Monday, 3 August 2020


Tomorrow, at an ungodly hour, I'm heading for a certain French port (unsubtle clues above) for the now traditional holiday with the English branch of the family. I'm not quite sure what to expect (apart from pleasure) but will no doubt report back in due course... A bientôt!

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Before and After Summer

'Ah, that's good,' I thought, as I heard the scream of swifts flying past my bedroom window. 'They're still here.' I was lying half asleep this morning, with Radio 3 playing softly, and... And at this point I realised the swifts were not outside, but on Radio 3, as part of its beguiling Sunday morning mix of birdsong and music, Sounds of the Earth.
  This morning's mix included a song (I'm not sure which one; I was half asleep) from Gerald Finzi's collection of Thomas Hardy settings, 'Before and After Summer'. This is the title poem –

Looking forward to the spring
One puts up with anything.
On this February day,
Though the winds leap down the street,
Wintry scourgings seem but play,
And these later shafts of sleet
– Sharper pointed than the first –
And these later snows – the worst –
Are as a half-transparent blind
Riddled by rays from sun behind.

Shadows of the October pine
Reach into this room of mine:
On the pine there stands a bird;
He is shadowed with the tree.
Mutely perched he bills no word;
Blank as I am even is he.
For those happy suns are past,
Fore-discerned in winter last.
When went by their pleasure, then?
I, alas, perceived not when.

Cheery stuff, isn't it? It also demonstrates – as does so much of Hardy's poetry and prose – how it is possible to write very badly, or at best awkwardly, yet still have something of greatness about your work. 'Looking forward to the spring/One puts up with anything' – really? And yet there is genuine expressive power, especially in the second stanza. That familiar rhetorical question 'Where did the summer go?' – one moment it was all ahead, the next it was all behind – finds pungent, if typically bleak, expression here.
  As for the swifts, they were certainly still around yesterday evening, half a dozen or or so circling quietly, after several days of mad, screaming flypasts. I hope they are back this evening, even if it is for the last time...

Saturday, 1 August 2020


May I commend to your attention the August edition of the online magazine British Intelligence, out today. Much food for thought and sustenance for the soul – and a piece by me about churchyards, etc.

Friday, 31 July 2020

An Aurelian Writes...

Today being blazing hot, I launched a Timely, Targeted and Time-limited one-man expedition to a butterfly-haunted Surrey hillside in the hope of seeing one of my favourite little butterflies, the heat-loving Silver-spotted Skipper, and perhaps that famous beauty, the Adonis Blue. Oddly, having left home in all too still air, I found the hillside raked by a strong, if warm, southeasterly breeze – never good news for butterflies, especially if they're as small as the Silver-Sotted Skipper.
  The sturdier Chalk-Hill Blues, pale and milky, were flying in abundance, especially in the more sheltered spots, where they rose up in clouds (mingled with other chalk downland regulars) as I passed. My hopes of seeing their Adonis cousin were not high – it's a bit early, even without the wind – but, as I began the long climb back up the hillside, I spotted a flash of that unmistakably intense jewel-like blue and, sure enough, it was an Adonis Blue (not my first of the year this time, as I'd seen a first-brood specimen back in June). I also had a surprise sighting of a skipper I wasn't expecting to see – the Dingy Skipper, which these days sometimes runs to a second brood. But still no Silver-spotted Skipper, and, as I drew near the top of the hillside, I had given up all serious hope of seeing one. Then, suddenly, as if from nowhere, a perfect specimen appeared just inches from my left elbow, perched on a flowerhead with its beautiful underwing – sage green spangled with silver – on display. It was one of those moments when, as Nabokov puts it, the aurelian experiences 'a thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern'. I might never see another Silver-spotted Skipper this year, but today's belated encounter was one that I'm not likely to forget.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Blackberrying with W.H. Hudson

I was out blackberrying today on Mitcham Common, amid clouds of Gatekeeper butterflies and the odd Purple Hairstreak, among  other beauties. Whenever I'm picking blackberries I'm teased by the vague memory of a passage somewhere in W.H. Hudson, in which, while similarly engaged, he meets an extraordinary tramp. After more than one failed attempt, I've finally tracked the passage down: it's in an essay called 'Rural Rides', collected in Afoot in England.
  The tramp, whom Hudson initially describes as 'gorgeous', is a striking figure – 'a huge man, over six feet high, nobly built, suggesting a Scandinavian origin, with a broad blond face, good features and prominent blue eyes, and his hair was curly and shone like gold in the sunlight'. But there were bruises on his face, suggestive to Hudson of a drunken brawl, and 'Alas! He had the stamp of the irreclaimable blackguard on his face.' His clothes were a gaudy mix of ill-fitting, once fancy, now  worn-out garments, topped by a 'long black frock-coat, shiny in places, and a small dirty grey cap'.
  Walking along the hedgerow, Hudson and the tramp help themselves to the abundant blackberries. Hudson remarks conversationally that it is late to be picking blackberries (it is November) and that 'the Devil in these parts ... flies abroad in October to spit on the bramble bushes and spoil the fruit' – and that it's worse in Norfolk and Suffolk, where 'the Devil goes out at Michaelmas and shakes his verminous trousers over the bushes.'
  The tramp is not amused: 'he went on sternly eating blackberries, and then remarked in a bitter tone, "That Devil they talk about must have a busy time, to go messing about blackberry bushes in addition to all his other important work."'
  Hudson does not respond, and the tramp continues in the same tone: '"Very fine, very beautiful all this" – waving his hand to indicate the hedge, its rich tangle of purple-red stems and coloured leaves, and scarlet fruit and silvery old-man's-beard. "An artist enjoys seeing this sort of thing, and it's nice for all those who go about just for the pleasure of seeing things. But when it comes to a man tramping twenty or thirty miles a day on an empty belly, looking for work which he can't find, he doesn't see it in quite the same way."
  "True," I returned with indifference.
  But he was not to be put off by my sudden coldness, and proceeded to inform me that he had just returned from Salisbury Plain, that it had been noised abroad that ten thousand men were wanted by the War Office to work in forming new camps. On arrival he found it was not so – it was all a lie – men were not wanted – and he was now on his way to Andover, penniless and hungry and –
  By the time he had got to that part of his story we were some distance apart, as I had remained standing still while he, thinking me still close behind, had gone on picking blackberries and talking. He was soon out of sight.'

