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,"

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Nostalgia a New Heresy?

The first of Jonathan Sumption's Reith Lectures went out this morning and, it seemed to me, lived up to expectation. It was lucid, elegantly expressed, thoughtful and incisive, and raised some very pertinent questions about the effects – particularly on our freedoms – of the relentless advance of law to fill the space left by the retreat of politics.
  In the question and answer session that followed, I noted that more than one questioner accused Sumption of being 'nostalgic' for some past time. I've noticed this accusation being made before, notably about Brexit voters and UKIP members, both of whom are supposed to be nostalgic for a mythical past, sometimes identified as the Fifties. Which begs the question, even if this were true, what is wrong with nostalgia? Surely it's a part of the human condition to look back fondly on times that now seem better than these – often the times of our childhood and early years. We all feel at some level the sense of a lost Golden Age which is irrevocably past and can never be recaptured – hence the pain of nostalgia. Nowadays, however, the word 'nostalgia' is becoming an accusatory term in political discourse (or what passes for it). It seems to be a kind of code word (even a 'dog whistle'?) that suggest reactionary views, inability to cope with the present, a tendency to the swivelling eye and the foam-flecked chin. Is 'nostalgia' on its way to becoming a new heresy, a deplorable new 'phobia' (of the present), an unpardonable denial of the narrative of Progress and its unshakable faith that the present can only be better than the past? That will never do.
  Not that Sumption is 'nostalgic' anyway – which made it all the odder that this term was deployed against him.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Stoneywell, etc.

My latest Mercian jaunt began with Stoneywell, a National Trust property hidden away in the rocky, rolling Charnwood forest in Leicestershire. The house, or rather cottage, is an Arts and Crafts gem, designed by Ernest Gimson and built by him and the wonderfully named Detmar Blow for Ernest's brother Sidney and his family, several generations of whom lived there until finally handing it over to the National Trust. A small house on several levels, it seems to emerge organically from the rock it's built on. Nothing about the interior is predictable or regular, and every room is a joy to be in – at least for an inveterate Arts and Crafts fan like me. There's plenty of beautifully made furniture, by Gimson and others, to admire too. I didn't care for the planting of the parts of the garden near the house, which look more Fifties seaside than Gertrude Jekyll (not the Trust's fault), but apart from that, it was a delight – and (having booked ahead) we were taken round by a knowledgable and enthusiastic guide.
  Later there was a walk in Lathkil Dale, one of the most beautiful of the Derbyshire dales (and much quieter than, say, Dove Dale), and a morning visit to a nature reserve adapted from an abandoned quarry, where I saw more Wall butterflies than I have ever seen in a day since my far-off, butterfly-rich boyhood.
 Not a single church on this visit. That's surely a first.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Little and Large

Today I had lunch 'in town' (as we used to say) with an old friend, and, with mutual support, we summoned up the stamina to take in not one but two exhibitions, one before and one after lunch.
First we went to the Elizabethan Treasures exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – about which I can only say that it is truly amazing, and that, alas, it is closing on Sunday. An exhibition of miniatures nearly all by the two great masters, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver (whose The Browne Brothers is above), it magnificently confirms that these two were among the finest painters this nation has ever produced, and that their work amounts to one of the great treasures of English art (and one that's all too easily undervalued, like the equally great work of the 17th-century monument makers Nicholas Stone and Epiphanius Evesham, cf my forthcoming book). If you can make it to the NPG this weekend, do go – and allow plenty of time, as you may well have to wait your turn to get a close-up view of these little gems of English painting; the exhibition is proving very popular. Helpfully, magnifying glasses are provided, and it's well worth taking one to appreciate the almost superhuman delicacy, subtlety and psychological insight of these tiny masterpieces. They make nearly all the large-scale portraiture of their time (Holbein excepted) seem clumsy and crude by comparison.

From the exquisite and small-scale to the broad-brush and large, very large – after lunch it was the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for the blockbuster exhibition, Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light. The 'master of light' epithet is well earned; this turn-of-the-last-century Spanish artist is certainly very adept at portraying strong Spanish sunlight, both direct and reflected. But, beyond that, I didn't find much to praise (apart from some interesting cropping): his paintings tend to the flashy and facile, with something of picture-postcard kitsch about some of them. Even in the more subdued pictures, there's a striving for effect and a lack of delicacy. Some of them suggest comparison with Sargent or Whistler or the Danish Skagen painters – but the comparison is never to Sorolla's advantage. Having said that, I'm sure these big canvases would look very much better in a different setting – hung in a large space, so that they could be seen from a suitable distance, and in a less unforgiving light than that of the Sainsbury Wing's underground galleries. I've never really liked it down there.
  Anyway, tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels, but not for long.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Journey

