Monday, 9 December 2019

'The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox'

This is not a quiz, but the passage below – the first paragraph of a book – invites some questions:
What is the writer on about? What could possibly be the subject of this book? And who on earth could the author be?

'In this strange "goose-weather", when even the snow and the black-fringed clouds seem like old theatrical properties, dead players' cast-off rags, "the complexion of a murderer in a bandbox, consisting of a large piece of burnt cork, and a coal-black Peruke", and when the wind is so cold that it seems like an empty theatre's "Sea, consisting of a dozen large waves, the tenth a little bigger than ordinary and a little damaged", I thought of those medicines that were advised for Melancholy, in the anatomy of this Disease, of mummies made medicine, and of the profits of dust-sifting.'
[The embedded quotations, by the way, are from a 'List of Theatrical Properties', in The Tatler, number 42.]

The writer is clearly in thrall to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy – and, at the end of the chapter, quotes the passage from Sir Thomas Browne that ends 'Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cureth wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsam' – which at least gives the chapter a kind of circularity. But what is the subject of this book, and who is the writer? Well, the subject is English Eccentrics, and the author is Edith Sitwell, who has still several pages to write before – by way of the great 'Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap', the Pandemonium Theatre Company, 'the clicking noises made by earthworms' ['recently discovered by the physiologist O. Mangold'], the 'morning worship' and vocalisations of lemurs, and attempts to teach human speech to chimpanzees – she finally arrives at the subject of Eccentricity, and the first of her English Eccentrics at last hoves into view.
'Eccentricity exists particularly in the English,' Sitwell observes, 'and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.'
  I've always tended to go along with Leavis's sniffy judgment of the literary Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – as belonging more to the history of publicity than of literature (I don't know why, as I'm sure I disagree with Leavis on most things). However, I owe a debt to Sacheverell, whose long introduction to Mrs Esdaile's English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 is the best, and by miles the most engaging, introduction to the subject, and was one of my chief inspirations in writing my book.
And now I'm giving Edith a try, and so far am greatly enjoying English Eccentrics. Reading it feels more like reading Burton or Browne than anything of the 20th century. I know too little of Edith Sitwell's other work to reach any great conclusions, but, for all her modernist experiments in verse, she seems, in this book at least, to demonstrate a thoroughly 17th-century sensibility – a rare thing in the twentieth.
 She was in many ways, however, of her own time, with her own place in 'the history of publicity', and with some surprising connections – here, by way of a coda, is Dame Edith talking, very astutely and sympathetically, about Marilyn Monroe...

Sunday, 8 December 2019

70 and one day

Well, yesterday's events only deepened my sense of thankfulness for everything. A Surprise Party that wasn't entirely unexpected turned out in the event to be a magnificent surprise indeed, thanks to Mrs N's (and others') titanic efforts of clandestine organisation and preparation; its lavish scale; and the number and range of guests, several of whom were indeed surprise presences, and very wonderful surprises. From the moment I arrived and took in the scene before me, I entered a kind of blissful dream-like state, a high from which I'm only now coming down. Things will return to something like normal in due course, I dare say... Meanwhile, a huge and heartfelt thankyou to the redoubtable Mrs N and to all those who were there yesterday and are reading this. And for all the birthday wishes so many have sent. It was a day to remember.

Saturday, 7 December 2019


Today I achieve my three score years and ten. Well, 'achieve' is hardly the word: so long as you continue to breathe in and breathe out, reflect light and occupy space, these landmarks come and go. As this one arrives, I find myself hugely thankful, that I have survived and am in good health, and that my life has been so abundantly full of love and delight – and luck. I am truly blest, and know it. I hope Tom Waits is feeling the same...
And I'm also very glad that I managed to get the book out into the world before this landmark date arrived. 

Friday, 6 December 2019

'A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath'

Today on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp writes about a treasured book – an edition of the poems of George Herbert that was a gift from the poet Helen Pinkerton. Published in New York in 1854, this collection was edited 'by the Rev. George Gilfillan' – a name that rang quite a loud bell with me.
  Sure enough, Gilfillan features in John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, where he is affectionately described as 'the McGonagall of criticism'. A man of formidable energy and self-belief, he did pioneering work in introducing the classics of English literature to a hungry reading public in the mid-19th century, but was also wildly enthusiastic about the emerging school of 'Spasmodic' poets – such long forgotten names as Alexander Smith, Philip James Bailey, J. Stanyan Bigg and Sydney Dobell, all authors of grandiose, tormented spiritual epics. This enthusiasm laid Gilfillan open to a well aimed satirical attack, William Aytoun's Firmilian, A Spasmodic Tragedy, an assault that might have ended the career of a lesser man. Gilfillan, however, battled on, dismissing all criticism of himself, producing a spasmodic epic of his own – Night, a poem in nine books – and bringing out an annotated edition of the English poets in 48 volumes, a publication supported by an impressive 7,000 subscribers.
  My own edition of Herbert, which belonged to my grandmother, is of similar vintage, but published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. No editor is named, but the volume includes Izaak Walton's life of the poet, some Commendatory Verses by various hands, and a small selection of Herbert's letters. Browsing in these just now, I came across this beautiful letter 'for my dear sick Sister':

