
  Leaving aside all that, though, there are also incidental pleasures to be had from strolling in graveyards, one of which is that increasingly they are being allowed to turn at least partly wild, with the result that more native flowers bloom and more insects – in particular more butterflies – are attracted. So it was that this morning I set out for Brookwood, the vast cemetery occupying many acres of heathland near the western border of Surrey. As well as enjoying a revisit, I was hoping to see two species in particular – the lovely little Silver-Studded Blue and the once common, but now very hard to find, Grayling. On a patch of heathland adjacent to the cemetery, I had soon spotted the former – a female, rather than the radiantly blue male – and thought I might be lucky and see a good many more, but in fact that was it for the Silver-Studded Blue; it is, after all, quite late in their season.
 Graylings, however, were flying in abundance – and they were the first I had seen in years. In my boyhood, this butterfly (the only one to share its name with a fish, fact fans) was a common sight on any kind of rough stony grassland, but, for a variety of reasons, it has since then become very much scarcer, particularly inland. But here they were, dozens of them, all around me, flying in their distinctive, slightly crazy way and suddenly dropping to the ground, folding their wings and tilting them at an angle from the vertical. I had forgotten how enchanting these butterflies are, and how beautifully marked are their underwings (which is all you normally see of them, so reluctant are they to spread their wings). As they flew around me and settled almost at my feet – they seemed strangely drawn to my white chinos (another argument, if any were needed, against wearing shorts) – it was like being back in my earliest butterfly days, down by the sea at Kingsdown, where Graylings were among the first butterflies I learned to recognise. In more ways than one, cemeteries take you travelling in time.

* I believe mathematicians have calculated that the population of the earth would have to reach something like 30 billion before we came near to parity with the dead.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Other Philip Larkin

When the 18-year-old Larkin came across this gravestone in St Michael's churchyard in Lichfield, he was understandably perturbed. Indeed, as he wrote to a friend with more than a little teenage hyperbole, 'I reeled away conscious of a desire to vomit into a homburg hat'.
  He needn't have been that surprised, as the grave of the other Philip Larkin was in the Larkin family plot, where the poet was later to inter both his parents, his father in 1944, his mother in 1977. This is their grave (below).

  When his mother's ashes were interred, the Rector told Larkin that this would be the last burial in the old churchyard, which would now be 'handed over to the Council to be "landscaped" into a vandals' playground, or some such nonsense. I expect I shan't see all the old Larkin graves again ... as they will all be levelled and the stones taken away.' He notes (in a letter to Barbara Pym) that he won't be sorry to see the other Philip Larkin's stone taken away.
  Like many of Larkin's darker prognostics, his vision of what would happen to St Michael's churchyard was wide of the mark. The Larkin graves are still there – I saw and photographed them yesterday on a trip to Lichfield – and, rather than a vandals' playground, the churchyard (one of the largest in England) is being well maintained as a carefully managed combination of well-kempt graveyard and nature reserve, with wildflower patches and areas of woodland.
  Lichfield is one of my favourite cathedral cities, with little of the olde worlde tweeness and blatant tourist-baiting that mar some of them. It helps that it's largely a brick-built town, with a sandstone cathedral – no seductive honey-coloured stone here. It has a sensible, real-world feel – but the three-spired cathedral, its close, the large ancient ponds and the fine Georgian buildings create a very beautiful ensemble. And, of course, it's the city where Samuel Johnson was born and spent his early years (the Johnson house is open to the public and well worth a look).
  Johnson's parents, like Larkin's, are buried at St Michael's  (along with his brother Nathaniel) – but inside the church. Dr Johnson paid his last visit to Lichfield in the autumn of 1784 and, on his return to London, composed a long Latin epitaph for his parents, to be inscribed on a memorial tablet and placed in the nave floor above the family vault.

He sent money and detailed instructions for the memorial and begged 'that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive'. He died a fortnight later, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Larkin's remains are in the municipal cemetery at Cottingham, outside Hull, under a stone saying only 'Philip Larkin, poet'.

Friday, 12 July 2019

'Sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'

Johnson's life of Thomas Gray (which I was looking at today) is decidedly cool in tone; there was a natural, and mutual, antipathy between the two men. However, in his estimate of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Johnson is generous and, I think, sound, in particular and in general.
'In the character of his Elegy,' writes Johnson, 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning "Yet even these bones" are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.'
  Quite so. These are the stanzas...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, 
         This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd, 
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, 
         Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind? 

On some fond breast the parting soul relies, 
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, 
         Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires. 

And Johnson is surely right to conclude that 'the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice' is the ultimate arbiter of 'poetical honours'. Which makes you wonder how many poets of the twentieth century had such appeal, convincing the reader that his lines reflect the things the reader has always him(her)self felt – Kipling of course, and later Betjeman, none of the modernists except maybe sometimes Eliot... maybe sometimes Auden and Yeats, even Larkin once in a while? But the century produced nothing with such strong and enduring appeal as Gray's Elegy. Or did it?

Thursday, 11 July 2019

My Friends, It Was a...

Yes, it was a Purple Hairstreak, and I really wasn't expecting it so early in the month, but it was a wonderful thing to see. I was on Mitcham Common this morning, and there it was, settled on a leaf of the first oak I came across as I arrived on the common proper. It posed helpfully, just above my eye level, showing first its beautiful underwing and then a flash of upperwing with its telltale flush of purple. I didn't see another; I think it was a precursor of abundance to come.
  The common was gloriously alive with butterflies, mostly those grassland species that have come surging back after taking a bit of a knock last year when the extreme heat scorched the grasses – this year the grass is tall and lush. I was vaguely hoping that I might see a White-Letter Hairstreak, as Mitcham Common is supposed to be one of its hangouts, but in my wanderings I didn't even come across a single elm tree – the White-Letter's food plant and living space – let alone a representative of this elusive species. I think it's one of those butterflies that you'll never find if you go looking for it, but you might come across by chance in some unlikely place. If you're lucky. Meanwhile that unexpected Purple was delight enough.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

RIP Torn

Sorry to hear today that the brilliant actor Rip Torn has died. I think it's fair to say that he did well to make it to the age of 88, all things considered. I've written here before about Torn – the man who mistook a bank for his house – and his surprising casting as Walt Whitman, but for me he will for ever be Artie, the maniacal producer on The Larry Sanders Show. Here are some of Artie's finest moments – and if you stick with this video you'll also get the best of Hank Kingsley (the great Jeffrey Tambor). Enjoy...