I'm sure we have all met people like that tramp – blinded to all else by an implacable sense of grievance, incapable of simple gratitude, and unable to acknowledge happiness, goodness or beauty for what they are. Hudson's is a vivid portrait of a particularly striking example of the type; no wonder it has lingered at the edge of my memory for so long.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The Fall of Rome

In times like these, it's often a good idea to reach for Auden.
His The Fall of Rome, written in 1947 (and dedicated to Cyril Connolly), could hardly be more apposite, right down to the flu-infected cities:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic* Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

* 'Cerebrotonic' denotes a personality type characterised by a highly developed intellect, shyness, introspection and lack of social skills. Today we might place such a person on 'the spectrum' – spectral Cato...?

Monday, 27 July 2020

More than Suitable

Last night I watched the first of the new BBC1 showpiece drama series, a six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy – and I loved it. Coming in the wake of the incomprehensible and unwatchable The Luminaries – and so many other BBC dramas full of anguished expressions and inaudible dialogue, filmed in the dark – this burst of light and colour and lucidity was more than welcome. Andrew Davies seems to have made a brilliant job of turning Seth's 1,400-page epic into a slick, involving and comprehensible TV narrative. There has been some silly confected 'controversy' about this white Rajah of the classic drama being involved in an otherwise 'all-Asian' production, but he's there for the simple reason that no one understands the art of translating novels into television better than Davies. It's hard to imagine anyone else taking on this project, let alone making a success of it. I fear my Sunday evenings will be taken care of for the next five weeks...
  But will I read the book? Tortoise-slow reader that I am, I very much doubt it – and if I'm going to take on a novel on such a grand scale, surely it should be War and Peace, which, to my shame, I have never read (though it feels as if I had). I've read Seth's extraordinary novel in Onegin sonnets, The Golden Gate, which is IMHO some kind of masterpiece. Perhaps, if I can't face A Suitable Boy, I should read An Equal Music – I'm sure I've got it somewhere...

Sunday, 26 July 2020

What Would Junius Do?

This morning I woke up with the name 'Junius' lodged in my brain, a residue from some kind of dream. Awake or sleeping, I had little idea of who 'Junius' was, but associated him vaguely with 18th-century political pamphleteering. This was roughly correct: the Letters of Junius were a pseudonymous series printed in the Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1772 with the aim of informing the English people of their historical and constitutional rights and liberties, and pointing out the various ways in which the government had infringed those rights. Useful work indeed – and bound to get the author into trouble, hence the pseudonym, which successfully concealed Junius's identity.
  Junius's style, it seems, does not lend itself to short quotation. However, one of his maxims adorns (or did adorn? Any Canadians out there?) the masthead of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper: 'The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.'
  In the light of these wise words, I have decided not to submit to this government's latest arbitrary measure – mandatory face masks in all shops. This is an initiative that might have been useful, and would certainly have been justifiable, back in March or April – when our old friends The Science advised firmly against it. Since then, not only has no good evidence of beneficial effect been found, but the level of Covid infection has fallen to the point where it doesn't even qualify statistically as an epidemic. To make mask wearing mandatory now is purely arbitrary. If the justification is to give those reduced to abject terror by the state the confidence to go forth into the world, then it is surely not within the legitimate powers of any government to use one section of the population to modify the behaviour of another. Virtually every measure taken by this supposedly conservative government has failed the Three Ts test – Timely, Targeted and Time-limited – and none more so that this latest initiative. It radically changes the nature of our society – one which was until now based on face-to-face, unmasked communication – for no good reason and with no indication of when, if ever, we shall be allowed to show our faces again. If that ain't arbitrary, I don't know what is.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

How to Be Topp PS

I love these pictures of two 'Grate Latin Lies' – by the grate (sorry, great) Ronald Searle, of course...

Annals of the Parrish

Born 150 years ago today was Maxfield Parrish, one of the most commercially successful painters of the 20th century: in 1910 he was earning $100,000 a year, at a time when a house could be bought for $2,000. His typical 'high' style could be classified as a kind of belated neo-classicism, a stridently assertive take on Puvis de Chavannes, with a palette of ultra-vivid saturated colour replacing Puvis's pallid tones. Parrish's images assault the eye, offering all they've got in that initial assault. They are strangely flat and lifeless (as are Puvis's) and seem to exist in an airless one-dimensional world of Parrish's own devising, one that references nature but owes little to it. His 'Esctasy' (modelled by his youngest daughter, and widely distributed as a calendar cover) is a typical work in this manner –
With their spectacularly decorative qualities, it is no wonder Parrish's pictures achieved such success, or that he was very much at home in the field of commercial illustration, in high-paying magazines and in story books.
  Talking of story books, this image of a chef from a 1923 Life magazine cover was surely lurking somewhere in Maurice Sendak's memory when he conceived the chefs in his In the Night Kitchen –
One of Parrish's most famous images, a virtuoso display of his technique, was 'The Lantern Bearers', which also appeared in a magazine (Collier's, in 1908) –
  Parrish's supersaturated colour was achieved by laying on successive glazes, in a particular technique that he discovered while laid up with tuberculosis. His ultra-intense cobalt blue was so characteristic that it became known as Maxfield Parrish Blue.
  As for the image above – 'Daybreak', his most famous painting – this became the most popular art print of the 20th century, at least in America where the numbers sold equated to one for every four homes. Parrish regarded it as his 'great painting', and the original has been in private hands ever since it was first sold. It was bought at auction in 2006 by Mel Gibson's then wife Robyn Moore, who paid $7.6 million. Four years later it sold again for $5.2 million – which would suggest she didn't exactly bag a bargain, but that price tag still makes Parrish one expensive painter.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

My Short Career in J.K. Rowling Studies

When I spotted How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (Max Parrish, 1954) on the shelf of a reopened charity shop, naturally I had to have it. This is the second volume of the Nigel Molesworth saga, and perhaps the best. Browsing in its pages the other night, I came across something that for a moment led me to think I could make an unlikely contribution to J.K. Rowling studies.
There it is, on page 31, a 'Latin pla' entitled... 'The Hogwarts'. Was this where Rowling got the name for her famous academy from? Had anyone noticed this before? A quick internet search revealed that, alas, the Rowling scholars are all over this like a rash – here, for example.
So, for your edification, I will simply quote the opening scene of 'The Hogwarts' by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus –

'The villa of Cotta at Rome. Enter CORTICUS a dreary old slave and RADIX his mate.
CORTICUS: (laying a skin of wine on the sideboard) Eheu!
   (The headmaster and all lat. masters who watch roar with larffter.)
RADIX: Eheu!
   (More larffter they are in stitches)
RADIX: Eheu!
  (The curtain falls as the masters roll helplessly in the aisles.)'