Most dear Sister,
Think not my silence forgetfulness; or that my love is as dumb as my papers: though businesses may stop my hand, yet my heart, a much better member, is always with you; and, which is more, with our good and gracious God, incessantly begging some ease of your pains, with that earnestness that becomes your griefs and my love. God, who knows and sees this writing, knows also that my soliciting Him has been much and my tears many for you; judge me then by those waters, and not by my ink, and then you shall justly value
           Your most truly, most heartily
                 affectionate brother and servant...

Patrick quotes Herbert's marvellous sonnet, 'Prayer', and confesses to having a weakness for such 'list poems'. Here is another, by the minor Elizabethan poet Barnabe Barnes. Like 'Prayer', and like most of Barnes's poetical output, it's a sonnet – but, unlike Herbert's, it reveals its subject not in its title but in its closing couplet:

'A blast of wind, a momentary breath'

A blast of wind, a momentary breath,
A wat'ry bubble symbolized with air,
A sun-blown rose, but for a season fair,
A ghostly glance, a skeleton of death;
A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath,
Whose moisture sun's appearance doth impair;
A lightning glimpse, a muse of thought and care,
A planet's shot, a shade which followeth,
A voice which vanisheth so soon as heard,
The thriftless heir of time, a rolling wave,
A show, no more in action than regard,
A mass of dust, world's momentary slave,
  Is man, in state of our old Adam made,
  Soon born to die, soon flourishing to fade.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Scenes from Another World

On this day in 1958, two momentous events occurred – the kind of events that make a person of my vintage realise how long he's been around.
  Before this date, it was not possible to make a telephone call of any distance at all without going via 'the operator', who would connect you (if you were lucky) to the number you wanted. Then came STD (subscriber trunk dialling) and it became possible to dial direct to relatively far flung parts of the country. The maximum distance achievable was roughly that from Bristol to Edinburgh. And so it was that, on this date in 1958, the Queen (with Postmaster General Ernest Marples at her right hand) made the first STD call from Bristol's central telephone exchange to the Lord Provost's residence in Edinburgh. Happily it worked, and the Queen was able to speak the historic words, 'This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost.'
 On the same day, elsewhere in England, prime minister Harold Macmillan was opening Britain's first motorway – the Preston bypass, all eight and a quarter miles of it (long since subsumed into the M6). A large and enthusiastic crowd had gathered at the Samlesbury interchange to watch the historic ceremony, such as it was. Macmillan, in an Austin Sheerline limousine, then became the first person to drive (or, rather, be driven) on an English motorway, travelling the length of the bypass at a sensible speed.
  It's fair to say that Britain's first motorway was not an instant success. Many cautious drivers stayed away for fear of being overtaken by maniacs risking speeds of 70mph – or more! Traffic levels (and speeds, which averaged 38mph) were initially low, and it was to be some years before, driven by sheer necessity, British drivers got the hang of motorways. Now a Britain without motorways, and with telephone operators, is inconceivable – and yet that is exactly what we had in my own living memory. Truly it was another world.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Unhappy Scenes from Clerical Life

On this day in 1835, the novelist and critic Samuel Butler was born. Readers of The Mother of Beauty will recall that he was born at Langar in the Nottinghamshire wolds, where his father was Rector of St Andrew's, and where he spent a desperately unhappy childhood. St Andrew's church houses the Scroope monument, one of the finest of its time, and it was this, rather than the Samuel Butler connection, that first drew me to Langar. The church itself, alas, is sadly over-restored... In this exclusive extract from the chapter Scenes from Platonic England, I take up the story:

'Pevsner describes the exterior of St Andrew’s as being ‘unfortunately so vigorously restored by Thomas Butler that little of its original surface remains’. This Thomas Butler, vigorous restorer, was the Rector of Langar – and father of the late-Victorian writer Samuel Butler. Thomas, the son of a very distinguished father – headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield – had been pressed into the Church against his inclinations and had a far from stellar ecclesiastical career. He would be quite forgotten today, had he not had the misfortune to be immortalised in his son’s autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh.
  This is one of the most savage accounts of an oppressed childhood ever written, and Butler Senior, a physical and emotional bully, comes out of it very badly indeed, as does his wife, Samuel’s mother. The author considered both of them ‘brutal and stupid’, and wrote of his father that ‘he never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him’. The unhappy Thomas Butler might well have been taking out the frustrations of his own failed life on his son, re-enacting his own father’s dominance over him in still harsher form – but that, of course, was no consolation to the son on the receiving end, who was never reconciled with his parents.
  Surprisingly, the young Samuel Butler allowed himself to be steered towards the same career as his father and grandfather. However, after Cambridge, his religious doubts began to prevail – much to his father’s wrath – and, to make a radical break with his parents and the future that had been laid down for him, Samuel emigrated to New Zealand, where his experiences inspired his first literary success, the satirical novel Erewhon.

  The Way of All Flesh was considered too incendiary to be published in his lifetime, but after its posthumous publication came to be seen as a minor classic. As a novel, it’s a bit of a mess, but the earlier chapters offer an unforgettably vivid picture of the life of gloomy and stultifying piety, reinforced by brutal punishment, that was once lived in Langar rectory. Platonic England, house of solitudes, had – no doubt still has – its dark side.'

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

O tempora, o mores

For anyone not yet entirely convinced that (a) the world has gone mad and (b) events in the 'woke' world have moved way beyond the reach of satire and parody, I pass on this story.
I don't think any further comment is required...

Monday, 2 December 2019

'Ewart is very frivolous and brittle...'

Well, I've read Gavin Ewart's Penultimate Poems, and by and large it has confirmed my memory of reading Ewart as being an entertaining, engaging experience but seldom anything much more. He was wonderfully fluent and productive – facile even – and a fine practitioner of what is called 'light verse'.
 The last of the Penultimate Poems is a handy piece of good-humoured auto-criticism by a poet who knows he's now outdated and out of critical favour (though outselling most of the poetical competition, even so) and doesn't much care. The line 'Ewart can do very little' is decidedly wide of the mark: Ewart could do practically anything, and with ease. He was versatile to a fault.

A Critic Speaks

Ewart is very frivolous and brittle.
Ewart can do very little –
though every once in a while
he might raise a weary smile.

A stallion neighing at a filly?
His best poems are silly.
Some find them not very nice.
Perhaps they're just worth the price.

But only just. It must be said,
The first thing that comes into his head
is what he writes about,
with rhyme and rhythm, or else without.

What, no insects? And no flowers?
No Heavenly or Earthly Powers?
No pike, no plaice, no crabs, no cod?
No fish at all! And, worse, no God!

Where is the secret narrative, the myth?
The mysticism? The concentrated pith
of Martian Arts? The learned story
of the proud High Tory?

The surrealist touch, quite gay
when the boys come out to play?
Animals, landscapes? Not a hint.
One wonders wanly: Why, why print

all this sad old-fashioned stuff?
It was once new enough –
but now, as fresh modes come in,
we drop it, fastidiously, in the bin!

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Apostrophes: A Battle Lost

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the Apostrophe Protection Society has closed down.
  This little pressure group was founded 18 years ago for the sole purpose of resisting the incorrect use of the apostrophe in English, as in 'it's' for 'its' or the all too common 'greengrocer's [or indeed greengrocers'] apostrophe', as in 'Best Carrot's 50p lb', etc. The founder of the society, who is now 96 years old and, reasonably enough, cutting back on his activities, has concluded, with regret, that the battle is lost, and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won'.
I fear he is right that this particular battle is lost: I come across 'it's' for 'its' all the time, often used by otherwise perfectly literate people, and the conviction, especially among traders, that an apostrophe denotes a plural remains firmly entrenched. A striking example of the latter can be seen on the approach to the west terminal at Victoria, where some years ago a railway worker painted on the wall the warning 'Mind Spike's'. Whatever he wrote it in, it has proved remarkably durable, quite possibly outliving the spikes themselves and no doubt infuriating many a passing apostrophist. Spike's what?
  Does the apostrophe matter that much? Although it's clearly preferable that it's used correctly, I don't think it's ever likely to result in a confusion of meaning or a loss of nuance. Other lost battles have robbed the language of useful distinctions, e.g. the now ubiquitous 'forever' used indiscriminately to cover both English usages: 'for ever', meaning for all time, and 'forever', meaning all the time, or continually, as in 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'. Another battle now almost completely lost is that for 'different from': even upmarket journalists are now happy to use not only 'different to' but even 'different than'. Though it grates, it doesn't matter too much, but it does separate the adjective from its verb of origin and slightly blurs the sense of that word. And then there's the almost universal use of 'amount of' for countable things, as in 'the amount of people'. It seems that not a lot of people [spot the deliberate error]  know this is incorrect. But that's enough pedantry from me.
  I hope the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society is wrong in his broader point and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times' have not won. Or at least not anywhere it really matters.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Q: 'Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others'