Tuesday, 9 July 2019


Heaven knows television has little to offer these days, especially on the main terrestrial channels – but there's always Talking Pictures TV. This is the ultimate retroprogressive TV channel, offering a diet of old movies, mostly from before the Seventies, and old TV, with an emphasis on detective dramas and what the French call policiers. And then there are the documentaries, one of which – Our Weekends in 1949 – I've just been watching.
  This was the year in which I was born, into a world that now seems in many ways as remote as some distant past. The documentary is filled with English faces such as you no longer see, and voices such as you no longer hear. The clothes, the cars, the smoking, the awful teeth, the lean angular bodies, all are of another age – but so, most conspicuously, is the whole feel of the cheerful, sane, commonsensical England depicted in the film. These 1949 weekenders are English people going about their leisure activities – hiking, cycling, boating, playing cricket on the village green, picnicking at the lido, bell ringing, playing bowls and skittles, drinking in pubs that open at 6 and close at 10.30 after a jolly singsong (Me and My Gal). They are English people being, quite unselfconsciously, English, part of a single, amiable, cohesive nation, united perhaps as never before by the recently ended war. It looked like another world, and being reminded of it – and of the fact that it existed in my lifetime – was, among other things, intensely sad.

Monday, 8 July 2019

First Person

A word of warning to anyone planning to travel North on Virgin Trains any time soon (as I've just done).  If you venture into the on-train WC, you will be greeted, out of the blue, by a talking toilet, introducing itself, loud and clear, in the voice of a young Welsh woman. 'Hello,' it begins, 'this is your toilet speaking.' Actually I couldn't swear those were the precise words – I was rather too startled by this turn of events to be taking notes. The voice then goes on to explain, with a chuckle, that it's not actually the toilet speaking (No!!), but a Welsh girl who won a competition for the honour of being, er, the voice of a toilet. What the toilet has to say is that it does not want various items thrown down it – as it happens, the very items listed on the notice above the pan. But the message is so much more persuasive coming from a talking toilet, no? The first person is everything these days. And everywhere.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

We ♥ Europe

In yesterday's Daily Mail (I only buy it for the TV listings, honest – though they're not what they were), I noticed a quickfire Q&A with our Prime Minister in waiting, Boris Johnson. To judge by some of the answers, I don't think he was taking it altogether seriously...

Favourite Movie? Dodgeball.
Favourite Movie Scene? The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.
Favourite Poem? The Iliad.
Secret for Losing Weight? Eat less.
Political Hero, apart from Churchill? Pericles.
What Can He Cook? Fish pie (once, delicious but took a long time).
Message for new EU Commissioner Ursula Van Der Leyen? We  Europe.
Classical Hero? Odysseus.

The Iliad, Pericles, Odysseus... He's got my vote – or he would have if I was a member of the Conservative Party.

Saturday, 6 July 2019


Regular readers will know how much I enjoy the little exhibitions mounted in the National Gallery's Room 1 (to the left of the main stairs) – so much preferable to the blockbusters (especially if they're in the basement galleries). The latest exhibition in Room 1 is a gem, showcasing the Spanish 15th-century master Bartolomeo Bermejo.
  Little is known for sure about this extraordinary painter, and few of his works survive (around 20 in total). Seven of them have been assembled for the National Gallery's exhibition, four of which are a set, so the focus is on three large paintings, each of which is a masterpiece – the National's own Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil, the star of the show (and all the brighter after a year of restoration), the Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat from Alessandria in Italy, and Bermejo's last documented work, the newly restored Despla Pieta from Barcelona, which has never before left Spain.
  These are all stunning pieces of work, real jaw-droppers (as are the set of four, come to that), displaying complete mastery of the oil glaze technique perfected by the Flemish masters, a brilliant use of colour and exquisite rendition of textures and materials and the play of light on them, as well as fine naturalistic portraiture in the Flemish style, vivid background landscapes and minutely observed wild flowers. Each painting invites long, close attention, and repays it in sheer aesthetic delight – and amazement that any Spanish artist of the 15th century could have painted like this. Do go and see it if you get a chance – it's on till the end of September.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Reading Group Notes

I've just finished rereading J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (having reread Troubles shortly before my retirement). The Siege was every bit as good as I remember from my first reading, and, if anything, even funnier. It has all the virtues of Farrell at his best – the brilliant organisation of narrative and character, the unfailing light touch, the humour, the cool but indulgent eye for absurdity and self-delusion – and it adds up to at least as great an achievement as Troubles. As a review of the time said, 'For a novel to be witty is one thing, to tell a good story is another, to be serious is yet another, but to be all three together is surely enough to make it a masterpiece' – and, for a wonder, The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973.
 The edition I read, a Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, comes complete with several pages of Reading Group Notes, including a couple of brief synopses which get no further than the opening pages (as far as reading group members are likely to read?) – and a peculiarly deadening list of points For Discussion, e.g.

'One cannot change something that is sacred.' How does the Padre's view fit with nineteenth-century Britain?

What does the author feel about bureaucracy? How does he demonstrate his feelings?

'A people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.' This is how the author ends the novel – what do you understand by his conclusion? How does it apply to modern society?

How indeed? And are these really the kind of questions they discuss in reading groups? Not if Mrs N's experience of such groups is anything to go by...
  As for me, I can't wait to reread The Singapore Grip.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Man of Property

A few pages on, Larkin is in that garden. Writing to Robert Conquest (recipient of some of his more unbuttoned letters), he grumbles about the May bank holiday weekend:
'I've spent it slaving away in my sodding garden, mowing and scratching up weeds, or what I take to be weeds. Anything that looks bright and positive I take to be a weed. Of course, I know dandelions and groundsel, but I'm not so good on Lesser Willow Herb and Old Man's Knee and Old Man's Old Man and suchlike. Then I sat on a cushion in the sun and drank two Guinness and finished an Agatha Christie. The Man of Property.'