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Symons's Corvo

'His election to the Bucintoro Club owed itself to an amusing incident arising from his passion for swimming, and rowing in the "mode Venetian". One day, turning a corner of the Grand Canal too sharply, he fell overboard while smoking a pipe. Swimming strongly under water, he came up unexpectedly far from his boat, looking extremely solemn, with his pipe still in his mouth. On climbing back into the sandalo, he calmly knocked the wet tobacco out of his pipe; refilled from his rubber pouch, which had kept its contents dry; borrowed a light; and with the single word Avanti went his way. Such impassivity charmed the Venetian onlookers; word went round of this incident, which, coupled with his aquatic fervour, gained him membership of the Bucintoro, a useful privilege, since he could use the Club boats and clubhouse.'
  This is one of the happier incidents in the later life of the notorious Frederick William Rolfe, aka 'Baron Corvo' (among other aliases), as related in A.J.A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography. I'm reading (technically rereading after many years) this extraordinary book, which pioneered an entirely new way of writing a life: not as a chronological narrative unfurled by a largely absent narrator, but as a process of discovery through which the biographer, as present as his subject, leads the reader with him. It was, as Symons must have realised, perhaps the only way to write a life of Rolfe, a man known as the author of the novel Hadrian the Seventh and other works, but whose life was veiled in mystery, obscurity and paradox. As Symons writes when he is 100 pages or so in:
'So far, I have set before the reader not an analysed summary of my researches but an account of the search itself; and I believe that in regard to a man so exceptional as Rolfe this exceptional method is justified. Truth takes many forms; and the dramatic alternation of light and dark in which my inquiries discovered Baron Corvo has, I am convinced, more value as verity than any one man's account. I have tried, accordingly, to be the advocate for neither side, but rather the judge impartially bringing out all aspects of the case for the benefit of the jury.'
  The method makes for an unusually exciting biography, with a large cast of characters, a twisting and turning narrative, and all the readability of a good detective story. And what Symons uncovers about the various phases and facets of Rolfe's life is extraordinary stuff: here was a man who, entirely convinced of his own genius, exerted an irresistible charm over his admirers, formed intense friendships, embarked on enthusiastic creative collaborations, and in every case ended up believing himself betrayed and ill used, and switching instantly from devoted friend to implacable enemy, persecuting those who had wished only to help him, and biting – indeed savaging – every hand that fed him. In the end he fled England and took up residence in Venice, where he charmed money out of yet more victims before viciously turning on them too, lived like a lord in the brief interludes when he was in funds (never his own money), and lived like a vagabond when the money and credit finally ran out, walking the streets day and night, or sleeping out on the lagoon in one of the Bucintoro Club's boats. Symons, a huge admirer of Hadrian the Seventh, perhaps affords Rolfe more sympathy than he deserves, but were he not sympathetic he would surely have been defeated by the many obstacles that stood between him and his goal of unravelling his subject's exceptionally tangled and turbulent life. It is a very good thing that in those days everybody communicated by letter – and that so many were still alive (in the early 1930s) who had known the egregious Rolfe and remembered him all too well.
  Symons, whose first name was Alphonse, was (I was surprised to learn) the self-educated son of Russian-born Jewish immigrant parents. Rather than going to university, he was apprenticed into the fur trade before literature got the better of him (rather as V.S. Pritchett, born in the same year, was apprenticed into the leather trade). Symons died young, at just 41, leaving behind, among other things, an unfinished biography of Oscar Wilde. The Quest for Corvo was his masterpiece.
  Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh brought its author an unlikely surge of posthumous fame when it became a hit stage play, opening in London with Alec McCowen, and moving on to Broadway and beyond. Rolfe, ever his own worst enemy, would probably have tried to get it banned.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Important Statement by The Science

The following statement was issued last night by The Science:

'We, The Science, wish to acknowledge publicly that, in the course of this 'Covid crisis', the advice was have given to Government has been muddled, contradictory, often flat wrong, and sometimes worse than useless. From the start, we misread the nature of this disease, hugely overestimating the potential death toll (thanks to reliance on deeply flawed modelling) and the level of infection needed to achieve 'herd immunity', while underestimating the degree of existing immunity in the population. We failed to acknowledge that this disease was never anything like an equal threat to all, but was little or no threat to the health of the population at large, while being a serious and potentially deadly threat to certain vulnerable groups, essentially the old and some others with preexisting conditions. Because of this, we should have seen that a general lockdown made no sense as a policy, and that sensible measures involving improved hygiene, social distancing and protecting the vulnerable were the appropriate response (along with mask wearing and restrictions on arrivals at airports – both of which we advised against at the time, taking our cue from the WHO). Indeed, when we learned in April that the measures taken had 'flattened the curve' before lockdown began, we should have advised that, in view of the incalculable social and economic costs – and the cumulative cost in avoidable deaths – every effort should have been made to end lockdown before too much damage had been done. Instead, we advised the exact opposite and have continued to do so, opposing every measure aimed at easing lockdown and refusing to consider any return to normal life before a vaccine has been found (if it ever is).
  In the light of all the above, we recommend the following measures to the UK Government:
Withdraw from the worse than useless WHO.
Permanently disband the catastrophically incompetent PHE.
Downgrade SAGE and all senior advisers, and never again allow them any significant say in running the country.
Institute an independent inquiry into how the most Covid-vulnerable institutions in the land, care homes, rather than being protected, had thousands of untested hospital patients dumped on them in order to 'save the NHS', thereby greatly increasing the death toll.
And institute another inquiry into the reliability of the 'Covid death' statistics published during the course of the epidemic, which seem to have greatly inflated the numbers.
  Now please accept our resignations and our sincere apologies.'