'I must here ... avow my belief that before starting to lay down principles of literature or aesthetic a man should offer some evidence of his capacity to enjoy the better and eschew the worse. The claim, for the moment fashionable, that a general philosophy of aesthetic can be constructed by a thinker who, in practice, cannot distinguish Virgil from Bavius, or Rodin from William Dent Pitman, seems to me to presume a credulity beyond the dreams of illicit therapeutics. By "poetry", in these pages, I mean what has been written by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others.'
  So ends the short Preface to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Studies in Literature (published in 1918, in a handsome edition, by the Cambridge University Press – my latest charity shop find). 'Q', as he was generally known, had been appointed King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge in 1912. It was an appointment that raised eyebrows, as Q had until then been known chiefly as a journalist and popular novelist (and hard-working political activist in the Liberal cause – which probably helped to secure the position). This was a time when English Literature was the new kid on the academic block, and there was still some doubt about what exactly it was and how it should be studied. Sir Arthur, unlikely and unacademic figure as he was, had a lasting impact on Cambridge's 'English tripos', for one thing ensuring that it remained mercifully light on philology and Anglo-Saxon (Q, a Cornishman, regarded himself as a Celt), and for another insisting on the inclusion of a curious field of study called 'the English Moralists'. When asked who these English Moralists were, Sir Arthur would respond with 'a lyrical outburst' culminating in 'a roll-call of the great names – "Hooker – Hobbes – Locke – Berkeley – Hume "; and ending with an exhausted "my God", as emotion got the better of him' (these are E.M.W. Tillyard's recollections, quoted by John Gross in that wonderful book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters). When, more than half a century later, I took the English Moralists option, the definition was indeed broad: I remember that it then took in St Augustine at one end and Freud at the other, with more English figures like Mill and Ruskin – and indeed Hobbes – also in the mix. I rather enjoyed the course, especially as my tutor often gave me a glass of whisky to dull the pain of intellection.
  In Q's time, Eng Lit was far from the dry, analytical academic subject it was to become. Sir Arthur himself, in his lectures and 'studies', 'seldom did much more than ramble cheerfully round the subject, shedding a vague glow of enthusiasm' (as Gross puts it). I don't recall anyone shedding the faintest glow of enthusiasm in my Cambridge days, apart from the outsider figure of  George Steiner, who managed to enthuse me mightily about Beckett, Nabokov and Borges in one extraordinary lecture (or maybe it was a talk to the English Society).
  One of the questions about Eng Lit that had to be decided in Sir Arthur's time was how close to the present the study of the subject should come. In one of the Studies, ostensibly on the poetry of George Meredith, Q declares that 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.'
  Sir Arthur goes on to state his conviction 'that upon a school of English there rests an obligation to teach the writing of good English as well as the reading of it: to teach the writing of it through the reading. I want the average educated Englishman to write English as deftly, as scrupulously, as the average educated Frenchman writes French; to have, as at present he has not, at least an equal respect for his language.' Ah, if only that had come to pass...

Thursday, 28 November 2019


Well, this arrived today, looking like the kind of thing that used to be delivered 'under plain brown wrapper'. They don't package poetry books like this any more...
Nor do many poetry collections of today have an author's Foreword entirely devoted to scansion. In it Ewart quotes the two lines he was taught in Latin classes as an example of how the elegiac couplet scans:
'Down in a deep dark dell || sat an old cow munching a beanstalk.
Out of her mouth came forth || yesterday's dinner and tea.'