This morning I set out for the wilds of Norfolk – an enterprise never to be undertaken lightly – with a view to seeing a fine church monument. This was to be the last monument visit related to my now nearly completed book...
  Having managed the grim business of crossing London by Underground – often the most stressful part of a journey – I arrived at Liverpool St with minutes to spare before my train left, and settled down in the rattling, noisy carriage confident that I would arrive at Norwich in ample time to make my connection. Suffice to say that the train was halted at Colchester by An Incident up ahead: a freight train had been observed 'smoking heavily' and needed to be dealt with (counselling? Nicotine patches?). After upward of 20 minutes, we finally got moving again – just in time, it transpired, for me to miss my connection at Norwich. A fine station, a fine city, but I would sooner not have had to wait the best part of an hour for the next connection. Happily I'd arranged for a taxi at the other end and, when I got off the train, there it was waiting, punctual and ready to go. Things were looking up.
  The driver, rather surprisingly for this corner of Norfolk, was a youngish oriental lady, very charming and affable but with certain limitations, including the following: she knew the village I needed but had no idea where the church is (and it's way outside the village); her satnav, when she got it working, turned out to be somewhat unreliable, with a habit of falling off the windscreen and disconnecting itself; and her mastery of the satnav keyboard was decidedly lacking. After a long, time-consuming scenic tour of various back roads and lanes, we finally happened upon the church. I knew it was locked (I'd phoned beforehand) but I also knew that the key was available from the old vicarage, which I was assured was hard by the church. There was, needless to say, no sign of it, but, after yet more satnav business, we located it, hidden away down a side road some way from the church. By now I was running so late I realised I had barely time to nip into the church, take a quick look and a photo, and be no my way back to London. But heck, there it was – the old vicarage – so I might as well pop in and get the key. The old vicarage, however, was not quite what I'd been expecting: it was a large opulent house set a long way back from the road – and behind firmly locked security gates. I pressed all the buttons I could see, but nothing happened. I waved and jumped about in case someone in that distant mansion happened to be looking out. There were video cameras too, so I tried to attract their attention. All to no avail. No response, no sign of life (despite firm assurances that I could call any time and pick up the key – the work of a moment was the impression I got). Hey ho. There was nothing to do by this time but give up. I could manage without this particular monument, and I'd been in two minds whether to make the journey. I rather wish I'd stayed in one mind and not bothered.
  Anyway, we got back to the station surprisingly fast, fate having finally smiled on my endeavours, albeit a little late in the day. The genial taxi driver was full of apologies and slashed the fare. And so I embarked on the long journey home. Amazingly, this time I made the smoothest of smooth connections at Norwich and was home in, oh, barely four hours.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

'The radio's prayer'

On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp writes about that 'metaphysical medium', radio. He notes that in films set in the Thirties and Forties, the radio is invariably playing a comedy show or news of Pearl Harbor. The English equivalents are ITMA (the popular wartime comedy show) and Neville Chamberlain's solemn announcement that the nation is at war.
  'Like prayer,' Kurp writes, 'radio demands attentiveness, openness and imagination'. In this country, radio can be overtly like prayer: we have that magical incantation, the Shipping Forecast, which Seamus Heaney celebrates in a sonnet –

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

The Shipping Forecast finds its way, too, into a fine Carol Ann Duffy sonnet that bears the title Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

And not that long ago, radio also regularly featured the late evening office of Compline, which gives its title to this Larkin poem – 

Behind the radio’s altar light
the hurried talk to God goes on:
'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done...
produce our lives beyond this night,
open our eyes again to sun.'

Unhindered in the dingy wards
lives flicker out, one here, one there,
to send some weeping down the stair
with love unused, in unsaid words:
for this I would have quenched the prayer

but for the thought that nature spawns
a million eggs to make one fish.
Better that endless notes beseech
as many nights, as many dawns, 
if finally God grants the wish.

Has television ever inspired a poem? I can't think of any. There's nothing metaphysical about television.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Joad's Pianola

Talking of Larkin, I came across a mysterious reference in one of his early letters to the celebrity philosopher C.E.M. Joad, about whom I have written before. Larkin talks of having 'played a few records and bashed out several choruses of blues like Joad playing his f*cking Bach [Lord, young Larkin is foul-mouthed – that's my asterisk, needless to say] every morning on the pianola'.
  I had not until now associated Joad with the pianola – did he really play one? Indeed he did, and here's the proof (below) in a cherishable little Pathé documentary, in which we also get to see the Socrates of the 20th century running around in baggy shorts playing hockey (it looks like a men v women match, no doubt designed to prove yet again the uselessness of the fair sex) and to hear him addressing the vexed question of when it might be ethically justifiable to break the law. When defrauding the railway companies perhaps? If so, it was an argument that didn't carry the day at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court in 1948.