And then I woke up.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

300 Today

Today is the tercentenary of the birth of the great naturalist Gilbert White (what, no Google doodle?). White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) remains a readable and engaging book, in part because White's writing is so intensely personal, and his engagement with the creatures around him – especially birds – so complete. Like all the best English naturalists, he was an extremely acute observer, unencumbered by any grand overarching theory, and motivated by delight and wonder as well as scientific curiosity.
Here he is, looking about him, on his birthday in 1777:

'Swifts dash & frolick about, & seem to be teaching their young the use of their wings.  Thatched my rick of meadow-hay with the damaged St foin instead of straw. Bees begin gathering at three o’clock in the morning: Swallows are stirring at half hour after two.'

Here too, this morning, the swifts are dashing and frolicking about, and no doubt teaching their young the use of their wings. What White did not know was that these young swifts, before leaving the nest, perform a kind of 'push-ups' on their curved wings, presumably to develop their flight muscles – and that, once they have launched themselves into the air, they might be up there continuously for the next two years.
White's 'St foin', by the way, is Sainfoin ('holy hay'), a very attractive leguminous plant that was widely grown for fodder and is now, I believe, making a bit of a comeback. As White demonstrates, it can have many uses.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Not Cricket

As one whose idea of cricket – and whose love of the game – was formed in the age of Peter May, Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey, of Brian Close, Fred Titmus* and bespectacled wunderkind Geoffrey Boycott, I have been taking less interest, and slowly falling out of love, ever since those golden days. The modern game at international level interests me less and less, and I am no longer glued to Test Match Special as I used to be (when I had the chance) not all that long ago. I've barely even noticed the current Test series between England and the visiting West Indies. I knew it was taking place in the sterile conditions imposed by The Science, with no spectators allowed – and that alone was enough to reduce the game to a rather empty and uninvolving spectacle. What I did not know, until I caught a brief news report last night, was that the players of both sides have been 'taking a knee' (some with the raised fist of Black Power) and wearing Black Lives Matter logos on their shirts. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Even the Premier League – run by a bunch of men not noted for their intellectual penetration – went cool on BLM when they discovered a little more about that dangerous organisation. But not, it seems, the blazered buffoons who run cricket. Oh dear oh dear – I never thought I'd live to see Test cricket played to an empty stadium and preceded by a display of formation virtue signalling. Strange days.

* Sedate off-spinner immortalised in the Half Man Half Biscuit song 'Fuckin' 'Ell, It's Fred Titmus'.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Unreal City

On Monday I spent the day in London for the first time since lockdown – and what a shock is was! Where is everybody? was my first thought, followed by Why is so much still closed? The area around St Pancras (where I was meeting my Derbyshire cousin, who had arrived on an all but empty train) was like a ghost town. There were people around, but in nothing remotely like the usual numbers, and there was little to detain them, with so many cafés, restaurants, pubs, shops, food stalls etc closed. As we walked along the Regent's Canal tow path towards Little Venice, we found whole sections all but deserted, and even that endlessly depressing human zoo, Camden Lock, was quiet. It all felt very unreal, though it certainly had its upside: I am no lover of crowds and noise, and the relatively clean air was a pleasure to breathe. Even the water of the canal seemed cleaner, with the bottom clearly visible in many places.
  There's a lot to be said for a degree of human absence – and yet, this is supposed to be a capital city, a hive of activity, a vibrant hub of commerce and leisure. It felt as if London has been hollowed out by the months of lockdown and has become a kind of doughnut city, with an empty centre and all the activity in the periphery (it is certainly a deal livelier and busier in the suburbs now). What could this mean in the longer term, if employers and money men draw the obvious conclusion from the months of home working – that they don't need to spend a fortune on all this expensive real estate; that they can get by perfectly well with minimal office space for specific purposes; that their work force no longer needs to make that daily commute? What will happen to all those semi-abandoned office blocks in the demi-deserted city centre? Perhaps in time they will be repurposed as apartment blocks, and the city centre will again become what it was until the early 20th-century flight to the suburbs – a place where people live as well as work. If that could be achieved in such a way that city living also became affordable again, that would, it seems to me, be an ideal solution. My hopes of it ever happening are not high, but it is a beguiling prospect...

Monday, 13 July 2020


Born on this day in 1757 was the brilliant, often scabrous, graphic artist Thomas Rowlandson. Above is his depiction of the jolly dance in the back parlour of the auberge at Amiens, from Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. La Fleur, the French valet, warmed by 'a cup or two of the best wine in Picardy', plays the fife and sets all the household, down to the cats and dogs, a-dancing. 'I suppose,' Sterne observes, 'there had never been a merrier kitchen since the flood.'
  'Since the flood' is a typical Sterne touch – as in Walter Shandy's exclamation at a critical moment in Tristram's conception:  '"Good G–!" quoth my father ... "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?"' 

Sunday, 12 July 2020

'Reading, not rioting'

I came cross this excellent piece celebrating public libraries in the unlikely setting of Apollo magazine. Unfortunately it's hard to argue that libraries have been vital in the Covid crisis, as they've been closed and locked along with virtually everything else. Let's hope, though, that in the aftermath they find a new role and a new way ahead – and get decent funding again. Other local government facilities have certainly proved vital in the crisis, notably public parks – I've never seen them so full of people and life. It's as if the locals hadn't realised what was on their doorstep until lockdown made them look closer to home for their outdoor pleasures.

The Apollo piece contains an interesting account of the 'infected books' panic (which I've written about before).

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Dining at the First Chance Restaurant

Last night, Mrs N and I returned to the restaurant where, all those weeks and months ago, we ate our last meal out before the country closed itself down. The resto had reopened the day before, but it felt very much like (re)opening night. After the inevitable temperature gun and hand sanitiser (complete with eye-rolling and conspiratorial smiles), we were warmly welcomed and shown to our table, and everything was just as it had always been – right down to the usual long thirsty wait for an aperitif, which then turned out to be the wrong one when it arrived. All went smoothly after that, however, and, despite the slightly more distanced tables, there was a general air of hilarity and good cheer, and of relief that the possibility of going out for a meal had at last been restored to us. The oysters, by the way, were excellent – but I shan't take you through the menu...

And thus we topped and tailed this most extraordinary period in our national life – one that I fancy future generations will look back on in bemusement as an act of willed social and economic self-harm. And there are still many who cannot get enough of it, including (according to polls) some 40 percent of the population who say they wouldn't be comfortable going out for a meal. Heaven help us all.

