Saturday, 16 February 2019

Peter Porter

Peter Porter, the Australian-born poet, would have been 90 today (he died in 2010). He was a fine poet who deserves to be remembered, and I've written about him here several times.
This elegant sonnet I came across recently in the anthology of church poems, Building Jerusalem. The window that inspired it (pictured above) commemorates H. Rider Haggard, the hugely successful writer of adventure stories (King Solomon's Mines, She, etc.). He was also an agricultural and political reformer, and a Norfolk farmer, who lived near Ditchingham church and was a churchwarden there. The window in his memory was installed in 1925.

The Rider Haggard Window, St Mary, Ditchingham

Time which eats the stories of our lives
Preserves a cruel freshness here to show
How energetic certainty contrives
To tell us what we think we almost know:
The warlike God of England will bestow
At least in retrospect on loyal wives
A school apotheosis, dirge of knives,
With dying, quick in life, in glass made slow.

A dubious transfer this, as history cools,
An ancient trespass, but a change of rules.
The world was opening which today is closed,
And where the mind went, destiny would tread
With God and Science noisily opposed
And story-telling garlanding the dead.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Where Are the Bolshies Now?

I was amused – well, appalled and aghast, but also amused (what can you do?) – to come across this story of ideologically inspired truancy in the Highlands. At least this girl is meeting with official disapproval for her actions, but elsewhere, I gather, some 'teachers' are actively encouraging their charges to walk out and protest against 'climate change' tomorrow.
  Clearly, now that 'the science is fixed', the CACC (catastrophic anthropogenic climate change) model is firmly entrenched as unquestionable dogma in our schools. Children are being taught this kind of thing as fact, rather than given the knowledge and intellectual tools to question it – or any other dogma. I'd like to think there are still bolshie little buggers in our schools who will miss no opportunity to question what the beaks are telling them (rather like Master Nige in his schooldays), but we hear and see nothing of them. Has the brainwashing really been that successful? I devoutly hope not.
 I'm always impressed by how little our children seem to be taught in school, compared to how it used to be, back in the day when an 11-year-old fresh from primary school knew about as much (in general terms) as today's average undergraduate – and compared to how it is in other countries. The worst effect of this is not so much the lack of knowledge as such, but the fact that this unconscious ignorance leaves children unequipped to argue, inquire and criticise – so they are, alas, wide open to whatever dogma happens to be fashionable.
 Never mind. We're enjoying a spell of wonderfully springlike weather just now (argh – global warming!) and yesterday I saw my first butterfly of the year. It was a Red Admiral, flying strongly southwards along a main road in Cheam. Last year, I didn't see a Red Admiral till mid-June. Every year is different – indeed, at this time last year, a bitter winter was still ahead of us...

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Noggings, Dwangs, Shims and Fake Spots

There was talk of noggings on Grand Designs last night. It was a repeat, of course, and I was rather more than half-watching it because it was a rare departure from the usual egotist-builds-big-glass-house formula (it was the one in which a group of likeminded and impoverished families self-build wooden houses and create a thriving little community). Anyway, the noggings came in when they were assembling the wooden frames. Kevin McCloud (looking very young) talked airily of putting in some noggings. Noggings – also known as dwangs – are small bits of wood used as bracing pieces between the studs or larger members, giving rigidity to the structure. This rang a faint bell – isn't there something similar in a Kay Ryan poem? Not a nogging, but another kind of small filling-in piece, a wedge or fillet, completing a structure... What was the word?
The word was shim, and the poem was this one, Fake Spots

Like air
in rock, fake 
spots got here
really far back.
Everything is
part caulk. 
Some apartments
in apartment blocks
are blanks;
some steeples
are shims. Also
in people: parts
are wedges: and, 
to the parts they keep
apart, precious.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Pictures from Mercia

Yes, I've been on my travels again. This is the 'Breedon Angel', an Anglo-Saxon carving – one of many – from the extraordinary church of Ss Mary and Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill. This tall but oddly truncated building – the surviving chancel and crossing tower of something much bigger – stands high on a sudden, dramatic bluff, visible for miles around on the Leicestershire side of the Derby-Leicester border.
  As well as its rich array of Saxon carvings, the church has a grand collection of (mostly Elizabethan) monuments to members of the Shirley family. This is a view of part of a massive two-storey monument to various of them.
Beneath the kneeling figures, praying under decorative arches, lies something very different – a memento mori in the stark form of a skeleton. This one is clearly not based on close anatomical observation, but it is no less effective for that. 
A very much more naturalistic skeleton lies behind and slightly above a shrouded cadaver in the extraordinary monument – simultaneously grand and gruesome – in St Peter, Edensor (Derbyshire), to the brothers William and Henry Cavendish, who died in 1625 and 1616 respectively. The skeleton, dimly visible in the shadows here, represents Henry, the cadaver William.
These figures sit (or rather lie) very oddly in a vast monument that is otherwise all lofty Renaissance grandeur, a work at the cutting edge of monumental fashion. Here's a better view of Henry...
And here's a general view of the whole darned thing, which covers an entire wall and reaches up to the roof.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Liberals Old and New