A New Poet Laureate

So we have a new Poet Laureate, and it's Simon Armitage. This seems an excellent appointment, as he is just the kind of poet to fit this particular post: he's already a 'public' writer, popular (as poets go), accessible, active, media-friendly, prolific to a fault, and willing to tackle 'big' themes (I see he has promised to address 'climate change', for which many thanks). In terms of quality, Armitage is certainly good enough for the Laureateship – which, let us remember, was recently held by the proser Andrew Motion – though I'd judge Carol Ann Duffy a better poet. The giants are all gone now, so a kind of Silver Age competence is the best we can hope for. But let's not be ungenerous – at least those bestowing this honour held their nerve and appointed a white middle-aged male, and one who is a decent poet.
Most of Armitage's work is too long to quote here, but this (English) sonnet, called Poem, is an effective piece of work –

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered her the one time that she lied. 
And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face. 

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse. 

Here's how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that. 

When Larkin was offered the Laureateship, he rightly turned it down; he was creatively blocked and not far from death. It went to Ted Hughes, a poet of whom Larkin was not an admirer. 'The thought,' he wrote to Kingsley Amis, 'of being the cause of Ted's being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with.' But in the end they both got their stone in Poets' Corner, where Simon Armitage might join them one day. He'll be a good Laureate (I just wish he'd change his hair style).

Thursday, 9 May 2019

The Breezes

Having enjoyed reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, I decided that, if I happened to see another of his, I'd probably try it. Sure enough, a week or so later, I spotted not one but two O'Neills sitting there in the same charity shop where I'd happened on Netherland. As is my usual practice these days, I chose the shorter – The Breezes, a black comedy dating from 1995 (13 years before Netherland).
  Described by the TLS as 'a hilarious chronicle of life's crappiness', it is indeed that, but it's done with some depth and real tenderness. Told in the first person by John Breeze, a man who might uncharitably be described as a failed chair-maker, it revolves largely around his father, a hapless railway manager and would-be amateur football referee (the only ref ever to have been sent off). Pa Breeze is a man of resilient and optimistic spirit, eager to think the best of everyone and everything, despite what the world has done to him.
  'Fourteen years ago,' the novel begins, 'my mother, whose name was Mary Elizabeth Breeze, was killed by lightning, and you may think that my father's quota of misfortune would have been used up once and for all on that violent afternoon. If so, you are mistaken...'  Mistaken indeed, as, in the short span of time in which the story unfolds, misfortunes rain down relentlessly on the undeserving Pa's head. It would be unbearable if it wasn't so funny – O'Neill shows a real talent for comedy here, the particular kind of comedy that mingles tragedy and farce. Happily, after all the strands of the plot knit together into a grand tragicomic climax and Pa finally hits rock bottom, glimmers of light and even hope appear. A kind of catharsis has been achieved, and life can go on...
 The odd thing about The Breezes is that, to me at least, it read like an American novel, specifically a Jewish-American novel – and yet no one in it is Jewish, and the setting is somewhere in England. I only realised this when I noted that the football being described was soccer, not American football, and that the railway network Pa Breeze works for could only be English. The setting is an English coastal town near to an industrial city with a big-time football team, perhaps in the North, but it's hard to tell; it just didn't feel like England. Nor did the characters, or even the narrator, feel English. When I heard the dialogue in my head, it was in American accents. A very odd effect, but it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this tight and accomplished black comedy.
  And now I'm taking a break from fiction for a little while. The charity shop's latest gift to my bookshelves, bought today, is the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, which will keep me busy – and, I hope, entertained – for quite some time. Also I have a (non-fiction) book to review, and I've just begun rereading Nabokov's brilliant Gogol.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Gibbon, Not

The great historian and prose stylist Edward Gibbon was born on this date in 1737. While few these days undertake the demanding project of reading his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety, Gibbon's reputation lives on, partly in the form of quotations widely circulated on the internet. One of these goes like this:

'The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:
Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.'

You don't need to be George Saintsbury to sense that there's something wrong here. Gibbon, who wrote in beautifully balanced sentences and paragraphs, was not a man much given to bullet-point presentation, nor was he an early adopter of the numerous anachronisms that pepper this supposed quotation. However, it thrives on many quotation sites on the internet and is no doubt passed around in meme form, along with similarly bogus quotations from the likes of Lincoln and Jefferson, Churchill, Orwell and Gandhi.
  Never mind. Here's one of my favourite genuine quotations from Gibbon:

'Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.'

I'm tempted to use it as an epigraph for my book...


Tuesday, 7 May 2019


I've written before about the undignified death of that terrible man Robespierre (born on yesterday's date in 1758). I had no idea, until I came across it yesterday, that Donald Justice – not a poet much given to historical subjects – had written a fine poem on the subject...