Friday, 10 July 2020

And Another One

Having recently become (not without a degree of reluctance) a Netflix subscriber, I've been watching a much praised four-parter called Unorthodox, about a young girl who escapes a notably repressive Hasidic community in New York and manages to find a new life in Berlin. Shira Haas gives a terrific performance as the girl, Esty (Esther), a role that keeps her most of the time on the brink of tears, and with good reason. The intimate portrait of life in her Orthodox community, complete with Yiddish dialogue, is vivid and often startling (and I hope doesn't give the casual viewer the impression  that all Orthodox communities are like this one). Other elements in the story are less convincing, especially after Esty gets to Berlin and a thriller-style chase plot takes over; it's well enough done, but doesn't bear much examination, or offer much more than any other girl-in-jeopardy scenario. The group of music students she somewhat improbably falls in with are a carefully 'diverse' bunch, barely even sketched in, let alone characterised, and the plotline that leads to her auditioning for a prestigious music school stretches credibility to something near breaking point. However, at the audition, Esty opens her mouth and launches into a song that had been her grandmother's favourite (in another life, in Hungary) – and it's Schubert's 'An Die Musik', and at that point my resistance crumbled. And it crumbled further when she followed it with something better suited to her mezzo-soprano voice, the Jewish wedding song 'Mi Bon Siach'...
For me, 'An Die Musik' sounds best when sung by a baritone, or even a bass-baritone – which gives me sufficient excuse to play yet again Hans Hotter's exquisite rendition:

That's Gerald Moore on the piano. At the end of his farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967, Moore came out on stage alone and played the piano part of 'An Die Musik'. There can't have been many dry eyes in the house. 

Odds and Ends

There has been some pretty grim weather lately (making up for the glories of the spring), but it was still a surprise to discover that this date, July 10th, is, on average, the wettest day of the year in the UK. It owes this unenviable status to such catastrophic events as the great Somerset flood of 1968, when Bristol and a great swathe of the county endured a mighty downpour (more than five inches in a day) that transformed city streets into rivers, swept away country roads, inundated acres of farmland, and in places put people in fear of their lives. The Cheddar Gorge became a raging torrent, bearing along tons of rock and debris from the cliffs, and the famous caves were flooded for the first time ever.
Nothing like that to report today, happily.

What I can report today is that one of my regular charity shop haunts has reopened its doors (subject to hand sanitising and a degree of social distancing). It was a joy to be scanning its shelves again, and, to celebrate, I bought a rather attractive Artois beer glass and three books: two of the attractive mini-books extracted from the Penguin Classics – The Madness of Cambyses from Herodotus's Histories (tr. Tom Holland) and Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night, or a Discourse on Apparitions – and Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away (FSG Classics paperback), because I've been thinking of rereading it and don't (didn't) have a copy of my own. A welcome return for another element of the old normal, one that I'd been missing more and more as this madness went on.

And here's a curious incident from a couple of days ago. I was walking along a quiet back road beside a local park when I saw that what was clearly a raptor of some kind had made a landing just ahead of me and was intent on devouring something, spreading out its wings to shield its prey and prevent its escape. As I drew closer I saw it was a kestrel  (Hopkins's windhover) and, as several other birds were sounding agitated alarm calls, I assumed it had a fledgling. The kestrel was most reluctant to fly off, and I was almost treading on its tail by the time it took flight. And then I saw what its precious prey was – nothing more than a female stag beetle (smaller, unantlered and less formidable even than the male). I was glad to find that she was still alive and apparently not much the worse for her ordeal, apart from having been turned onto her back. I righted her and left her lumbering away towards a safe space. As I watched her go, I couldn't help feeling that this kestrel, so impressive in the sky and so fearsomely arrayed, had let itself down badly.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Soul of Kindness

Having finished Jenny Uglow's superb The Lunar Men – the second of my lockdown big reads – I felt like something shorter and, yes, fictional. So, with little thought, I took up a book that had been lying around for some months, ever since I picked it up from a charity shop (I hope I can start haunting those again soon; a few seem to be reopening). It was Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness, and I took it up with mixed feelings, as I've found some of her works (especially Angel) quite wonderful, and others disappointing. Happily, The Soul of Kindness (published in 1964) did not disappoint. It is essentially a very accomplished and all too believable study of a character who might be seen as a distant descendant of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, but without Emma's redemptive ability to learn. Flora – a tall, blonde and beautiful young woman, whom we first meet on her wedding day –has been all too tenderly reared by a doting mother, who has left her unable to comprehend the harsher realities of life, and unable to survive without the unquestioning adoration of all around her. In return for this adoration, she does her best (as she sees it) to help and encourage her friends to fulfil (as she sees it) their potential, and to be happy (like her). As she is quite lacking in insight, self-knowledge, imagination or empathy, her efforts are at best unhelpful, and at worst disastrous – very seriously so in one case. Even when disaster strikes, however, Flora learns nothing and remains convinced that she is self-evidently, what her devotees continue to believe her to be, 'the soul of kindness'. All this is done most subtly and effortlessly, and it takes a little while to realise just how good this novel is. By the end, though, there is little room for doubt.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Scenes from the New Normal

I went to get my hair cut this morning, and was surprised to find my barbers clad in some kind of quasi-surgical gowns and wearing plastic visors. They seemed, understandably enough, embarrassed by this turn of events, and apologised for all the precautions they were now obliged to inflict on their customers: 'socially distanced' queuing, hand sanitising, supplying name, date, time and contact details on a slip of paper, and wearing a face mask and an absurd single-use plastic cape while being coiffed. The last time I saw them – this pair of splendidly reactionary Greek-Cypriot brothers – they were not unduly concerned about the Covid panic that was just then getting under way. They regarded the whole affair with a jaundiced, weary eye, and were cynically convinced that (a) it was some kind of Chinese racket and (b) someone was making money out of it. I suspect their views have not changed – there was much communication by eye-rolling as the precautions were duly enacted – but if they didn't go through this rigmarole, they wouldn't be allowed to open, even though the chances of getting serious Covid in London now are not much higher than being hit by a falling statue. This, God help us, is the new normal. But at least I got a haircut – and, boy, it felt good to be rid of those lockdown locks.
  I had a rather more dispiriting taste of this new normal the evening before, when, finding that most of the local pubs have now reopened, Mrs N and I decided to drop in on a favourite one (more a bar than a pub) for a drink. That was our first mistake. To get that drink, we had to 'wait to be seated' (though the place was half empty), then discovered that we couldn't be served without registering online and booking a table. I was all for turning on my heel at this point, but Mrs N was of another mind, and I duly toiled over my phone for some while, handing over the relevant information and making an imaginary booking. To be fair, they were quite apologetic about it all, and they did oblige us with a drink and a table while this was going on, but by then it was too late (for me anyway). What is a pub if it's not a 'public house' – a house you can drop in on any time during opening hours and have a drink without further ado? If this is the new normal, I can only hope that these absurd precautions are soon abandoned, de facto if not de jure. Meanwhile, the search is on for a more accessible pub, one where a person can simply drop in for a drink...
  For some reason, the pub incident put me in mind of a comic piece by Myles na gCopaleen, in which he suggests that the licensing authorities open pubs for just one hour a day, between 3 and 4 in the morning. He envisages what would be happening at that hour in the bedrooms of Dublin, as husbands wake, stretch, and say casually to their wives, 'You know, I think I might just drop in for the one'. Or words to that effect: I haven't been able to find the original piece. Anyone...?