(sounds like a character in Henry James)

For some while now the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin – all 700-plus pages of it – has been my intermittent bedtime reading. I'm now past the 500-page mark and still, somehow, enjoying the exercise. Some of the letters are eminently skippable – especially the business ones, in which Larkin shows a terrier-like tenacity in extracting the best possible terms from publishers (and why not?) – but most are very readable, revealing and often enjoyable. Larkin is too good a writer to compose a truly dull sentence, and, despite every sign of reluctance and tardiness, he's a natural letter writer, fitting his style to his correspondent, showing tenderness and sensitivity where it's required and foul-mouthed blokiness where that is what's called for. What's best – and unlike so many other writers' letters – is that these are often very funny.
 Larkin's comedy (often at its best in asides) sits alongside, and is closely related to, his determination to present his life – the life of a very successful poet and university librarian – as a miserable succession of barely endurable woes. A letter of February 1974 to Judy Egerton (recipient of some of the most tender and considerate letters) demonstrates both the comedy and the love of grumbling. He is moving house  – did ever a man have to endure such a thing? – from Pearson Park to Newland Park (both in Hull, of course):

'Well, at any rate it isn't the bungalow on the bypass. But I can't say it's the kind of dwelling that is eloquent of the nobility of the human spirit. It has a huge garden – not a lovely wilderness (though it soon will be) – a long strip between wire fences – oh god oh god – I am 'taking over' the vendor's Qualcast (sounds like a character in Henry James). I don't know when I shall get in ... I hope before the bloody garden starts growing. So Larkin's Pearson Park Period ends, & his Newland Park Period begins...'

He's right – Qualcast, or even Vendors Qualcast, does sound like a character in Henry James.
 That Qualcast is to become literature's most famous lawnmower, the one that inspired one of Larkin's finest late poems, The Mower. (His other great mowing poem, Cut Grass, was written in Larkin's pre-Qualcast Period.)

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

 And now the Qualcast, preserved for posterity, is in the exhaustive Larkin archives at Hull, along with everything from his house – from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, knickers, ties, knitted rabbits, his father's statuette of Hitler... A poet's life.

Monday, 1 July 2019


A new month, and today my late mother would have turned 98 – and golden age film star Olivia de Havilland, amazingly, is 103 and still with us. That's her above, not my mother. Also birthdaying today is Deborah Harry, who turns 74 but would probably not thank you for the reminder.
I am in Derbyshire again, where my brain seems to have turned to mush, probably as a result of a long and strangely exhausting walk yesterday. Hugely enjoyable though, wonderful countryside – and the Painted Ladies are flying here too. Definitely a Painted Lady summer.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Samuel Beckett, Style Icon

I've always admired Samuel Beckett's style, in every sense of the word and every department of life, but I've only just discovered that in the early Seventies he used to sport an 'iconic' Gucci hobo bag as his all-purpose manbag. In this picture, he's wearing it well, with a rugged sweater and corduroy trousers, and looking very sharp indeed as he examines his dark glasses.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

A Painted Lady Summer?

It's beginning to look as if this might be a bit of a Painted Lady summer. Not on the scale of the legendary summer of 2009, when an estimated billion Painted Ladies swept the land (as far north as St Kilda) and it was almost impossible to go anywhere, even in central London, without seeing them. A glorious sight they were, too...  This year I saw my first Painted Lady on Saturday, and since then have seen eight individuals – which might not sound like much, but in several recent years I have only seen one in the whole season. There were several to be seen on Ashtead common yesterday, where (on a warm but cloudy afternoon) I also saw my first White Admirals of the year – always a high spot for me.
  As it happens, the Painted Lady graces the cover of the Summer edition of Butterfly magazine, which also includes a rare good news story, reporting on last year's amazing summer. 'Heatwave  hastens butterfly recovery,' says the headline – but, alas, you don't have to read too far down to hit the less good news (statistically 2018 only ranked 18th best summer in the 43-year series) and the bad news (grassland species well down – though they'll surely be recovering this year, after all the rain we've had). Anyway, wherever you are, keep your eyes peeled for Painted Ladies...

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Eyvind Earle

I came across this striking image – reminiscent of a Paul Nash landscape, but in a different register – by chance, while doodling about on the internet. It's by an artist I'd never heard of, called Eyvind Earle. With a name like that, I was hoping he'd be a Norwegian (Nigeness is still weirdly popular in Norway), but it turns out he was an American artist and illustrator (1916-2000), who, for his sins, did a lot of work for Disney, creating backgrounds and styling the look of animated features such as Sleeping Beauty (where the backgrounds are indeed preferable to the stuff going on in the foreground). Happily he devoted his last thirty years or so to full-time painting. Here's another of his sharply lit, long-shadowed landscapes.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

On an Overgrown Path

Yesterday I had the agreeable task of taking a sunny walk in the Surrey countryside, under the Hog's Back, to check whether a route I had planned for next month's outing with my walking friends was feasible.
  It all started so well. Things were going according to plan and the timings and distances were working out just fine – until I strayed into the grounds of a certain Elizabethan stately home. I knew the house was closed for a wedding, but I had cheerfully assumed I could skirt its immediate purlieus and unobtrusively make my way out of the grounds by a reasonable route. Alas, I had reckoned without the stringent demands of the modern country house wedding, which apparently involve banning even innocent solitary walkers of blameless character from every part of the grounds. A woman who looked (a) official and (b) like trouble strode purposefully up to me and told me in no uncertain terms that I must return immediately to the public footpath and vacate the estate. This I duly did, feeling a little sore, but confident that the walk would continue as smoothly as it had begun.
  My mistake was, a little later, to take to a public footpath elsewhere on the estate, some way distant from the house. This, according to the map, skirted a couple of fields before joining another footpath that led to the road I was aiming for – simples. The path began as something well maintained and walkable, but I was not very far advanced into the first field when things changed, and very much for the worse. These fields were planted with oilseed rape, an odious crop which, once it has formed its pods, tends to fall over in heaps, creating dense mats of vegetation several feet deep. When it has been planted to the edge of the field, where it joins equally matted growths of bramble, goosegrass and nettles, the result is terrain that is effectively unwalkable. The only way to get through, I found, was to disentangle the rape plants to the point where they could be pushed down low enough – just –to be stamped down, and so proceed one painful and exhausting step at a time, with the goosegrass and brambles forming lassos around my feet and trying to pull off my boots at every opportunity, and the nettles stinging every exposed part of me. It took me an hour to fight my way along two sides of the first field and to enter the second, hoping against hope for better going.
  It was not to be. After a precious few yards of maintained path, I was once again wading painfully slowly through the familiar jungle growth of oilseed rape, bramble and goosegrass. To make matters worse, I could see a clear and walkable field just the other side of the spinney that skirted the field I was in. Unfortunately a deep ditch lay between that field and my personal hell. At one point I became so desperate that I bashed my way through the spinney and swung myself down on a tree branch into the ditch, which had only a little water in it. My plan was to climb up the opposite bank and into the clear – but alas, the other side was completely overgrown with stinging nettles as far as the eye could see. I hauled myself back onto the ill-fated route and waded on, breast-high amid the alien rape, fighting the temptation to sit down with my head in my hands and just give up. After another ten minutes or so of ever more laboured progress (I was becoming worn out by now, as well as having grave doubts about whether I was anywhere near my intended route), an amazing sight appeared to my left – a perfectly maintained stile leading, like the gateway to paradise, onto a clear, wide footpath that led to the road I wanted to be on. I gave thanks to the Lord God of Walkers for this deliverance, and happily the rest of the walk went as smoothly as the early stages.
  Needless to say, I shall be modifying the route when we walk it next month. When it comes to footpaths, you just can't rely on the map, even in the relatively domesticated countryside of Surrey.