A Man of 1794
And like a discarded statue, propped up in a cart,
He is borne along toward the page allotted to him in history.
To open his heavy-lidded eyes now would be merely
To familiarise himself with the banal and destined route.
He is aware of the mockery of the streets,
But does not understand it. It hardly occurs to him
That what they fear is that he might yet address them
And call them back to their inflamed duty.
But this he cannot do; the broken jaw prevents speech.
Today he will not accuse the accusers; it is perhaps all that saves them.
Meanwhile his head rocks back and forth loosely on his chest
With each new jolt and lurch of the endless-seeming street:
Impossible to resist this idiot shaking.
—But it is hard after all to sympathise
With a man formerly so immaculate,
Who, after a single night of ambiguous confinement,
Lets go all pride of appearance. Nevertheless,
Under the soiled jabot, beneath the stained blue coat,
Are the principles nothing has shaken. Rousseau was right,
Of that he is still convinced: Man is naturally good!
And in the moment before the blade eases his pain
He thinks perhaps of his dog or of the woods at Choissy,
Some thought in any case of a perfectly trivial nature,
As though already he were possessed of a sweet, indefinite leisure

After the guillotine fell on the 'sea-green incorruptible', the applause and shouts of joy from the crowd who had once loved him lasted some fifteen minutes.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

More Trees, Please?

Ten years ago, this story appeared. This week it reappeared, bigger and bolder than ever: the plan now is to plant no fewer than three billion trees in this country, to counter 'climate change'. A man from the Forestry Commission was talking enthusiastically about it on the radio this morning, though he made it clear that a rich mixture of trees must be planted, rather than great blocks of single species or types (as was Forestry Commission practice for far too long). This is true, of course, as single species densely planted are especially vulnerable to pathogens. But there are other problems with the plan too – one being the sheer numbers involved. Three billion – really? That's in addition to the four billion we already have. You only have to look out of an aeroplane window to realise that this is a pretty well wooded country, and that much of the tree cover consists of dense, unmanaged or under-managed woodland with few or no clearings. This is bad for the trees and worse for biodiversity (flowers, undergrowth, insects, small mammals, etc.) If the great tree planting initiative only produces more of this, it won't be much of a gain – and to achieve the kind of numbers they're aiming at would involve taking land out of more productive and beneficial use.
  Planting three billion trees is one thing; managing them long-term is quite another, and much more challenging. And then there is the problem of sourcing all those trees: unless they can be produced from native stock and grown on here, the risk of importing yet more plant pathogens will be greatly increased. The tree-planting mania of recent years has led to much importing to meet demand – and to the insane situation where we send native trees abroad to be grown on, and they come back with added foreign-origin pathogens (Ash Dieback is a prime example, but only one among several novel pathogens imported in recent years). All this needs to be carefully considered before we rush into any tree-planting programme on such a vast scale. I suspect that this project is yet another example of environment-related supererogation. I also suspect that it is wildly over-optimistic and the targets will never be achieved. Which might be no bad thing.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes was fervently recommended to me by a friend some years ago, but at the time I consigned it to the reserves bench, suspecting that a novel about a woman who becomes a witch might not be quite my cup of tea. Since then I've read a couple of STW's other novels – The Corner that Held Them and Mr Fortune's Maggot – and been hugely impressed. So, when I saw Lolly Willowes on the charity shop shelf a couple of weeks ago, I ended my resistance. And I was right to: it's a terrific piece of writing, and, for a first novel (published in 1926), quite amazingly assured.
  It tells the story of Laura Willowes ('Aunt Lolly' to her family), who, after her father's death, finds herself assigned by her stuffy family to the role of 'indispensable' maiden aunt, unpaid nanny and housekeeper. The novel begins in Edwardian times, then shifts forward to the Twenties, at which point Laura, chafing at her situation, finally decides she has had enough and takes off to live on her own in a remote village in the Chilterns, chosen almost at random. Here she finds herself feeling completely at home, wandering at large in a countryside that seems to be welcoming and enveloping her, but in a way that leaves her free to be herself. Before long she does indeed become a witch, but in no ordinary way.
  Warner's skill is to make the whole process seem perfectly natural, even ordinary, an extension of Laura's yearning for independence and a life of her own. There is nothing explicitly supernatural in the narrative; if viewed from a different angle, the whole thing could be quite naturalistic (or, from another angle, a metaphorical projection of Laura's struggle). Laura discovers that she is far from alone in being a witch; it seems to be a routine part of village life, and she doesn't practise magic, either white or black – for her being a witch is a state of being, of being free. She does, in a sense, sell her soul to the devil, but experiences him as a kindly guardian rather than a rapacious predator (the subtitle of the novel as first published was The Loving Huntsman). He manifests not as a horned monster but an ordinary, rather attractive countryman. Similarly the 'witches' sabbath' that Laura attends seems to be no more than an unusually wild bucolic dance. As she looks at the assembled witches and warlocks milling around during a break in the music, 'There was something about their air of disconnected jollity which reminded Laura of a Primrose League gala and fete.' (The Primrose League, its emblem Disraeli's favourite flower, was a highly respectable nationwide social organisation that aimed to promote Conservative values. It was tremendously successful until well into the 20th century.)
  Deft, unpredictable and beautifully written, this is a novel that really holds the attention, and more than repays it. When it came out, it was a big hit, but Warner was dismayed that most readers took it for a charming piece of English whimsy. 'I felt as though I had tried to make a sword,' she wrote, 'only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.' I don't think any reader today is likely to make that mistake.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

And today...

