Wednesday, 16 January 2019

'The arrow speeding'

I recently came across this poem, of two short and simple stanzas, in R.S. Thomas's Mass for Hard Times:


I look up at the sky at night
and see the archer, Sagittarius,
with his bow drawn, and realise
man is the arrow speeding,

not as some think infinitely
on, but because space is curved,
backwards towards the bowman's heart
to deal him his unstanched wound.

I wonder if, when he wrote it, Thomas was remembering his use of the same image of the returning, self-wounding arrow in his moving earlier poem Sorry, addressed to his forgiven parents:

Dear parents,
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.

It was not the bone buckled;
You gave me enough food
To renew myself.
It was the mind's weight
Kept me bent, as I grew tall.

It was not your fault.
What should have gone on,
Arrow aimed from a tried bow
At a tried target, has turned back,
Wounding itself
With questions you had not asked.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Big Day

Today is a big day – yes, the 460th anniversary of the coronation of our greatest Queen, Elizabeth I. On this date in 1559, chosen by the astrologer John Dee, Elizabeh was crowned in Westminster Abbey – not by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had died on the day of her accession, but, all other candidates proving too controversial, by the relatively lowly Bishop of Carlisle, Owen Oglethorpe. The crowning itself was one element in a four-part ritual, which also included the Vigil Procession (in which Elizabeth sailed in the royal barge from Whitehall to the Tower of London), the spectacular Royal Entry into the City of London and Westminster, and the lavish post-coronation feast at Westminster Hall, at which the Queen's Champion, Sir Edward Dymoke, rode into the hall on horseback in full armour and issued the traditional gauntlet-throwing challenges called for on such occasions. The Queen had contributed some £16,000 of her own money (a huge sum then) towards the cost of all this splendid pageantry, and it seems to have been money well spent, as Elizabeth's subjects were duly awed and impressed by the grandeur of the royal spectacular.
  The coronation service itself showed Elizabeth's skill in navigating the dangerous strait between the conflicting demands of Catholicism and Protestantism. Indeed she managed to fudge things so effectively that none of the witnesses seems to have been entirely sure what happened. After the ceremony she was 'presented for the people's acceptance' amid a great tumult of fifes, trumpets, drums, organs and bells.
  Elizabeth had acceded to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary, and her Council and other peers immediately came to Hatfield to pledge their allegiance. The young Queen, just 25 years old, addressed them thus:

'My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.'

You don't hear that kind of talk these days...

Maze and Mystery Bird

Yesterday we all went to Hampton Court, and got so thoroughly lost in the maze that I wondered if I ought not to have packed iron rations and distress flares; it was all getting rather reminiscent of the famous maze scene in Three Men in a Boat. We never did find the centre, and only discovered the exit by chance.
  While crossing the bridge towards Hampton Court, I was startled to see a bird of monstrous size and wingspan – larger than a swan and less heavy in the body – flying purposefully upriver. It was a long-necked affair, with prominent white shoulders to its wings, the rest of the body in various tones of black, brown and buff, possibly a little red. It was big, and, when I got to glimpse its face as it disappeared under the bridge, had a pretty evil expression and a useful-looking beak. Has anyone got any idea what it could have been? The nearest I can find a Goosander, but it looked much larger than that.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Street Life

Out shopping this morning (a major theme of my life just now), I couldn't help noticing that the high street was swarming with leaflet-wielders demanding a 'People's Vote' on Brexit – as against the 2016 Referendum, which, as you might recall, was open only to the nobility, clergy and landed gentry. I did not engage with any of these eager pamphlet-pushers, though I did reply to one in three short words: 'We've had one' (a people's vote, that is – but of course that one didn't count because the people stupidly came up with the wrong answer, so now we must try again and this time Get It Right).
  My other local high street – regularly the scene of amusing passive stand-offs between those inviting us to 'Discover Islam' and those urging us to praise the Lord and seek His Salvation, Hallelujah! – has recently been invaded by a young and pushy sales force urging passers-by to switch their utility company. Yesterday I noticed that they were not in their usual place but had moved some distance up the street. I soon discovered why: on the concrete pillar in front of which they usually set up their stall, some public-spirited soul had written, in very large black capitals, 'Energy muggers stand here', with an arrow pointing to their regular station. Nice work.
  Like many (most?) people, I resent such muggers and chuggers, whatever they are selling, intruding on my reveries – and the chummier their approaches the more unpleasant I find it (How's your day going? Well, it was fine until you came along). I've never bought or signed up to anything in response to an approach in the street and I'm sure I never will. And yet the muggers and chuggers become ever more numerous and intrusive. Perhaps I should work on a basilisk glare so terrifying that it will stop them coming anywhere near me...