Saturday, 22 June 2019


Seventy-three-year-old rock millionaire Dave Gilmour sells his guitar collection for £17 million (with the 'legendary' Black Strat alone fetching £3.13 million, for which sum you could buy several decent Strads) and, inspired by the testimony of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, donates the proceeds to a 'climate change' charity whose avowed aim is to stop any more coal-fired power stations being built (even in China – good luck with that), thereby ensuring that the world's poor stay that way. Did ever a single news story so perfectly illustrate the various follies of the age?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Little Elegies

I've written before about the strange notion that in former times parents felt little or no grief at the loss of a child. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary in church monuments – and also, of course, in poetry.
Ben Jonson wrestles with his grief in his On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; 
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy: 
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay, 
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day. 
O could I lose all father now! for why 
Will man lament the state he should envy, 
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage, 
And, if no other misery, yet age? 
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, "Here doth lie 
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." 
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such, 
As what he loves may never like too much.

In Shakespeare's King John, Constance, believing her son Arthur to be dead, is distracted by grief, and gives one of the great descriptions in literature of the first agony of grieving. In response to Cardinal Pandulph and King Philip, who both reproach her with being overfond of grief, she replies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child, 
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, 
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, 
Remembers me of all his gracious parts, 
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form: 
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I, 
I could give better comfort than you do...
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

It's hard to believe Shakespeare didn't have the loss of his own 11-year old son, Hamnet, fresh in his memory when he wrote those lines.

And then there's this little elegy, which I came across the other day. It's by Katherine Philips, a 17th-century poet who was known as 'the Matchless Orinda' and highly thought of in her time. She wrote two poems in memory of her lost son, of which this, with its fine closing quatrain, is the better:

Epitaph. On her Son H.P. at St. Syth’s Church where her body also lies Interred
What on Earth deserves our Trust?
Youth and Beauty both are dust.
Long we gathering are with pain, 
What one Moment calls again. 
Seven years Childless Marriage past, 
A Son, A Son is born at last: 
So exactly limn’d and Fair, 
Full of good Spirits, Meen, and Aier, 
As a long life promised; 
Yet, in less than six weeks, dead. 
Too promising, too great a Mind 
In so small room to be confin'd: 
Therefore, fit in Heav'n to dwell, 
He quickly broke the Prison shell. 
So the Subtle Alchymist, 
Can’t with Hermes seal resist 
The Powerful Spirit’s subtler flight, 
But ’twill bid him long good night. 
And so the Sun, if it arise 
Half so Glorious as his Eye's, 
Like this Infant, takes a shroud, 
Bury'd in a morning Cloud.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Jewel of Suburbia

Having been on the look-out since mid-May, I'd more or less given up hope of seeing a Lime Hawk Moth this year. This unexpected jewel of suburbia is a sight I associate with warm evenings in late May or early June – certainly not with a grey, rainy afternoon in the second half of June. But, as I trudged through the park in a steady drizzle this afternoon, I spotted this beauty, spreading its handsome wings low down on a lime tree bole. A cheering sight – and a lucky one; when I passed back the same way ten minutes later, it had already flown.
  And yesterday, on a tiny triangular nature reserve where two local railway lines meet, I saw my first Marbled Whites of the year. I wonder if these beautiful downland butterflies (not Whites but Browns, fact fans) might have the potential to extend their range further into suburbia, as the Orange Tip and Common Blue have done. It would be a great gain if they did...

Sunday, 16 June 2019


if Seize the Day is, as I opined in the last post, 'one of the great short novels of the 20th century', what are the others?
Here's my provisional top ten (of novels under 200 reasonably spaced pages that aren't long short stories) –

Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Henry James The Beast in the Jungle (other prime contenders are disqualified by date)
Willa Cather The Lost Lady
Flannery O'Connor Wise Blood
Vladimir Nabokov Transparent Things
Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea
J.L. Carr A Month in the Country
Penelope Fitzgerald The Bookshop
Samuel Beckett Ill Seen Ill Said

Actually, with Seize the Day, that would make 11. Never mind.
Any thoughts?