'Liberal' is a term much bandied about in what passes for political discourse these days. Especially in America, it has become a term of abuse in conservative circles, its perceived meaning encompassing globalism, diversity, multiculturalism, enforced and selective toleration, enmity to free expression, devaluation of family and traditional ties, and an all-encompassing approach that can look worryingly close to an enforced elite monoculture (what's not to hate?). Oddly, this form of liberalism can be the very opposite of what is sometimes called 'classical' liberalism, the Enlightenment-based liberalism that emphasises freedom and equality under the law, and has little or no kinship with the more regrettable aspects of the new elite liberalism (aspects of which have been characterised by John Gray as 'ultra-liberalism', liberalism that has overshot its sensible objectives and become something else altogether).
  There was a time when 'liberal' carried a sweeter and more idealistic connotation, and could describe followers of William Morris, living simple, creative lives, surrounding themselves with beautiful, hand-made things, making music, and believing that a better world was possible if more people lived like them and turned their backs on the destructive mechanical age that was all around them. A few such people were hanging on, marooned in a changed world, in the early 1950s, when John Betjeman wrote his touching poem, The Old Liberals...

Pale green of the English Hymnal! Yattendon hymns
 Played on the hautbois by a lady dress’d in blue
 Her white-hair'd father accompanying her thereto
On tenor or bass-recorder. Daylight swims
 On sectional bookcase, delicate cup and plate
 And William de Morgan tiles around the grate
And many the silver birches the pearly light shines through.

I think such a running together of woodwind sound,
 Such painstaking piping high on a Berkshlre hill,
 Is sad as an English autumn heavy and still,
Sad as a country silence, tractor-drowned;
For deep in the hearts of the man and the woman playing
 The rose of a world that was not has withered away.
Where are the wains with garlanded swathes a-swaying ?
Where are the swains to wend through the lanes a-maying?
 Where are the blithe and jocund to ted the hay?
 Where are the free folk of England? Where are they?

Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
 Down into denser suburbs. The birch lets go
 But one brown leaf upon browner bracken below.
Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
To still, ripe scent of the fungus and wet woods weeping.
 Ask at the fish and chips in the Market Square.
 Here amid firs and a final sunset flare,
Recorder and hautbois only moan at a mouldering sky.

[The Yattendon Hymnal, compiled by Robert Bridges, was an important collection that had a big influence on making of the English Hymnal.
To 'ted the hay' is to spread it out for drying.]

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Hal Blaine – 90 Today!

Incredibly, the great drummer Hal Blaine turns 90 today. One of Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew, he worked with an astonishing number of other musicians, playing on 40 number one singles, 150 top ten hits, and a total (by his calculation) of something like 35,000 recorded tracks. This surely makes him the most prolific drummer of the rock era, as well as one of the very best.
 Some of us remember him fondly for his great work on that strange masterpiece, John Phillips' Wolfking of LA ('Hit it, Hal!'). My old friend the Sage of Tiverton is one. Ten years ago he told me he was determined not to die before Hal Blaine had joined the great jam session in the sky. I hope he makes it...
  Here's Blaine at work on The Ronettes' Be My Baby. Enjoy!

Monday, 4 February 2019


talking of great double acts, when we were at Hampton Court last month, I bought a little volume (barely 80 pages) in the Penguin Monarchs series – William III and Mary II by Jonathan Keates. I chose it because I realised how little I knew about these joint monarchs or their reign, pivotal though it was in so many ways. I also suspected that my rudimentary ideas about William in particular might have been shaped by anti-Williamite prejudice and be rather less than fair. I already felt great warmth for Mary, purely on the strength of Purcell's birthday odes and that sublime funeral music. Suffice to say that Keates's concise and elegant double portrait opened my eyes, particularly to William's good qualities and skilful statesmanship, and to the well-earned affection Mary inspired in her people. It's a masterly little history and I warmly recommend it. In fact, if the others in the series are half as good, I might well be reading more of them...