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Independence Day?

It's Independence Day in the US – and here in England the Government, or should I say 'The Science', has taken a few tentative steps towards restoring to us some of the fundamental liberties it confiscated three long months ago. And some are calling it 'Independence Day'! One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry. Better, perhaps, to do neither (though the latter is always a possibility) and play a song for Independence Day (the real one) and for our times, perhaps for all times – this one...

Friday, 3 July 2020

Milton Glaser RIP

I missed the news of Milton Glaser's death, a couple of weeks ago on his 91st birthday. A brilliant graphic designer, he was lucky enough to study under Giorgio Morandi in Bologna when he was a young Fulbright scholar. There's a tribute to him here, featuring some of his best-known images. For myself, I loved his covers for the Signet Classics Shakespeare, and I still have several of them on my shelves, even though the contents are now very nearly beyond use. Here are a couple of his Shakespeare designs...

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Gladstone's Library: A Great Good Thing

The US has an abundance of presidential libraries – well, 14 of them at the last count. We in Britain, by contrast, have only one prime ministerial library – but what a library it is. Gladstone's Library, at Hawarden (pronounced Harden) in north Wales, is a unique institution in more ways than one.
  William Ewart Gladstone, a giant of Victorian politics – four times prime minister – was also a considerable scholar* with a very extensive library, which he was determined to leave to the nation and make accessible to all. He began the work in his old age, overseeing the creation of a temporary library building, and trundling some 30,000 volumes from his home (the 18th-century Hawarden Castle) by wheelbarrow, helped only by a valet and one of his daughters. He unpacked the books himself, and classified and shelved them in accordance with his own cataloguing system. His aim in creating this library was 'to bring together books which had no readers with readers who had no books' – and he showed his serious intent by endowing it with £40,000 (in 1895 money). After Gladstone's death, a public appeal raised a further £9,000, which was spent on a dedicated library building, designed in an imposing Gothic style by John Douglas. Most unusually for a library, it included a residential wing, funded by the Gladstone family and opened in 1906.
  The library – which has grown to include more than 250,000 printed items – continues to function as a residential centre, with 26 bedrooms now, a restaurant, a chapel and conference facilities. Visitors can choose for themselves whether to spend their time in study and reflection or to mingle socially. As well as welcoming visitors, the library hosts a year-round programme of events and courses reflecting Gladstone's interests and beliefs, as well as 19th-century literary and political culture in general. A wholly independent charity, Gladstone's Library endeavours to fulfil its founder's ideals by keeping costs to visitors as low as possible, and by offering scholarships and bursaries.
  This institution is, as all would surely agree, a great good thing – and yet, inevitably, its founder's (or rather his father's) association with the triangular slave trade has put it in the firing line of the current culture wars. William Ewart Gladstone is most definitely in the crosshairs of at least some activists, and any memorial to him is potentially vulnerable. In response to recent developments, the library has issued a statement that is commendably measured and well reasoned. Here's the link. You might not agree with every word, but it is good to see an institution rightly and reasonably defending itself rather than rolling over at the first hint of BLM disapproval.

* His three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) contains some very interesting speculation on how colour was perceived by the Ancient Greeks, but the work as a whole was widely condemned, with Tennyson calling it 'hobby-horsical' and Jowett dismissing it as 'mere nonsense'. Gladstone's view of Homer as 'the greatest chronicler that ever lived' and one of history's three or four greatest poets was not widely shared at the time, though today it would hardly seem eccentric.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Cue Music

In times like these, I'm sure we all must feel the need from time to time to (in Patrick Kurp's words) 'address the charm, delight and wonder deficit'. For me, the shortest way to charm, delight and wonder is through music – a medium that can be put to programmatic and descriptive uses, but in its purest from is an end in itself; it is 'about' nothing else. As a result music communicates directly, without mediation, straight to the nerve ends, in a way that marks it out from other art forms.
I recently heard the track below on Radio 3, and it rooted me to the spot. A few days later, I held in my hands the album from which it is taken – The Sound of Light, pieces by Rameau played by Musica Aeterna under the wunderkind conductor Teodor Currentzis. I've been playing it repeatedly, and when you listen to this, the Entrée pour les Muses, les Zéphyrs, les Saisons, les Heures et les Arts from Les Boréades, I think you'll understand why. Here are charm, delight and wonder in concentrated form...

Sowell's Principle

I'm not planning to make 'Quote of the Day' a daily feature, but I couldn't resist this from the great American economist (and wonderfully lucid writer) Thomas Sowell, who turns 90 today:

'I write only when I have something to say. The big disadvantage of this is that it can mean a lot of down time.'