... the first swifts of the year! Two of them, circling low and fast over my son's garden in Cheam. I glanced out of the window and there they were, as amazing as ever – and early this year, arriving before I've even seen a swallow. Another swift summer has begun.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

A Flying Start

The last day of April, and my first outing of the year to my favourite butterfly haunt in the Surrey Hills. I set out in sunshine but arrived, as often happens, in cloud, which only gradually gave way to intermittent sun. My hopes were not high, but when the weather conditions are like this it can work to the butterfly watcher's advantage: in the absence of sustained sunlight, the butterflies are sluggish, taking only short, energy-conserving flights, and settling readily. If they're flying at all, that is – and, praise be, they were.
  It began when I all but trod on a basking Small Copper – and a very bright and beautiful one (with several more to follow). Then came my first Small Heaths of the year – always a cheering sight – and, soon after, the first of a dozen and more Dingy Skippers. A bit later, a little dull-looking moth-like thing settled nearby and I realised I'd just spotted my first Grizzled Skipper. I always forget just how tiny these little beauties are, and how their appearance in flight belies the beauty of their spread wings, dark brown spangled with creamy white and fringed
with tiny hairs. After that came one more gem – a Green Hairstreak, which posed perfectly with its emerald underwings on show.
This was followed by two more, both of which posed equally obligingly. I think that's as many Green Hairstreaks as I've ever seen in one year, let alone one day – and the same goes for the Grizzled Skippers (I saw four). A wonderfully rewarding day – and it means I've now seen sixteen species this year, before May! I don't think I've ever done that before.
I also saw – and managed to photograph – this beautifully marked moth, a Mother Shipton. It's so-called because each forewing carries what looks like the classic caricature profile of a witch, all nose and chin. See her? She's looking down from the top edge of the wing...

Monday, 29 April 2019

Les Murray

The death of Les Murray, at the age of 80, robs Australia of her greatest, most distinctively Australian poet, and a giant literary figure. Like so many others, Murray wrote too much, but the energy, verve and bracing originality of his language seldom failed, and he embodied a unique vision: contrarian, conservative, cussed, of the earth earthy, but with the imagination of a true visionary – and, that rare thing among poets, a robust sense of humour.
With Easter a recent memory, how better to remember him than with his great poem, The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary. (The link will take you there).

Birthday Boy

Today the indestructible Wille Nelson celebrates his 86th birthday. Still performing, still touring, still growing that weirdly luxuriant hair, still (no doubt) smoking weed – his vitality is simply amazing. As well as having written and performed a string of classic songs, he also has the distinction of having successfully sued Price Waterhouse (for putting his money in illegal tax shelters – and thereby losing it). Here he is responding to reports of his death a couple of years ago... Happy birthday, Willie!