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Seize the Day Again

Seize the Day was, I think, the first Saul Bellow I ever read. This would be back in the Seventies some time, when Bellow was little more than a name to me (though, years before, I had noticed my intellectual uncle reading Dangling Man). I was certainly impressed by Seize the Day – impressed enough to read Mr Sammler's Planet when I came across it. And after that I rapidly became a devoted reader, devouring all the novels and most of the short stories, and finding the experience hugely exhilarating. However, I have reread less of Bellow than of most of the novelists I've loved; some of his longer works seem frankly daunting now, demanding a lot of intellectual energy and readerly stamina (indeed some, I think, could profitably have been trimmed down). However, Seize the Day I have certainly reread more than once – most recently in December 2008, as I know from a barely legible restaurant receipt I found, serving as a bookmark, in my Penguin Classics copy (Introduction by Cynthia Ozick). And now I have reread it again. 
  Suffice to say, it did not disappoint. It is surely one of the great short novels of the 20th century. The failed and fading charmer Tommy Wilhelm, whose day of reckoning the novel chronicles, is one of Bellow's most compelling creations, and he is well balanced by his vain, successful and self-protective father, and the philosophising con man, 'Dr' Tamkin, whose strange charisma Tommy cannot resist, though he knows him to be a fraud. The Fifties New York settings against which the action plays out are vividly evoked in some of the most extraordinary passages of the book, the whole of which is infused with tremendous, passionate, but always controlled energy, driving events to an unforgettable climax. It's a wonderful read, a wonderful reread, I think a true classic.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Joad Again: Scrambling

I can't seem to escape the long (pot-bellied, pipe-smoking) shadow of the egregious Professor C.E.M. Joad, erstwhile celebrity intellectual (see here and here). Browsing in The View from Devonshire Hill, a memoir by the unjustly forgotten Elizabeth Jenkins, I was startled to come across the dread name again. Jenkins knew the great man in the late Thirties, and give this account of his notorious ticket-dodging activities, which casts now light on the sordid business...
'Coming up to London by rail as he often did, he realised that the London express made a stop for a few minutes at a point on the line below a steep bank that led out of some fields. By posting himself on the bank at a given time, he was able, when the train paused, to scramble down the bank, wrench open a carriage door and seat himself inside. This meant that he made the journey to London without a ticket. This curious practice is hard to account for in a man who made a comfortable income ... At the terminus he would wait, inconspicuously, until the crowd at the exit had dispersed, and then wander about as if he were looking for someone, before walking calmly out. Finally an inspector on the train saw him coming in at the carriage door, and exclaimed: 'This train doesn't stop here, sir!' To which Joad responded: 'Then I'm not on it.' [Ever the philosopher!] This was a neat reply, but it was a mistake: it called public attention to his practice. I think he must have been a marked man for some time. He came before a magistrate and was found guilty of cheating the railway company.'
The image of the rotund philosopher scrambling down the bank and hauling himself aboard a train is one to cherish. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Futile Gesture of the Day

So, the 'government' is going to be chucking away a trillion quid of our money on a futile gesture, a work of supererogation that takes the whole notion to a new level of fatuous virtue signalling. You couldn't, as they say, make it up. What's interesting is that the same people who declare, with absolute conviction, that a no-deal Brexit will be economic suicide are applauding a declaration that amounts to a national suicide note. Still, suicide has been the prevailing mode of this country and much of the West for decades now, so we might as well hand over the reins of power to Greta Thunberg...
  However, the BBC News website also carries the cheering story of Norman Borlaug, whose work on disease-resistant wheat saved millions from starvation. Mentioned towards the end is Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb asserted that it was inevitable that 'hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death' – a Population Emergency, you might say. Like today's ecowarriors, he was convinced he knew what the future held. He was wrong.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Excellent Women

In a fascinating post, Patrick Kurp today quotes a typically pithy, gossipy life from John Aubrey's Brief Lives. It reminded me of a passage from Aubrey that I came across while researching my book. This was his thumbnail sketch of a kinswoman of his, Elizabeth Danvers (née Neville), who had 'prodigeous parts for a Woman. I have heard my father’s mother say that she had Chaucer at her fingers' ends. A great Politician; great Witt and spirit, but revengeful: knew how to manage her estate as well as any man; understood Jewels as well as any Jeweller. Very Beautiful, but only short-sighted. To obtain Pardons for her Sonnes she maryed Sir Edmund Carey, cosen-german to Queen Elizabeth, but kept him to hard meate.'
  The last phrase, I guess, means that her marriage to Sir Edmund was a mariage blanc. The sons whose lives she saved by this alliance had been obliged to flee the country after a feud with a local family ended in murder. One of them was later beheaded for his part in the Essex rebellion. Lady Carey died in 1630 at an advanced age, having already secured herself one of the most beautiful monuments of its time, carved by the great Nicholas Stone. (It stands in St Michael's, Church Stowe, in Northamptonshire, and is well worth seeking out.)

  The early seventeenth century seems to have been remarkably rich in women of great talent and practical ability. As I researched my book, I kept coming across them. One was another, later Elizabeth Carey (Lady Berkeley), who also has a notably beautiful monument by Stone. This Lady Elizabeth was a scholar, poet and patron of the arts from an early age – and proved also to be a woman of great practical ability, taking over the running of her wildly extravagant husband's estates and managing to pay off his huge debts. She died on her estate as Cranford, Middlesex (where she is buried), having lived her latter years 'amongst her thousands of books'.

Then there is Mary Browne, the much misused wife of the Second Earl of Southampton (who seems to have preferred men to women), who cut her out of his will and decreed that her children be taken from her. Mary, refusing to take this lying down, fought a successful battle to have this will overturned, regaining her status and rights, and having her children returned to her. What's more, she ignored her late husband's expressed wish to have his own monument, with a separate one for his parents (and no trace at all of his wife). Mary ensured that a single monument was built (at Titchfield in Hampshire), with her mother-in-law in pride of place, and her own name and lineage conspicuously displayed.
  One of Mary's sons was Henry, who became the Third Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of Shakespeare's narrative poems and very probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. It was to him, as it happens, that Elizabeth Danvers' sons fled after the murder, claiming his protection before they crossed to the Continent. And it was he who commissioned one of the most touching monuments to a dead child – his daughter, Lady Mary Wriothesley, who died in 1615 aged four years and four months. This monument (also at Titchfield) is unusual for its time in showing a child who looks like a child rather than a miniature adult, and might well have been made by the legendary Epiphanius Evesham.

  Mention of Evesham leads us to another redoubtable woman, Lady Frances St Pol, who, having been widowed, was relentlessly courted by the odious Third Baron Rich (they are both portrayed in a memorial tondo by Evesham at Snarford in Lincolnshire). Rich had divorced his first wife, the beautiful and gifted Lady Penelope Devereux, whom he married by force, and now he intended to get his hands on the wealth of Lady Frances, 'a person of shining conversation and eminent beauty' who was also one of the richest women in the county. Happily, by the time Rich married her, the resourceful Lady Frances had so arranged her affairs as to put her wealth beyond the reach of her avaricious husband. He died, disappointed, within three years of the marriage, and she spent the rest of her life doing good works in Snarford and farther afield. Another excellent woman.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Tomorrow's Headlines Today

Here's an exclusive preview of the Sunday papers...