This can also, of course, be seen as a big advantage, for those not obliged to earn their living by writing...
There are all too many writers – perhaps a majority – who clearly don't live by Sowell's principle.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Quote of the Day

'Children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything.'
Giacomo Leopardi, born on this day in 1798.
Anyone who has spent time with very young children will know the truth of this.  We adults can take steps to guard ourselves against falling into the latter category, chiefly by giving thanks and paying attention.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Shandy Hall

Wading through 'my papers', I am reminded of how many of England's literary shrines I visited in the course of my hack work – so many that at one time I envisaged making a book of them. Just now I came across a piece I wrote (I think with that book in mind) about one of the least known of those literary shrines: Shandy Hall, in the delightful stone-built village of Coxwold, near Thirsk, in North Yorkshire. The name is doubly apt: in Yorkshire dialect 'shandy' means 'slightly crazy, eccentric, off-kilter' – a fair description of the house itself, which proceeds erratically from a huge ancient stone chimney at one end to a correct Georgian façade at the other – and Shandy Hall was the home, from 1760 to 1768, of Laurence Sterne, the vicar of Coxwold, who wrote his comic masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, within its shandy walls.
  The house, which is not large, was rescued from a state of dereliction bordering on collapse by the late Kenneth Monkman, a Sterne enthusiast and scholar, and his wife Julia. Monkman founded a trust, launched an appeal, set about restoring the house, and, in 1973, finally opened it to the public. Nothing that was in the house when Sterne lived there had survived, but a few items came back, and the house's prize exhibit, the great Nollekens bust of Sterne (the twin of the bust in the National Portrait Gallery), was, by a fine stroke of luck, picked up in an antique shop. Sterne's own books were virtually impossible to trace, as – unusually for his time – he never put his name in them. However, Monkman assembled a splendid collection of early editions of Sterne's works and titles known to have been in his library, and now they line the walls of Sterne's 'philosophical hut', the little study by the front door where he wrote Tristram Shandy.
  It's more than thirty years since I visited Shandy Hall, but I remember it as one of my more enjoyable literary pilgrimages, not least because I was shown round by Kenneth Monkman himself. Since then the library has grown into the world's largest collection of editions of Sterne's works, and the gardens of Shandy Hall, restored and developed by Julia Monkman, have become a major attraction in themselves. Most visitors to this corner of Yorkshire are attracted not by the name of Laurence Sterne but by that of 'James Herriot', the pen name of Jim Wight, the Thirsk vet who wrote All Creatures Great and Small and sold many millions of books. This is 'Herriot Country' and will never be 'Sterne Country' – but if you ever find yourself in the vicinity, do visit Coxwold and its quirky literary shrine. And, while you're there, drop in on the parish church, where Sterne preached (until his health broke), and where his remains are buried – well, they are very probably his remains: I've told that story before.

From the Mad World

Shopping in Sainsburys just now, I was delighted to see that the Argos outlet there is now hung with rainbow-coloured bunting declaring that 'Argos proudly supports the LGBT+ Community'. This was timely, as I'd been agonising for some while over just where Argos stood in relation to the LGBT+ Community, and was quite prepared to take my custom elsewhere if their support was anything less than proud. Now I know just where they stand, I can enjoy their uniquely dehumanised shopping experience with a clear conscience.

Elsewhere in the mad world – to be precise, on a back street of the suburban demiparadise that is my home – three youngish (white) people were standing by the roadside yesterday afternoon, bearing placards stating that 'Black Lives Matter' (and here was me thinking they don't! Thanks for putting me right, guys). They made a rather forlorn spectacle, reminiscent of Father Ted and Father Dougal protesting outside the Craggie Island cinema ('Down with This Sort of Thing'). Mrs Nige, who is more vocal than I am, shouted across at them that they should check out Zuby. I helpfully spelt it out for them, letter by letter. In the unlikely event that they do check him out, they will discover, to their horror, that the very personable Zuby is a rapper and podcaster who, despite his pigmentation, takes an extremely dim view of the Black Lives Matter movement. Can such things be? 

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Encouraging the Mob

In the light of what's been going on lately on both sides of the Atlantic, it's instructive to read, in Jenny Uglow's excellent The Lunar Men, about certain events that took place in Birmingham in 1791. Here Joseph Priestley, brilliant scientist, Dissenting preacher and outspoken radical, formed a Constitutional Society, whose first act was to hold a public dinner 'for any Friend of Freedom' on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. (Priestley, naively but genuinely, believed that the revolution in France was going to create Paradise on Earth.) Predictably enough, the dinner, in a Birmingham hotel, drew various hecklers, and some of the guests were pelted with mud and stones as they left. However, the real action began some hours later, when a much more threatening mob descended, only to find that they'd missed the dinner by several hours. So they vented their anger by breaking the windows of the hotel, then set about smashing up Priestley's New Meeting House, tearing out and burning the furnishings, then putting the building to the torch.
  The mob then moved on to Priestley's house, a mile away at Fair Hill, from which Priestley and his wife were persuaded to fly. After fending off the rioters for a while, those defending the house also fled in a hail of stones, and the mob moved in and set about destroying the house and its contents, smashing up everything in Priestley's laboratory, not to mention his wine cellar, before finally setting fire to the house and getting to work on destroying the gardens.
  The rampage continued, with the mob attacking various houses of supposed Dissenters, then descending on the home of John Ryland, a banker and merchant, which they burnt down. Seven men, drinking in his cellar, were killed when the blazing roof fell in on them. And so it went on, with a total of 27 houses and four meeting houses being attacked by the mob, and at least eight rioters and one special constable being killed. And yet nothing serious was done about it until the rioters started opening the prisons and freeing the inmates. Special constables were hurriedly sworn in, and eventually dragoons arrived and things quietened down.
  Why had so little effective action been taken against the rioters? Because the establishment was essentially behind them, regarding them as sturdy defenders of Church and Crown, and had no strong desire to curb their actions, so long as they stayed within certain bounds. The King and others, including even Burke, expressed themselves delighted that Priestley had suffered for his seditious preaching. However, the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, saw the clear danger in encouraging rioting: that a mob can easily shift its alliance. The pro-Government mob could well become an anti-Government mob – as indeed happened a couple of years later, when the Birmingham mob was crying 'Tom Paine for ever!'. For this reason, among others, the violent and destructive urges that lie not far below the surface of civilised society should never be encouraged. And, by extension, it is never a good idea to stand back and allow the perceived 'good guys' to silence and 'cancel' those they don't approve of; one day, the 'bad guys' might want to do the same thing, and the 'good guys' will discover they have destroyed their own defences.

(Incidentally, it is also instructive to note the remarkably high incidence of 'extreme weather' events in the years covered by The Lunar Men, despite the fact that the industrial revolution had not yet got under way...)