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Death of a Friend

A few days ago came the sad news that an old friend of mine – one who has made occasional appearances on this blog as the Sage of Tiverton – had died. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago and more, and already outlived several predicted end-dates, so the news was not surprising, but there's something about even a long-projected death that always comes as a shock, a blow.
  It was half a century ago now (half a century!) that our friendship blazed into life. It burned brightly for a few brief but intense years, until we went our separate ways and completely lost touch, only to meet again forty-odd years later. We were both still at school when we first met. He was a year younger than me, but had an attractive glamour and air of mystery about him, and when we began to spend time together, we got on like the proverbial house on fire. He lived in a large house, of which a downstairs front room was, enviably, his own domain. His mother was sometimes around, but his father had died a few years earlier, leaving behind him a large and impressive library, the other side of the hall from the cosy, spectacularly untidy den in which he and I would sit smoking, drinking exotic teas (his mother had an impressive range of leaves) and listening to music. We took particular pride, I remember, in building up a thick fug of smoke, taking care to conserve it and top it up as required. It would choke me now, but then it seemed the very stuff of autonomy and possibility, of new exciting horizons dimly glimpsed.
  I remember also walking the streets with him in those days, often at remarkably high speed (both of us had a knack of moving our legs, and only our legs, extremely fast, while keeping hands in pockets and heads down). He often wore a green loden, or a black cape, and managed to get away with both. Sometimes we would descend on parties, and sometimes get thrown out, and he introduced me into a circle of friends who were, it seemed to me, even cooler and more glamorous than him – and some of them more criminally inclined; it was astonishing how much crime of all kinds went on in those circles, largely committed by the children of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. Drugs were only a part of it. As he inducted me into that scene, my friend became the Withnail to my I, and I was happy with that role. They were heady times, and we sampled every consciousness-altering substance we could get our hands on. We talked and talked (and burbled) and shared memories and tastes and jokes and catchphrases.
  So we became very close – it was love, of course, though neither of us would have dreamt of calling it that (and it was 'platonic') – and we stayed that way through my university years. By then, he (having dropped out of art college) was living in various more or less squalid 'pads' in London, and I was a frequent commuter between my college rooms and those pads (which I much preferred). We were by now heavily into drugs of various kinds, and at one point appeared in court together and were fined for our folly. I remember in my last term, when I'd cleared the decks to get down to some much-needed revision for my finals, he suddenly appeared, smiling broadly and waving a bag of raw opium. My revision plans went up, predictably, in smoke... He had a way of popping up like that, as if from nowhere, like Jeeves materialising at Bertie Wooster's side. I once woke in the small hours to find him sitting at the foot of my bed rolling a joint, having somehow beamed himself up from London.
  By the end of university, I was sensing other endings – and beginnings – in my life, and over the following months an emotional tangle developed that could only be resolved, or so it seemed, by a clean break (or by acknowledging what was going on and talking openly about it – but something that obvious and uncool was clearly out of the question). Sometimes, as Tim Buckley says in Nobody Walkin', you gotta turn your back. It seemed the only way; at the time it probably was.
  And so, for four decades, I saw nothing and heard nothing of my old friend, apart from the rumour that he had taken off to the foothills of the Himalayas to live the simple life. Over the years I often wondered what had become of him, what he was up to, if I might bump into him on the street. He continued to make occasional cameo appearances in my dreams, but I never seriously expected to see him again. Then, by way of another friend's chance meeting with another lost friend, I learned that he was alive and surprisingly well, and living, rather reluctantly, in Tiverton, having returned from years of travel and living abroad. He was open to seeing me and the other friend again, and so a reunion was arranged.
  And there he was, my old friend, forty years on, his looks (and many of his teeth) gone, but beaming, arms outstretched, clearly delighted at this turn of events. Apart from his voice and his distinctive posture, he was quite unrecognisable – but the room in which he lived was instantly recognisable: it was essentially that fug-filled front room of yesteryear, strewn and piled with even more rubbish than the original (or indeed the Earl's Court room where we managed to fill a wide, deep club fender to the brim with fag-ends and roaches). He was still living the life he lived forty years ago, now fuelled by rum-and-water and heavy-duty dope (as we used to call it). Smiling beatifically, he sat cross-legged on the bed (or rather mattress) and surveyed the reunion with every sign of satisfaction. It was – for once the tired phrase is true – like walking back in time.
  He had indeed been travelling, spending many years in India and Nepal, in Spain, France and the Low Countries (his mother was Belgian, and he could speak Flemish). At one time he had a small boat and would commute to and fro across the Channel, one hand on the tiller, the other on his bottle of rum. A natural sailor, he never came to grief. He had not pursued anything resembling a career; having a talent for drawing, he could always make a few bob whenever he needed to by selling sketches. He had formed no permanent partnership with anyone and had no family beyond a few nephews and nieces he cared about (his mother of course was long dead). He had made none of the familiar compromises that most of us make, just to get along in the world; he had lived on his own terms, and by and large it had worked out remarkably well. He had a good deal of charm, and wherever he lived – as in the Dickensian rooming house in Tiverton – he tended to form a little family around him, a kind of unofficial mutual aid society. It seemed to work.
  I staggered away from that reunion determined to stay in contact, and the feeling was clearly mutual, as the old friendship flared back into life, if on a very much lower flame than before. We exchanged letters and mementoes, books and music, and texted frequently. Things were different of course, but it was good to be back in contact, on new, in some ways easier, terms. It felt good and right not to have lost touch entirely. The texts continued for a few years, but gradually petered out. Sometimes there was an angry, irascible tone in his communications, and this was something new. The friend who saw the most of him told me that he was becoming impossible, especially when drunk, and he was seeing less of him, being understandably fed up with making the effort to visit and then being roundly abused for his pains. I'm glad I never saw any of this, and on the last occasion I actually talked to him – by phone, having just heard of his initial cancer diagnosis – he was friendly enough. He was also commendably relaxed about the whole thing, having no complaints, and only hoping to die without being too much of a nuisance to anyone. I offered to visit, but I think we both knew that by then it wouldn't have been a great idea, so I never did see him – or that time-capsule room – again. The cancer took its course, but slowly and gently, and he seems to have managed his death as skilfully as his life, remaining in his own place, with ample supplies of morphine. When at length he died, his closest female friend was with him. It was a good death.
  Despite his ambition to outlive him, he died before his musical hero Hal Blaine had joined the great celestial jam session – but there will be music enough. RIP, old friend.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Let Nature Sing

What better way to expunge all memories of Whistling Jack Smith than to listen to Let Nature Sing, the birdsong single released today by the RSPB. The sounds are beautiful (and beautifully arranged), the images are amazing, and the alarmist message is, I suppose, forgivable in the circumstances.
You can find Let Nature Sing here –

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Enigma of Whispering Jack Smith