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

RIP Clive James

Sad to hear of the death of Clive James, though it's wonderful that he managed almost another decade after he was diagnosed with leukaemia – and, of course, he continued writing almost to the very end. If he hadn't been blessed with such a prodigious range of talents, and such a highly developed sense of humour, he could have been his adoptive country's great public intellectual – but who'd want to be that when you could be having fun on (and with) television, being the finest TV critic there ever was, relishing low culture as much as high, meeting and interviewing the stars, living the life? James did the lot, wrote the lot, read the lot, broadcast the lot. He seems to have had the energy, mental and physical, of ten men, and the productive capacity of many more. Of course, being the man he was, he did and wrote too much, but the best of his writings will surely endure.
  Looking back through what I've written about him here over the years, I found a couple of quotations worth repeating. One is a chilling piece of self-analysis from his Cambridge memoir May Week Was in June. Observing himself as his Cambridge days come to a close, he writes, in the third person, 'he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.'
 The second quotation is from the epilogue to a collection of his brilliant radio talks, A Point of View, in which James ponders the role of the broadcaster in a world undoubtedly going mad

‘The business of the broadcaster isn’t to correct abuses. It is merely to point them out, to those capable of seeing the implications. By definition, that audience is already ahead of the broadcaster, so it doesn’t really need him, except for consolation. But consolation can be important at a time when it feels as if the world is going mad. Probably the world always feels like that. But today it raves in a multiform jargon that sounds all the more demented because of its approximation to common reason: the patois of a Bedlam that confers degrees. This peculiarly modern interlingua of unjustified omniscience, now that it is here, will probably never go away. It will always transfer itself to a new area, because there will always be people with an interest in inflating their own importance by distorting reality. But part of reality, a heartening part, is that there will also always be people who know sense when they hear it. To this valuable audience we must be careful what we say…’

Wise words, and but a few among many.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

'A warming to us all'

On this date in 1981, Philip Larkin wrote one of his last published poems (it was printed in The Observer a month later). In it, he wittily mourns his own waning facility and generously celebrates the continuing, indeed unquenchable, poetic vigour of his friend Gavin Ewart.

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

Ewart had a most unusual career, beginning as a wunderkind in the Thirties, then falling silent during the war years (when he served in North Africa and Italy) and for some while after, finding his poetic voice again in the Sixties, then becoming ever more prolific as he went on. I remember reading him in the Seventies and Eighties and finding his work entertaining, engaging, sometimes more, but often giving the impression of a profligate talent, writing too much and throwing away too little. He had a rare sense of humour and an easy mastery of every poetical form he tackled, which no doubt encouraged him to write too much – and, when he wrote about sex, as he very often did, he could be quite jaw-droppingly filthy: one of his later collections was banned by W.H. Smith, back in the days when they could still be called booksellers. Today Ewart, who died in the same week as Kingsley Amis (another friend and admirer), seems destined to be all but forgotten before long. Nothing of his is in print, except perhaps in anthologies, and his Penultimate Poems is available for 1p on Amazon – or was until I snapped it up just now.
Here is one of Ewart's that I found in Wendy Cope's excellent anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. A kind of free-verse almost-sonnet, it's a happy poem indeed, one of quiet gratitude, for summers, bracken, children, for having survived...

June 1966

Lying flat in the bracken of Richmond Park
while the legs and voices of my children pass
seeking, seeking: I remember how on the
13th of June of that simmering 1940
I was conscripted into the East Surreys,
and, more than a quarter of a century
ago, when France had fallen,
we practised concealment in this very bracken.
The burnt stalks pricked through my denims.
Hitler is now one of the antiques of History,
I lurk like a monster in my hiding place.
He didn't get me. If there were a God
it would be only polite to thank him.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Book News latest

I'm not given to blowing my own trumpet, but I can't deny that I find it very pleasing when someone else does it for me – especially when that someone is Patrick Kurp, the best reader any writer could hope to have. Among other things, his piece about The Mother of Beauty on his Anecdotal Evidence blog explains what my book is, and what it was intended to be, better than I've yet managed to do myself.

(For anyone minded to buy a copy, the quickest and easiest way, at least if you're in the UK, is via Amazon – here's the link. Alternatively, send me an email and we'll try to come to some other arrangement. Remember, Christmas is drawing ever closer...)

Sunday, 24 November 2019

From Bruno to Handel

A funny thing happened on Strictly Come Dancing last night. The flamboyant Bruno Tonioli, while showering (well deserved) praise on one of the performances said that it reminded him of Mark Morris's style of choreography. If any choreographer gets mentioned on Strictly, it's invariably Bob Fosse, so this was an interesting, and unexpected, development.
As it happened, this came only a couple of days after I'd discovered (thanks to my Derbyshire cousin) Mark Morris's choreography for the Handel duet I wrote about recently on this blog. It struck me as very beautiful, wonderfully responsive to the music, joyful, inventive, light and altogether lovely to look at. There's a taster below – enjoy!