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

'The same far rumour'

What with one thing and another, I haven't done as much reading as usual these past few weeks, but I have read and enjoyed the anthology I mentioned recently, Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches, lovingly curated by Kevin J. Gardner. He sees the poets he has selected as engaged in the 'recuperation of Anglican memory' and thereby accepting the Blakean charge of building Jerusalem in England, fostering 'a sense and a hope that the present world of chaos and fragmentation might be transmuted into identity, order and meaning'. Well, amen to that, though the elegiac tone of these poems inevitably speaks more of loss than of recuperation.
  The modern English church elegy is a peculiarly Anglican phenomenon, born of the decline of the Church of England as an organic national church, the firm spiritual centre of communal life at both national and local level. This loss, of course, runs parallel to the more general decline of doctrinal faith and the apparently irresistible spread of secularism. Philip Larkin is the laureate and originator of this kind of elegy; his Church Going looms huge over the poems collected here, and its mood suffuses most of them. There is a more comfortable but less potent tradition that flows from Betjeman's church poems, but Larkin is the man for the awkward, puzzled, awed encounter with a tradition of belief and observance that seems to have entered a fast-fading twilight, yet still retains a disturbing power to move and to unsettle.
  Larkin is also, along with Geoffrey Hill (who doesn't write in the shadow of Larkin, or anyone else), by some margin the best poet represented, followed, I'd say, by Peter Porter (represented by three fine poems) and of course John Betjeman. Most of the poems collected here are well written and structured, essentially descriptive, fittingly elegiac in tone and suggestive of some continuity of faith, or at least some possibility of it. Few of them achieve escape velocity and rise much above the descriptive, but they do what they do skilfully and often eloquently, and as descriptions they are often vivid and evocative. I discovered one notably powerful poem, new to me, that stands alone for its ambition, originality and skill – George Barker's At Thurgarton Church, a long poem that might stand as an updating of Gray's Elegy for an age of lost or declining faith (you can read it here). 
  I was also glad to find three fine poems by C.H. Sisson, and three by U.A. Fanthorpe, a bit of a church poem specialist – as was Anthony Thwaite, who has more poems that anyone else in the book (though none of them, for me, hit the heights). Peter Scupham, another church poem specialist, is deservedly well represented, and I'll end by passing on one of his – and urging church-loving readers to take a look at this well chosen, enjoyable and rewarding anthology...


Recall now, treading the cloister garth's clipped grass,
That time the Commissioners urged their sweating horses
About the uneasy land. Under huge gates they paced,

Ironically savouring that final confrontation,
The long concessions winding to surrender.
Houghton, Whiting: some took martyrdom. To fresh vocations

Most adjusted, leaving the cool painted house
Of prayer, and all its various furniture,
Each known and local contour of a dwelling place.

Lead bubbled, wood-smoke ascended. Rough secular hands
Fluttered both text and commentary, levelled well-set courses
Of cut stone for manor, mansion, God made no visible amends.

A spectacular pleasure, some. Bolton to the suave Wharfe leans
Her vacant choir. From Crowland's screen, decaying features
Gaze severely at the unlettered town.

Such emblems landscape bears as sands bear shells:
Twinned tokens, disciplines where life declines.
In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells.

Sunday, 6 January 2019


Epiphany, the end of Christmastide, the Magi bring their gifts. Time for one more from Geoffrey Hill, the laureate of rain, charging a drizzly day in the Wyre Forest with beauty and meaning...