'My Drugs Hell' by Jacob Rees-Mogg

'Crystal Meth was Serious Mistake' admits Philip Hammond

'I Deeply Regret Shooting Up in the House' says Iain Duncan Smith

'My Glue Sniffing Days Are Over' pledges James Brokenshire

'I Once Took a Puff of a Cigarette' admits Theresa May

Kibber or Sibber

Just now I was wondering if the surname Cibber – as in the much-mocked poet Colley Cibber and his sculptor father Caius Gabriel Cibber – was pronounced Kibber or Sibber. As if it mattered.
It's not a name I often have occasion to utter, but as Caius Gabriel features in my book, I thought I'd make sure. So I decided to look online, as the answers to every question live out there in cyberspace. Sure enough, there were websites queuing up to enlighten me on this vital question. The first one I tried nearly made me jump out of my skin. Brace yourself...
I'm not going to forget that in a hurry.

Friday, 7 June 2019

His Funkitude

Today comes news that Doctor John (Malcolm John Rebennack), the  erstwhile Night Tripper, has gone to join the ever growing celestial Wrecking Crew. Last year his birthday was declared Dr John Day in New Orleans, celebrating the fact that he 'rose to international recognition for his musical funkitude in performing, writing and producing', and he was recognised by the State of Louisiana for 'embodying the culture of the state, from New Orleans to the Bayou'.
Here he is in full funky flow at SXSW a few years ago – try sitting still through this...

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Dialogues and Dandies

Nabokov's brilliant study of Gogol ends with a dialogue between author and publisher, which begins

' – "Well," – said my publisher, – "I like it – but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about."
 I said ...
 – "No," – he said, – "I don't mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol's books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what the books are about."
 I said ...'

Those are eloquent dots, and there are more of them as Nabokov tries, apparently in vain, to get his publisher to understand what he has already written, with luminous clarity, in the book.
 Nabokov appends this dialogue as a way of explaining why he has added a Chronology that he clearly thought unnecessary, though it is well worth reading, indeed is a little masterpiece in itself.

I had just (re)read the last pages of Nikolai Gogol when, loitering in one of my favourite charity shops, the volume illustrated above caught my eye. They'd knocked the price down to a quid, to get rid of it, so naturally I snapped it up.
 Opening it, I discovered that the entire book consists of a dialogue between the author and his publisher... The latter thinks highly of the author's MS, but regards it as hopelessly uncommercial: 'I am sure we should not dispose of a hundred copies of your book.' However, when the author declares that 'I perfectly see the force of your observations, and so far as circulation goes, I may as well throw the MS in the fire!', the publisher insists that he shouldn't do any such thing, as 'there is still an interest in writing for the few'. From there the conversation drifts off into the changes that the years have brought, and so, easily enough, into the author's memories of the personalities and events of his younger years. The conversation becomes the book – a 200-page memoir in dialogue form.
 Alexander, Lord Lamington (to give the simplest form of his triple-barrelled name), was a prominent member of the wonderfully romantic Young England party that flourished in the 1840s, and for decades an ornament of high society and the literary world. In the Days of the Dandies began life as a series in Blackwood's Magazine – a series cut short by Lamington's death in 1890. The book version was published in 1906, and my copy once graced the shelves of the W.H. Smith subscription library on the Strand. It's printed on thick, flannel-like paper and is surprisingly readable – thanks in part, I'm sure, to the dialogue form. As a straight memoir, it might, I suspect, be rather wearing.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

A London Mystery

Following the recent demise of Jamie Oliver's restaurant chain (of which I never heard a good word), Mr Appleyard remarked that it might have had something to do with the fact that, in his experience, the staff seldom got round to taking your order, however long you sat. I think he's put his finger on an interesting phenomenon of our times – the reluctance of serving staff in our trendier establishments to make themselves known and offer to bring you something in the way of food and drink in return for money.
  I experienced this in extreme form recently, when my cousin and I, weary after a long London walk, in desperation dropped in on achingly trendy cafe/eaterie/bar near St Pancras. We knew it was a mistake as soon as the wall of sound met us – loud and unpleasant music plus a hubbub of voices worsened by atrocious acoustics. Various young hipster types were milling about, chatting with each other, sauntering to and fro to no obvious effect, sitting down and standing up, wandering out and back in again. No uniforms, needless to say, so no way of telling if they were on the staff or just acquaintances passing the time of day. Similarly, of course, there was no indication of whether table service was on offer (it seemed unlikely) or it was a case of ordering at the bar, when there happened to be someone there. At least there was a menu, and on it a range of teas were listed – including, I was glad to see, Keemun, which I rather fancied. After much mystified waiting and speculation, I spotted a young man who, from his position behind the bar, I felt fairly sure must be a member of staff. He was indeed – though, when I approached to make my order, he reacted as if this had never happened to him before and he was none too pleased at the impertinence. Bellowing over the background noise, I managed to get him to understand that I was after a pot of Keemun tea. 'No,' he declared firmly, 'we don't have it.' I was too far gone by now to protest and draw his attention to the menu. We settled on another tea, which was eventually brought to us by a young woman who was presumably a waitress. We did not linger long over it.
  Experiences like this make London seem ever more mysterious to me. Not that long ago, it was a city I felt perfectly at home in. Now, if I stray from familiar haunts, I find myself increasingly unable to make head or tail of the place. Maybe it's just age – we must remember that oldsters like me and Bryan are invisible to the hipster eye.

Monday, 3 June 2019

NO ai Grandi Navi!