Last night's Front Row (Radio 4's Yarts magazine) included a sublimely uninteresting piece on Joe Orton's record collection. It seems that, despite having an irreproachably 'queer ear' (i.e. penchant for musicals and torch songs), Orton's taste in pop music was disappointingly mainstream. In the Summer of Love, he even bought Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me, thereby helping to keep the Beatle's Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields for Ever off the Number One spot. Orton disliked Dylan, preferring Donovan (yes, really), so it seems he was not a man of sound judgment in this field. He also appears to have had a taste for novelty singles: one of the records mentioned in the Front Row report was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman by Whistling Jack Smith.
  Whistling Jack Smith! (I borrow this formulation from Osbert Sitwell, who begins each of the biographical essays in Noble Essences thus – 'Ronald Firbank!', 'Edmund Gosse!', etc). Inasmuch as I'd ever thought about Whistling Jack Smith, I'd vaguely imagined him as one of those Sixties survivors still clinging on to some kind of career – a sad and haunted man with the remnants of a Beatles haircut and a grubby faux-Victorian military tunic, wetting his whistle in a seedy Brighton pub before shambling up to the mike and delivering yet again his single imperishable hit. Not so, it seems.
  Whistling Jack was indeed the ultimate one-hit wonder – I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman reached number five in the UK charts in 1967, and that was that – but who was he? The question is not easily answered. It is generally agreed that the siffleur on the single was John O'Neill, a trumpeter and vocalist with the Mike Sammes Singers, but others press the claim of record producer Noel Walker. John O'Neill's Wikipedia entry has the look of an epistemological battlefield, and is hedged about with editorial warnings. What seems certain is that O'Neill was paid a flat fee for his efforts, and never got a penny more. Worse, when the single was performed on Top of the Pops, it was whistled – or rather mimed – not by O'Neill but by an actor known as Coby Wells, who subsequently toured as Whistling Jack Smith. John O'Neill continued with the Mike Sammes Singers, who, among other things, later contributed to the strange goings-on in the background of The Beatle's I Am the Walrus. They chanted, under George Martin's guidance, choruses of 'ho ho ho, ha ha ha, he he he', 'oompah oompah, stick it up your jumper' and 'everybody's got one'. Heady times.
  In case you have forgotten the pernicious earworm that was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman, here it is, performed on this occasion by John O'Neill. I think.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 3.

Having read and written about Waugh's first two novels, I move on, inevitably, to his third, Who Are the Violets Now? Published in 1965, this is, I'd say, just about the best of the three, and the funniest (if you like your comedy dark). Like his father, Waugh was particularly adept at cutting away extraneous connective tissue, and here he exercises that talent to brilliant effect. Who Are the Violets Now? is less ambitious than The Foxglove Saga, and the canvas is less crowded than Path of Dalliance. The result is a structural elegance that, most of the time, matches the characteristic elegance of Waugh's prose.
  Once again a young, ineffective hero is at the centre of the action – but this one, Arthur Friendship, is also highly idealistic, remarkably innocent and romantic when it comes to girls, and, on one occasion at least, genuinely heroic (the attempted rescue of a child from a house fire leaves him badly burned and hospitalised). Friendship (as I've mentioned before) works for Woman's Dream magazine, while himself dreaming of higher things, working voluntarily for a left-wing peace organisation, and worshipping from afar the beautiful Elizabeth Pedal. He lives, as many did in those far-off days, in a boarding house, where one of his fellow tenants is the  wholly amoral chancer Ferdie Jacques, who is also involved in the peace organisation, and indeed lands a job working for its urbane, devastatingly charismatic leader, Mr Besant, a man who appears to be on close terms with all the great and good, and who daily expects nuclear annihilation. Indeed, as becomes clear, he rather relishes the prospect, the destruction of humanity being the ultimate manifestation of Peace.
  Waugh has much fun with the antics of the peace organisation, its inane discussions, and its amateurish attempts to foment trouble in this or that cause, 'colour prejudice' being the latest. A visiting black American writer called Mr Gray gives a speech in which he assures his bemused but admiring audience that 'You can do NOTHING. Everything the white man can do has been done. You have enslaved a continent and exploited an entire race. Now is the time for other people to be doing things.' That sounds very 21st-century.
  The plot bowls along very entertainingly, with frequent laughs, towards a farcical climactic scene at the Savoy, where, in a grand ceremony, Mr Besant is presented with the Cheese of Peace. What happens next reveals the more than surprising true identity of Mr Besant, and brings Arthur Friendship's pursuit of Elizabeth Pedal to a very definite end. I'm not sure the ending entirely works: neat though it undoubtedly is, it feels hurried – but I'm not complaining. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, full of cherishable scenes, and I'm already looking forward to the next stage of my journey through Auberon Waugh's undeservedly forgotten novels. Two to go now...

Sunday, 21 April 2019


These are flying off the shelves at Thornton's. Hurry, hurry...

Et Resurrexit

Wishing a Happy Easter to all who browse here.
Over to you, Johann Sebastian...