Saturday, 23 November 2019

More Tate

A picture that caught my eye at the Tate, and seemed new to me (though I'm not certain it was), was a self-portrait by William Dobson, painted around 1640. This dramatically conceived and lushly painted work is high-impact stuff and hard to miss. At a glance, you could almost mistake it for a Velzaquez. It is very clearly the work of an accomplished and more than confident portraitist – as is proven by the other Dobsons hanging nearby: a tender but sharply observed portrait of, probably, his wife, and a much grander bravura portrait of the gorgeously named Royalist Endymion Porter in all his glory, looking like a man whose veins flow with good claret.
  John Aubrey rated Dobson 'the most excellent painter that England has yet bred', and the art historian Ellis Waterhouse labelled him 'the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth'. Today his number one fan is the redoubtable Waldemar Januszcsak, who has called Dobson 'the first British born genius, the first truly dazzling English painter'. He surely deserves to be better known, to emerge from under the gigantic shadow of Van Dyck. Maybe there were other English painters of the period who deserve to be better known? Perhaps, under Charles I, there was a golden age of English painting running in parallel with the golden age of English church monuments (as celebrated in this book)?
  Be that as it may, several other Tate paintings caught my eye, including another from the 17th century (later, though) – a Portrait of a Young Girl by Mary Beale, a very successful portraitist. This intimate informal study is unfinished, but none the worse – and perhaps rather the better – for that.

  A painting I felt sure I'd never seen before was The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born by Henry Wallis, he of The Death of Chatterton fame. The minute detail, fresh colour, sharp light and closeness of observation in this little picture is quite astonishing.

 And then there were two, very different examples of a sub-genre for which I'm always a sucker – Dieppe pictures: a view of the Café des Tribunaux by Sickert, one of his best in that line

and Ben Nicholson's Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise, a semi-abstract piece featuring Barbara Hepworth's face reflected in the window of a Dieppe eaterie –

(And here, not from the Tate's collection, is an image of the Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise in its heyday. The building now houses an estate agent's offices.)

Friday, 22 November 2019

A Tate Caption

Yesterday I took a stroll around the gallery we must now call Tate Britain. The walls of the Duveen Galleries are at present covered with school photographs (Steve McQueen's 'Year 3' project), which somehow failed to pique my interest, so I strode briskly past and turned left into the permanent collection. I always enjoy wandering around these galleries, revisiting old favourites and seeing what else might catch my eye.
 An old favourite – or rather two old favourites – that I would place high in my list of top Tate paintings are George Stubbs's Haymakers and Reapers, a pair of beautifully balanced, perfectly composed (iconic even) representations of two seasons of the English farming year. I love the colours, so delicately and luminously handled, the landscape settings and the paradoxical sense of calm and repose in these scenes of agricultural labour. The figures (including, of course, the horses and the dog) are beautifully drawn and perfectly placed. I'd say they are two of the finest, and most English, of English paintings. But enough of me – here, in its entirely, is the Tate Britain caption:
'As a depiction of labour, this picture [The Reapers] is greatly idealised. The workers are spotlessly clean despite their drudgery. The church in the distance, and the farm manager on the horse to the right, serve as reminders of spiritual and social authority. Stubbs's picture can be seen as a celebration of the order and nobility of rural life, in tune with the concern with efficiency shown by agricultural writers of the time like Arthur Young. Alternatively, you may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.'
 Really sells it, doesn't it? The subtext seems to be: put on your Marxist spectacles before you go near these paintings, then move smartly along. Nothing to see here. 

Hail, Bright Cecilia

It's St Cecilia's Day today.
This calls for some music –

and this, from John Dryden – A Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687

Stanza 1 
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began. 
       When Nature underneath a heap 
               Of jarring atoms lay, 
       And could not heave her head, 
The tuneful voice was heard from high, 
               Arise ye more than dead. 
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry, 
       In order to their stations leap, 
               And music's pow'r obey. 
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began: 
               From harmony to harmony 
Through all the compass of the notes it ran, 
       The diapason closing full in man. 

Stanza 2 
What passion cannot music raise and quell! 
                When Jubal struck the corded shell, 
         His list'ning brethren stood around 
         And wond'ring, on their faces fell 
         To worship that celestial sound: 
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell 
                Within the hollow of that shell 
                That spoke so sweetly and so well. 
What passion cannot music raise and quell! 

Stanza 3 
         The trumpet's loud clangor 
                Excites us to arms 
         With shrill notes of anger 
                        And mortal alarms. 
         The double double double beat 
                Of the thund'ring drum 
         Cries, hark the foes come; 
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat. 

Stanza 4 
         The soft complaining flute 
         In dying notes discovers 
         The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute. 

Stanza 5 
         Sharp violins proclaim 
Their jealous pangs, and desperation, 
Fury, frantic indignation, 
Depth of pains and height of passion, 
         For the fair, disdainful dame. 