Stan and Ollie: A Joy...

What a whirl – yesterday afternoon to the cinema to see Stan and Ollie, the eagerly awaited (round here, anyway) comedy-drama-biopic about Laurel and Hardy's last tour of the UK in 1953. I can report that it was a joy from beginning to end, with terrific, spot-on performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the leads, and memorable turns by Rufus Jones as the oleaginous Bernard Delfont and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the chalk-and-cheese wives. Some minor liberties have been taken with the facts (and the odd period detail) but all in the service of creating an involving and coherent story arc. The Laurel and Hardy comedy routines and song-and-dance turns are recreated beautifully by Coogan and Reilly, who are equally convincing as the off-stage Stan and Ollie. The script takes them through plenty of ups and downs, including a fierce row that almost leads to a break-up, but happily it all ends on a high note. Of course there'll never be another Stan and Ollie, but Coogan and Reilly are as close as we're ever likely to see, and this was a wonderful cinematic experience – funny, touching, cheering and heart-warming.
  Sadly the storyline didn't include Laurel and Hardy's stay at the Bull Inn, Bottesford, where Stan's sister Olga was the landlady – but here's a picture:

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Gainsborough's Family Album

Yesterday I went to see the Gainsborough's Family Album exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was more crowded than I expected, but then this is the last weekend (it closes today) – and it's a terrific exhibition. Terrific in quality, that is, not quantity – fifty-odd pictures, some of them not all that interesting in themselves. The core works, though – the portraits of Gainsborough's family and friends, and of himself – are utterly fascinating, and jawdroppingly good. They have been drawn together from around the world, many from private collections, and some never before seen (including one that was only very recently rediscovered). This exhibition leaves no doubt that Gainsborough was one of the most naturally gifted portrait painters who ever lived, anywhere (though he himself would have much preferred to be a full-time landscapist). His handling of paint – loose, fluid, effortlessly expressive on every scale, from tiny squiggle to grand sweeping brushstroke – is simply dazzling, and this exhibition offers the chance to take a close look at a wide range of work, from quick sketches to finished bravura pieces. Some are fragmentary, and many are 'unfinished', but none the worse for it – Gainsborough's preliminary marks can be as fascinating as his fully finished, exquisitely textured faces. Some of these works could, but for the costume, be mistaken for Sargents.
  The stars of the show are undoubtedly Gainsborough's daughters, Mary and Margaret, familiar to National Gallery visitors from the two touching double portraits there.
In Gainsborough's Family Album, we see them growing up across a wide range of pictures, from a swiftly painted, very direct study of Mary at seven or eight to pictures of the two girls interacting and playing, then portraits of them as fashionable young ladies – 'at their painting' in this extraordinary picture on loan from the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
In a fully finished whole-length dazzler (from a private collection), Mary and Margaret pose like any other fashionable society ladies in one of their father's grand portraits.
But it is the more intimate and spontaneous portraits that are the most compelling. In them we feel the father's love and tenderness – and, increasingly, we sense trouble, something wrong under the surface, especially with the elder sister, Mary, whose life did indeed go sadly wrong (short unhappy marriage, slow descent into insanity). These amount to an extraordinarily potent sequences of pictures, and they're complemented by a series of portraits of Thomas's long-suffering but formidable wife. He seems to have presented her with a portrait of herself annually, some more finished than others. In one of the best, she strikes a classical pose – Gainsborough cocking a snook at Reynolds, no doubt. She looks like a woman you wouldn't want to cross (though it seems she never managed to curb Thomas's amatory activities).
As this exhibition makes clear, Gainsborough was a man on the make, successfully rising through society and repeatedly asserting his slender claim to gentlemanly status. Happily, along the way, he continued to paint these tender, intimate and compelling portraits of those closest to him. They are among his finest works.

Friday, 1 February 2019

'the earth lying shotten...'

This dank, dripping day – incessant cold drizzle after an early dusting of snow – naturally put me in mind of Geoffrey Hill, a poet whose element is rain and whose season is winter. Here is a short (and accessible) winter poem from Without Title

Wild Clematis in Winter

Old traveller's joy appears like naked thorn blossom
as we speed citywards through blurry detail –
wild clematis' springing false bloom of seed pods,
the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes' backbones,
with the embankment grass frost-hacked and hackled,
wastage, seepage, showing up everywhere,
in this blanched apparition.

['Shotten' is an archaic adjective applied to fish, particularly herring, that have spawned. By extension, spent, done for, worn out. Fish imagery recurs in the following line, which suggests the discarded backbones of herrings.]