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Les Abeilles de Notre Dame

A piece of cheering news from an unexpected source this morning. The 200,000 bees that live in three hives on the sacristy roof of Notre Dame have, against all expectations, survived the devastating fire. While the inferno raged all around, the bees responded to the danger by gorging on honey and clustering protectively around their queens. Then, it seems, they simply got drunk and slept through it. And now, to the amazement of all – including the cathedral's wonderfully named beekeeper,  Monsieur Géant – they are buzzing about again as if nothing had happened. A good story for Eastertide.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Good Friday

For Good Friday, a beautiful and moving – and very short – story by Chekhov, the one he claimed was his own favourite among all his stories.
Here's the link – The Student.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

London Calling

A little thought experiment...
  Let's suppose that the protestors currently trying to bring our capital city to a halt were not the usual bunch of gaphead ecofascists demanding a pointless emissions-reducing gesture by the Government. Let's suppose, rather, that they were protestors representing an organisation called Blackout Rebellion and demanding an end to the decommissioning of coal and gas power stations and an urgent programme of building small-scale nuclear plants – this in order to prevent the large-scale power blackouts that could well be hitting us very soon if we carry on along our present path.
  Now, do you suppose that such a protest would be treated sympathetically, as a kind of carnival event, by the BBC, that the Blackout Rebels would be chummily addressed by their first names and allowed to state their beliefs without any tough questions, that the police would handle the situation with kid gloves, and the authorities would have nothing of any substance to say? Call me an old cynic, but I rather doubt it.
  The difficulty is that the Extinction Rebellion mob are taking seriously, and acting on, what they have been repeatedly told for years by the BBC, David Attenborough, Prince Charles, Al Gore, their teachers, etc, etc – that we have [insert figure here] years / days to 'save the planet' and must act with the utmost urgency. The doomsayers can hardly challenge people who are doing what they themselves (the doomsayers) believe to be, well, right.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Notre Dame

Terrible to see the overnight images from Paris of a burning Notre Dame, and to read the evident shock and grief in the faces of those looking on as one of France's – and the world's – great, genuinely iconic buildings seemed to be heading for total destruction. Today we learn that, although the wooden roof and much else is lost, the stone structure is intact and many artefacts have been rescued. It is already clear that there is a strong will to restore and reconstruct the cathedral to any extent necessary – so strong that one wealthy businessman has already pledged an incredibly generous 100 million euros to the work. I would confidently predict that, in a few decades, it will be as if nothing had happened, and Notre Dame will be restored to something very like – perhaps all but indistinguishable from – its former glory.
  When we look at a cathedral, what we are seeing is rarely the original structure – whatever 'original' means in such a context: most cathedrals replaced (or partially incorporated) an existing building, which itself might have replaced something earlier still. What we see is the result of a centuries-long process of building and rebuilding, demolition and replacement, repair and restoration, and adaptation to changing uses, both liturgical and secular (in Revolutionary times, Notre Dame was stripped and desecrated, and served as a Temple of Reason and a Temple of the Supreme Being). And, amid all these changes, there were also the ever-present threats of fire and structural collapse – towers and spires being particularly liable to the latter. Take Chichester cathedral, which I visited a few weeks ago: a fire in 1187 burnt out the building (and much of the town), the southwest tower collapsed in 1210 and was rebuilt, the northwest tower came down in 1635 and wasn't rebuilt till 1901, and the spire fell in on itself in 1861 and was promptly rebuilt, along with the central tower, by the tireless George Gilbert Scott (almost as tireless as his French equivalent, Viollet-le-Duc, who remodelled much of Notre Dame between 1844 and 1864, adding the famous spire). As well as all this necessary rebuilding and restoration at Chichester, there were also many modifications and reorderings of the interior over the years – including the installation of the Arundel 'tomb' made famous by Philip Larkin. And yet, when we look at Chichester cathedral, we still see a single thing, despite all the changes and remakings – an essence, a continuity. And so it will be with Notre Dame de Paris.

  As I watched the roof of Notre Dame burning, it put me in mind of the destruction of the old St Paul's in the Great Fire of London – and of a remarkable survival: Nicholas Stone's great monument to John Donne. Here, in an exclusive extract from my forthcoming book, I recall its happy escape...

'When the old St Paul’s Cathedral was all but destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, huge quantities of molten lead crashed down from what had been the roof and carried on downward, through the floor and into the crypt, destroying practically everything in the church and leaving nothing but ruined fragments of its former glories. What monuments survived were hideously mutilated – heads or limbs missing, grand effigies reduced to charred remnants, eerily reminiscent now of Giacometti sculptures. One monument, however, made of a single piece of white marble, slid off its pedestal intact, plummeted into the vault, and survived virtually unmarked. This was Stone’s monument to Donne, which lay unregarded among the rubble and fragmentary remains in the vault until near the end of the nineteenth century, by which time Donne’s poetry, long dismissed as flashy and uncouth, was being rediscovered. The great monument was rescued and reinstated where it still stands, in its niche in the Dean’s Aisle. If you look closely, you can still see a little scorching on the urn, the only mark of its extraordinary ordeal by fire.' 

  Donne's monument returned to the crypt for safe keeping during the Blitz. His successor as Dean, Walter Matthews, slept beside it, perhaps trusting that, having survived the Great Fire, it could survive anything.