Stanza 6 
But oh! what art can teach 
         What human voice can reach 
The sacred organ's praise? 
Notes inspiring holy love, 
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways 
         To mend the choirs above. 

Stanza 7 
Orpheus could lead the savage race; 
And trees unrooted left their place; 
                Sequacious of the lyre: 
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder high'r; 
         When to her organ, vocal breath was giv'n, 
An angel heard, and straight appear'd 
                Mistaking earth for Heav'n. 

As from the pow'r of sacred lays 
         The spheres began to move, 
And sung the great Creator's praise 
         To all the bless'd above; 
So when the last and dreadful hour 
   This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high, 
         The dead shall live, the living die, 
         And music shall untune the sky.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Venezia Inondata

The recent exceptional acque alte in Venice have received much coverage in the news – coverage that has been predictably unilluminating, going straight from spectacular images of the flooding to talk of 'climate change' (a term that is shorthand for 'catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' and was adopted when 'global warming' failed to pan out as predicted). The real story, largely ignored by the news bulletins, has less to do with 'climate change' than with a host of other factors, not least corruption.
  I remember that even at the time of my first visit to Venice – 50 years ago! – there was much talk of a comprehensive solution to Venice's high water problems, envisaged in the form of some kind of flood barrier. When, after decades of discussion and mysteriously disappearing funds, this eventually took definite shape, as MOSE (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), it soon became apparent to all but those driving the project that this was just the kind of monolithic, inflexible, over-engineered grand project that was likely to do as much harm as good in an environment as sensitive and complex as the Venetian lagoon. But every objection and critique has been swept aside and the juggernaut rolls on. The latest projection is that MOSE will be completed in 2022 – a mere 19 years after construction began – but don't hold your breath...
 No doubt a great deal more money will be siphoned off into secret bank accounts before it's finished (if it ever is). In 2014, 35 people, including the then mayor of Venice, were arrested on MOSE-related corruption charges, and it was estimated that some 20 million euros had gone astray. This led to management of the project being taken out of Venetian hands and placed in those of the famously efficient Italian state (which seems hardly to have improved matters). It's a sorry tale – and meanwhile the physical and social structure of Venice continues to suffer terrible degradation as a result, chiefly, of mass tourism on a wholly unsustainable scale, with thousands pouring in daily on the notorious grandi navi, giant cruise ships that have no place in a city as fragile as Venice. Getting rid of them would do more for Venice than MOSE is ever likely to do.

Monday, 18 November 2019

In Town

Today I went up to town for a few hours, strolling around and dropping in on various establishments, including what must surely be the poshest bookshop in the known universe (and I don't mean Hatchards, which, compared to this one, looks like Book R Us). I didn't find anything I wanted, but enjoyed overhearing a slow-motion conversation of quite outstanding circular fatuity between a very posh cove in desultory search of a book and the equally posh bookseller. I didn't stay to discover the outcome, as time was dragging on and I was rapidly losing the will to live. So I went on my way, and as I went on it I couldn't help but notice that the Christmas shopping frenzy was already under way, even in the bookshops (though of course not in the one I'd just visited, where frenzy in any form was hardly to be expected).
  You can see where all this is leading, can't you? Yes, to this year's must-have Christmas present / stocking filler, The Mother of Beauty. This book has, I was astonished to learn, turned up in an obscure small bookshop in Carmarthen – heaven knows how it could have got there. A copy has also turned up on AbeBooks, with an eye-watering mark-up. Remember, you can get it for a mere tenner on Amazon. Here's the link...

Sunday, 17 November 2019


I've just realised that today is Auberon Waugh's 80th birthday – or it would be if he were still with us. That eventuality was never very likely, though: not only did he have a poor genetic inheritance (his father, Evelyn, died at 62) but he was also a heroic smoker and drinker, and accident-prone, as was shown most dramatically when he inadvertently shot – and very nearly killed – himself with a machine gun while on national service in Cyprus. On that occasion, while lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance, he famously made a joke of his situation, inviting his platoon sergeant to 'Kiss me, Chudleigh.' Chudleigh, alas, did not catch the allusion.
  The joke was typical of Waugh's attitude to life in general, his refusal, or inability, to take anything too seriously. The injuries he sustained left him with health problems all his life, but Waugh barely acknowledged them. He died at the age of 61, in January 2001, working to the end as one of the most brilliant, funny and original journalists who ever lived. And, of course, he left half a dozen novels, several if which I've written about here. Happily his memory lives on, and he is still widely – and rightly – admired, perhaps rather more so than when he was still with us. It would be wonderful if he were alive today – England has need of him.