Epiphany at Hurcott 

Profoundly silent January shows up 
clamant with colour, greening in fine rain, 
luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole 
brightest at sundown.
On hedge-banks and small rubbed bluffs the red earth, 
dampened to umber, tints the valley sides. 
Holly cliffs glitter like cut anthracite. 
The lake, reflective, floats, brimfull, its tawny sky.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Van Dyke Parks, Birthday Boy

Another birthday to make you feel old – Van Dyke Parks, musician, songwriter, arranger, producer, genius to some, turned 76 today. In the Sixties, he headed West to California to escape the influence of John Cage, 'the abstractions, the music you can't remember, the highbrow angst'. He worked with everybody who was anybody in the West Coast music scene, most famously with Brian Wilson on the legendary (but ultimately disappointing) Smile album. Most of his solo work I found easier to admire than to enjoy – those inspissated, endlessly layered textures, those strange sounds and incoherent lyrics were too much for me. However, I did enjoy his more accessible work, especially the Discover America album that he made with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band. I have hazy memories of listening to that one many a time... Here's one of the tracks – just the thing for a cold grey winter's day –

More Good News

Clearly stung by my recent remarks, Radio 4 seems to be making an effort to redeem itself in this new year. Hot on the heels of the all-day reading of The Leopard on New Year's Day comes a bracingly forthright talk, The Art of Now: Identity Crisis, by writer and critic Sohrab Ahmari (author of The New Philistines). Ahmari's thesis, vigorously argued (but balanced by counter-arguments), is that identity politics and political point-scoring are stifling and seriously damaging the art world, leading to bad art, and fuelling narcissism, political conformity and social division. If artists limit their vision to their own lived experience and, worse, their own political views and politicised identity, the result is liable to be narrow, predictable and nugatory art, bathed in 'a bland wash of political slogans' (quotations from Foucault obligatory). Art's traditional search for truth and beauty is under threat – and so are actual artworks of which the activists don't approve and wish to see destroyed. Radio 4 describes Ahmari's programme as an 'impassioned polemic'. We could do with more of them, especially if they fly in the face of the all-pervasive cultural agenda represented, most of the time, by Radio 4 itself.
You can find The Art of Now: Identity Crisis on the Radio 4 website.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

My Year in Books

As usual, my last year's reading included nothing published in that year (by contrast with that great reader Patrick Kurp, who found ten 2018 titles to recommend, though with little fiction in the list and that in translation). So my year was one of rereadings and of first readings of books from the (mostly 20th-century) past, and as usual these included far more fiction than non. Here are some highlights...
  The year began (in New Zealand) with my greatest discovery – Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi  – an altogether extraordinary novel that seems to me to be a true classic. Later in the year I made another foray into Hungarian literature, reading two novels by Antal Szerb, each of them distinctive and bracingly original, one of them, Journey by Moonlight, the kind of book that lingers hauntingly in the memory.
  Closer to home, I indulged my Ivy Compton-Burnett addiction with one more, The Mighty and Their Fall, and read two more Barbara Pyms, I think two of her very best – No Fond Return of Love and A Glass of Blessings. I also braved one more Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris. Male novelists got a look in, with my exploration of the all but forgotten novels of Angus Wilson continuing (Late Call), a long overdue reading of Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns and an equally overdue rereading of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. A chance find of Modern Baptists introduced me to an American writer quite new to me, James Wilcox, of whom I intend to read more.
  I finally tackled a book I'd been resisting for years – Martin Amis's autobiographical Experience – and was reminded both of why I once admired him so much and why I went so completely off him. Fired by rereading Auberon Waugh's Four Crowded Years: Diaries 1972-76, I decided to read (technically reread) his first two novels, The Foxglove Saga and Path of Dalliance, both of which are fine, if flawed, comic novels, genuinely funny and surely not deserving of their current oblivion.
  I seem to have read quite a lot of Peter Ackroyd this year – The Lambs of London, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination and, most recently, his short and serviceable biography of Wilkie Collins. Which brings us into the realm of non-fiction. Here my most memorable and enjoyable reads (apart from Albion) were J.R. Ackerley's hair-raising My Dog Tulip, Jan Morris's beautiful Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, an extraordinary feat of (auto)biography that throws sharp and unexpected light not only on Julia but on those around her.
  Looking back, this seems a good, rewarding year's reading. I'm starting the next with The Prank, a collection of Chekhov's early short stories – and at least four more promising volumes are queuing up on the shelf, jostling to be read next.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Good News

Happily Radio 4 is doing something to redeem itself today – an all-day reading, dotted into the schedule at intervals, of that classic novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is something of a Radio 4 New Year tradition now, and usually works very well (I particularly remember Andrew Scott's brilliant reading of Ulysses a few years back). The Leopard is being read, superbly, by the excellent Alex Jennings (who, a quarter of a century ago, performed my one foray into radio writing, a dramatic monologue that went out on Radio 3).