Yesterday's news of a gigantic cruise ship crashing into a smaller tourist boat and the dockside in Venice  – read all about it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48489158 – renews the hope that something will finally be done about the blight of the grandi navi. These floating hotels should never have been allowed into Venice in the first place, and Venetians regularly protest against their presence and the damage they are doing to their city. I gather that, if it was down to the city authorities, they would have got rid of them, but they have been overruled by the regional government. Perhaps now minds will be concentrated and something decisive will at last be done. The Mayor has called for 'urgent action' to divert cruise ships away from the Giudecca canal, and the Infrastructure Minister has declared that 'we are finally close to a definitive solution' – the kind of words you hear all too often from the dilatory Italian authorities. Let's hope, though, that this time they mean something.
  Meanwhile, on a more cheery note, here's a Venetian scene painted by Raoul Dufy, who was born on this day in 1877. Not a cruise ship in sight...

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Notes from North Wales

You don't often come across a church monument that makes you smile, but I found one such in the church of All Saints, Gresford, in Denbighshire. The monument to John Trevor (who died in 1589) irresistibly suggests, to modern eyes, the stage illusion in which a conjuror 'saws a lady in half'. At one end, an unconcerned John Trevor rests his head on his hand – an early example of the popular 'toothache' pose – and clutches the hilt of his sword, the rest of which emerges at the other end of the monument, along with his feet. The dark middle section bears a long inscription, now barely discernible. There's another, later monument elsewhere in North Wales that follows this curious design, but clearly it never caught on.
  Gresford church is a gem, with a wonderful array of carved screens and a beautiful angel roof.

The personal highlight of this tour, though, was a visit to the former lead-mining village of Gwernaffield in Flintshire. The Victorian church is not very distinguished, but in the churchyard stands a stone erected by my great-great-grandfather, William Jones, in memory of three of his children.

The inscription is in Welsh, and in translation (I am told) reads:

'Here lies AMELIA, daughter of Will'm and Marg't Jones, Pen y Fron, who died October 7 1838 at 5 weeks old.
      I am the first (child) to be given (the name)*
      (In a coffin of two shaped trees)
      I am wise where I will be wise
      Until my soul calls me to the south
      Although my body is weak and buried
      In the cold soil alone,
      A little girl is singing aloft
      Among the heavenly host and their music.
Also EMMA their daughter who died February 5th 1864 at 20 years, also Edwin their son who died February 21 1864 at 16 years.

* A later daughter was also christened Amelia.
And another later daughter went on to marry my philoprogenitive great grandfather (born 1808), who was undeterred by the fact she was his son's fiancée when she caught his eye – just like Miles Mowbray in Ivy Compton Burnett's A Father and His Fate.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Bed and Brexit

Walking past a local bed store this morning, I noticed a sign proclaiming a 'Brexit Overstock Sale!' Apparently they are selling off  'Brexit overstock' to the tune of £1.3 million. How did this situation come about? What were they thinking of when they bought this huge quantity of beds? What has changed since then that has led them to want to get rid of it all? Have they concluded that Brexit is never going to happen after all, so their stockpiling was to no avail? Or that a 'no deal' Brexit will leave them with no option but to sell up and head for the hills? No one will be wanting beds any more, nessun dorma in the nightmare of the post-EU dark... Oddly, from what I hear of the early morning business news on the radio (as I drift in and out of sleep), I get the impression that the markets have already decided that it's going to be 'no deal' – and they don't seem unduly concerned. But I haven't heard from any representatives of the bed trade yet.
  Meanwhile, I'm off walking in North Wales for a few days. Hwyl am nawr!

Winter Garden

Breaking my resolve to lay off the fiction (particularly novels written by women) for a while, I've just read a short Beryl Bainbridge which I happened to spot on the charity shop shelf. I read it partly from curiosity, as the title – Winter Garden – was unfamiliar to me, even though over the years I must have read almost everything Bainbridge wrote.
  Published in 1980, Winter Garden follows the misadventures of Douglas Ashburner, an outwardly sedate middle-aged lawyer who has unfortunately fallen in love with a flaky artist called Nina and is accompanying her on a state-organised cultural visit to the USSR (having told his wife he's on a fishing trip in Scotland). Also on the tour are two other artists, the quiet but sexually voracious Enid and the obstreperous egotist Bernard. As for Nina, she disappears almost as soon as the group get to the USSR – a bold move, losing one of your leading characters, especially as Bernard and, especially, Enid are rather thinly drawn. Mostly we see the action through the permanently bemused Douglas's eyes – and no wonder he's bemused, as the events unfolding around him are endlessly mystifying. They are also, much of the time, very funny, and the early chapters are classic Bainbridge – razor sharp, pared down, darkly comic, beautifully engineered. The perplexing madness of a Soviet-controlled 'cultural tour' is effortlessly evoked, and each chapter works perfectly. It's a hugely enjoyable ride. The problem is that the larger picture, the overarching plot, never quite comes into focus – or so it seemed to me – and remains so mysterious that it leaves the reader (this one at least) as bemused as poor Douglas Ashburner.
  Maybe I was missing something, but I think Winter Garden must count as a Bainbridge misfire, one that doesn't quite come together – but even a misfire by her is a lot more fun than many another esteemed writer's best efforts. In the end, perhaps, she'll be remembered more for her late historical novels than her earlier works (the same might be true of Penelope Fitzgerald), but it was a pleasant surprise to find one that I'd never read, or even heard of.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Small Blues and Larger Concerns

The arcane, ever varying delights of the butterfly season never fail. This morning, while the sun still shone, I made my way to the local nature reserve that I once spent a long while failing to find, but which is now so familiar to me that my feet could find their way there unsupervised. As I'd hoped, the Small Blues – tiny, dark and beautifully various – were flying, and in glorious abundance, along with as many Small Coppers as I usually see in a year (so good to see them thriving). Among the vetches and trefoils, copulation thrived – Small Blue copulation, that is.
  But perhaps it is time for me to wrest my attention from butterflies and church monuments and turn it briefly on the wider world... Therese May's tears as she ended her resignation speech were sad to see, but also, I found, acutely, squirmingly embarrassing. You couldn't help feeling sorry for her, but she was completely the victim of her own glaring failings – and even now she doesn't seem to realise it. Much better to leave office, as her predecessor did, with composure and a merry tune on your lips. So much more English.
 And now the long drawn out tedium of a Tory leadership election looms. It's a depressing prospect, not least because so many of the candidates and their backers are bent on one thing above all others – stopping a 'no-deal' Brexit (this is usually code for Brexit). MPs should be reminded that, by voting overwhelmingly to invoke Article 50, they were voting for the possibility of 'no deal', as Article 50 puts a clear time limit (already extended twice) on the process of leaving, regardless of whether a deal has been struck. Perhaps, like all those deluded plebs who voted for Brexit, they didn't know what they were voting for?