Literary Grappa

My addiction to Ivy Compton-Burnett has kicked in again, and I'm back on the hard stuff – in this case, A Family and a Fortune (1939), which so far is showing every sign of being vintage Ivy. No doubt I shall be writing of it in due course, as I have written here of many of ICB's incomparable novels over the years.
Browsing just now in my files, I see that I also at some point wrote a short essay on Ivy's works – something I have only the very vaguest recollection of doing. I have no idea what audience I had in mind, nor if I ever tried it on any magazine. Most likely I just squirrelled it away and forgot about it; trying to 'sell' Ivy Compton-Burnett is pretty much bound to be a doomed project. However, here it is, for what it's worth. Someone might find it useful. It might even start a lifelong addiction...


The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett are absolutely unlike anyone else’s. Dame Ivy – a highly distinguished literary figure from the mid-Twenties through to her death at the end of the Sixties – is nearly forgotten today, and most of her twenty-odd novels are out of print. However, it’s easy to find many of them online (praise be to Amazon) – and they are well worth finding, though Ivy is very much an acquired taste. If she were a drink, she would be Grappa, that formidable Italian digestif – fierce, harsh and bitter at first sip, but, once you’ve got the taste for the stuff, strangely alluring and moreish, even addictive.
  Ivy grew up in a large, complicated and troubled Edwardian family. Her father died when Ivy was 16 and grief turned her mother into a fearsome, emotionally manipulative domestic tyrant – a role that Ivy seems to have taken over after her mother’s death. Two favourite brothers died young – one of influenza and one in the Great War – and her two youngest sisters died in an apparent suicide pact. ‘One was a good deal cut up by the war; one’s brother was killed, and one had family troubles,’ as she later summed up, with typical understatement.
 Then, apparently out of nowhere, came Pastors And Masters, the first of the stream of novels that were to make Compton-Burnett’s name. The tale of two talentless academics and a sorry act of plagiarism, Pastors And Masters set the template for all the subsequent novels (right down to the binary title). Like all of them – regardless of when they were written – it is set in the Edwardian period and in a social milieu some way north of middle-class. Like all of them, it depicts a small, airless, claustrophobic world – domestic or institutional or both - in which the characters talk endlessly in long, ultra-formal, finely nuanced conversations that teem with subtext, with unspoken motives and passions.
 Almost everything – the action, characterisation and character development, sudden twists and shocking revelations – is carried by dialogue alone; there is virtually nothing else in a typical Ivy Compton-Burnett, apart from unhelpful thumbnail sketches of the characters and rudimentary stage directions. Most of the rest you have to work out for yourself, reading that extraordinary dialogue with care and close attention to discover – gradually or, often, explosively – what is really going on. You have to be on your toes even to keep track of who is speaking, as these conversations often involve several people, sometimes talking over each other or aside. It’s rather like listening from outside a door – something Ivy’s characters frequenty do. (They also have a habit of suddenly appearing from nowhere, like Jeeves.)
 Yes, I know, all this sound like hard work, and no one would describe Ivy Compton-Burnett as an easy read – she herself once said that her novels were ‘hard not to put down’. However, once you have plunged in, you gradually begin to get your bearings, and then the fun begins. For these novels are – for all the seething tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments – comedies. Comedies of the darkest hue – featuring all manner of dastardly deeds, up to and including murder – but comedies none the less. They might even make you laugh (they do me) – more with a shocked gasp than a hearty chuckle, but it’s laughter all the same.
 The comedy comes partly from the contrast between all that endlessly refined dialogue and the baseness and dark emotions that drive it, and partly from the author’s shameless use of creaky plot contrivances that could have been lifted straight out of popular Victorian fiction. But of course it’s pointless trying to analyse comedy – far better to dive in and read.
 Where to begin? In a sense, it hardly matters, as every Compton-Burnett is very much like every other (and very much unlike anything else), but her own two favourites were Manservant And Maidservant – a novel in which life ‘downstairs’ mirrors the emotional battleground ‘upstairs’ - and A House And Its Head, a devastating portrait of masculine domestic tyranny.
Ivy’s opening paragraphs are always, to put it mildly, arresting. Here’s how A House And Its Head begins:

‘”So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.
 Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
 “So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.
 Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
 “So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
 Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown…’

And here are the opening exchanges of Manservant And Maidservant:

 ‘”Is that fire smoking?” said Horace Lamb.
 “Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.”
 “I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.”
 “Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,” said his cousin. “But we seem to have no other.”’
[The fire is indeed smoking – there’s a dead jackdaw in the flue.]

Now read on…
No, really – do.