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Finished (sort of)

Yesterday, rather to my surprise, I finished my book on church monuments etc. Well, I say 'finished', but of course there is much more to be done: rereading, revision and correction, checking, some rewriting – and then the challenging business of putting it all together as a book, with the pictures (there are a lot of them) in the right places, and then finally publishing it. I gave myself two years to do the writing, and I've barely overrun that deadline. A few more months and the thing will be actually finished and out in the world, in good time for my 70th birthday (and Christmas, ho ho). That's a long gestation for a book of barely 60,000 words, but I don't have the stamina for long stretches of intensive writing – and besides, I had all those churches to visit. It's been fun.

Friday, 24 May 2019


On this day in 1881 the great painter and etcher Samuel Palmer died, a sad and disappointed man, in his house at Redhill (a rather ugly Gothic affair of curious design – I had a look round it once). He had never got over the death of the son (Thomas More Palmer) in whom he had reposed all his hopes and aspirations, and his career had never risen much above the getting-by stage – in painful contrast to that of his hugely successful father-in-law, John Linnell. As Palmer lay dying, he would sometimes reach out to touch an old cigar box on the table beside him; this contained the copperplates for his unfinished set of Virgil etchings, the last great project of his life. When the end came, Palmer died peacefully, with his old friend and fellow 'Ancient' George Richmond (with whom he delighted in drinking libations of goose fat every Christmas) kneeling in prayer by his bedside. He was buried in Reigate churchyard on a showery morning. A skylark was singing.
  At the time of his death, it looked as if Palmer's work would be forgotten by all but a small circle of admirers. His other son, Alfred Herbert, dutifully completed and published the Virgil etchings, and, a decade later, brought out a dull and dutiful Life and Letters in two volumes. Then, over several days in 1909, Alfred Herbert systematically destroyed large quantities of his father's notebooks, sketchbooks and pictures, mostly dating from his 'visionary' early years. 'Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt,' wrote A.H. in justification, 'I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate.' Happily, despite this conflagration, enough of his early work survived to demonstrate Palmer's unique artistic vision, and to inspire the revival of his reputation that did eventually begin in the 1920s with an exhibition of drawings, etchings and woodcuts at the V&A. The revival continued after the war with Geoffrey Grigson's study of the artist, followed by more exhibitions and, eventually, a shelf of books. Palmer's extraordinary early work had a dramatic impact on Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper and many others. Since then, the best of Palmer's later work has also come to be appreciated, and we now have a more rounded view of his art. The disappointed man who died on this day in 1881 has finally got his due.
 (Above: the late etching Opening the Fold).

Wednesday, 22 May 2019


I must have read Donald Justice's Pantoum of the Great Depression several times before the obvious question occurred to me...

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don't remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don't remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

The obvious question is, of course, What is a pantoum?
It is, I discover, a verse form of Malayan origin which works like this:
Each stanza is four lines long and cross-rhymed.
The 2nd and 4th line of each stanza become the 1st and 3rd of the next, and so on through the poem (which can be of any length).
In the final stanza, the unused 1st and 3rd line of the first stanza reappear, in reverse order, so that the poem ends with the same line it began with.
  That is a challenging form, and the strict rules, as can be seen from Justice's pantoum, are more honoured in the breach than the observance. With its slow pace – four lines forward, two lines back – it's a form that is particularly suitable to a meditative poem about the past (like Justice's) and to the gradual building of a scene or mood. Justice's pantoum uses the form both to embody the stasis of life in the Depression and to establish an ironic distance from its subject – the miseries of that life – but he allows that distancing to break down towards the end, and with it the strict framework of the pantoum.
  More straightforward, more static, and more respectful of the rules, is John Ashbery's Pantoum, which uses the form to build a scene and an atmosphere, mysterious, archaic and vaguely menacing...

Eyes shining without mystery, 
Footprints eager for the past 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes, 
And what is in store? 

Footprints eager for the past 
The usual obtuse blanket. 
And what is in store 
For those dearest to the king? 

The usual obtuse blanket. 
Of legless regrets and amplifications 
For those dearest to the king. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 

Of legless regrets and amplifications, 
That is why a watchdog is shy. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night. 

That is why a watchdog is shy, 
Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying. 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night 
And that soon gotten over. 

Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying 
Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
And that soon gotten over 
For they must have motion. 

Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
Eyes shining without mystery, 
For they must have motion 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes.

The first Western adopters of the pantoum form were French – Victor Hugo, Ernest Founiet, Charles Baudelaire (Harmonie du Soir) – and it has never been popular with writers in English. But Austin Dobson, master of the villanelle, produced a clever and atmospheric pantoum inspired by a line from Tennyson, 'The blue fly sung in the pane'. It's called In Town and is a very nifty piece of work...

TOILING in Town now is "horrid,"
(There is that woman again !)-
June in the zenith is torrid,
Thought gets dry in the brain.

There is that woman again :
"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Thought gets dry in the brain ;
Ink gets dry in the bottle.

"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Oh for the green of a lane !-
Ink gets dry in the bottle ;
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane !

Oh for the green of a lane,
Where one might lie and be lazy !
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane ;
Bluebottles drive me crazy !

Where one might lie and be lazy,
Careless of Town and all in it !-
Bluebottles drive me crazy :
I shall go mad in a minute !

Careless of Town and all in it,
With some one to soothe and to still you ;-
I shall go mad in a minute ;
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you !

With some one to soothe and to still you,
As only one's feminine kin do,-
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you :
There now ! I've broken the window !

As only one's feminine kin do,-
Some muslin-clad Mabel or May !-
There now ! I've broken the window !
Bluebottle's off and away !

Some muslin-clad Mabel or May,
To dash one with eau de Cologne ;-
Bluebottle's off and away ;
And why should I stay here alone !

To dash one with eau de Cologne,
All over one's eminent forehead ;-
And why should I stay here alone !
Toiling in Town now is "horrid,"