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

To the Common

To celebrate National Liberation Day – that happy day when the hygienists who now run the country decreed that, if we're very very good and obey all their rules, there is a chance that, at some date in the future, we might, just possibly, be allowed to resume living as human beings – I... Actually I wasn't celebrating anything except the gloriously sunny weather when I set out this morning to take a stroll around Ashtead common. I was greeted immediately by a fresh, bright Red Admiral – there seems to have been quite a big emergence of these beauties – and then, as I crossed the open land of Wood Field, large numbers of lovely Marbled Whites, Small Skippers and the inevitable Meadow Browns, with Small Heaths, Large Skippers and the odd Common Blue thrown in. In the woods, I was hoping to see Silver-Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals – spectacular species both – but for a while it looked as though I was going to be disappointed. Then, after some while, a SWF sailed majestically towards me, before pausing, wings closed, on a conveniently head-high leaf, allowing me to enjoy the subtle beauty of his underwings. Soon after that, several more crossed my path, along with the first White Admiral, gliding through alternating sunlight and shadow – now you see it, now you don't. More admirals and more fritillaries appeared as I walked along the ride – eight or ten of each, maybe more of the fritillaries (I wasn't counting). They alone would have made it a magical morning, but I also saw, close up, my first pair of another (much commoner) favourite, the Ringlet – and, as I headed back towards the station, I had a glimpse of what I think might well have been a Purple Emperor in flight, near the top of an oak tree. But it disappeared before I could get a proper look, so I will have to put a query by that famous name.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Consolations of Somewhere

I stepped in to the parish church again this morning, to sit a while and add to the 'footfall', and as I was leaving, an elderly gent in a mobility scooter rolled in. I'd seen him around the village before, and we exchanged nods. Continuing on my way, I headed for the nature reserve, and was wandering there when I saw him again. I greeted him and he came over (he was out of his mobility scooter now). We exchanged a few pleasantries and parted. Then, on the road outside, we bumped into each other yet again, so clearly it was time for introductions. His name rang a faint bell...
It turned out that he had attended the same schools, primary and grammar, as me, and had returned to the latter as a teacher, teaching geography, from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties – so, yes, he had probably taught me: at the age of 70, I had bumped into one of my old schoolmasters. It was strangely cheering, this evidence of long continuity. We 'somewhere' people, 'rooted in one dear perpetual place'...

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Escape from Lockdown

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I had a day out – a proper day out, taking the train all the way to Lichfield, that lovely and under-appreciated town/city, to meet up with my Derbyshire cousin. Apart from everything else, it was sheer joy just to be heading so far away from home territory (my little patch on the edge of the North Downs) and travelling through countryside I had not seen for months – smartly shorn sheep grazing old pastureland, square-towered churches among trees, rough knobbly scrubland, brick-built small towns... And then to arrive at Lichfield, the spiritual heart of Mercia, where St Chad built his monastery, and where now its successor, the great cathedral that bears his name, raises its three beautiful spires over the brick-and-stone city with its two great pools.
  We (my cousin and I) sat in the park and ate a bread-and-cheese picnic while the sun unexpectedly blazed down on us; we sat in Lunar Man Erasmus Darwin's herb garden; we sat and enjoyed the view over Minster Pool; and we sat in the cathedral for socially-distanced silent prayer, having duly submitted to hand sanitising at the door. My cousin lit a candle, but was not allowed to handle it; that high-risk job was entrusted to a latex-gloved usher. Such is the Church of England now. But at least the cathedral was (partly) open, and as glorious as ever. We didn't drink Sangria in the park, but this escape from lockdown was about as near as it gets to a Perfect Day.

Friday, 19 June 2020

'I am got somewhat rational now...'

One of the pleasures of Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence blog is his frequent quoting from the letters of Charles Lamb – letters which often sound like Keats in high spirits, scattering puns and good cheer all round. I have never read, or owned, Lamb's letters, so I decided the other day to take the plunge and buy a volume advertised on AbeBooks as The Letters of Charles Lamb.
  What came through my letterbox was a small and astonishingly slim volume (the spine is about five-eighths of an inch) of 466 pages, with no space wasted on an introduction, or even an index.

Published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, this compact little book is a joy to handle, and a perfect fit with a jacket pocket. The paper, though thin, is strong and opaque, and the type perfectly clear and readable. If only more books published today were like this – and if only Simpkin, Marshall, etc. had issued a companion volume of Keats's letter, but as far as I can find out, they never did. 
The title spread is very much of its time (the early 1920s) – to the right a jolly neo-Rococo extravaganza by (Alfred) Garth Jones, to the left a fanciful, and frankly awful, picture showing Lamb as a broken-down manservant waiting on a bloated Coleridge. This is dated 1903, and I can't make out the signature of the guilty party...
What first caught my eye, however, was the inscription on the title page: 'One of some books bought out of Auntie ES's gift for my 21st birthday.' The bookshop label shows it was bought at the Davenant Bookshop in Oxford. The date was July 23rd, 1926, and the man who bought it was one Geoffrey Tillotson. This rang a bell – wasn't there a literary critic of that name? Indeed there was – in fact there were two of them, Geoffrey and his wife, who were both professors and distinguished scholars, specialising mostly in Victorian literature. I fancy I might even have read their joint production, Mid-Victorian Studies, back in my university days.
It's always a pleasure to come across a book with a history...

Taking a first look at the Letters last night – this is going to be my bedside reading for some while – I noticed that it has also been lightly margin-marked, most likely by Tillotson himself. The first passage marked, in the very first letter (to Coleridge), is this:
'My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad-house, at Hoxton. I am got somewhat rational now, and don't bite anyone.'
I'm fancy I'm going to enjoy these letters very much.

Thursday, 18 June 2020


My parish church is open again, for private prayer – and open every day, which is a great deal more than it ever managed before. Seeing the notice and the open door today was quite extraordinarily heart-lifting, and walking through that door, back into the familiar space, felt like some kind of homecoming, even though I rarely attend a service these days and am barely part of the life of the parish. Even so, I need that church to be there, and to be open whenever possible; I hadn't realised how deep that need was until those grim months of closure. I hope this welcome reopening is a sign that the church has rethought its place and purpose in the life of the community, and rediscovered 'the power of the parish', as Giles Fraser expresses it in this excellent piece – and that, in Maurice Glasman's words, as quoted by Fraser,
the places denuded of value and purpose are revealed again as a site of meaning, a place where people live and from which they work.  The parish has returned as a site of living community, with its land and nature, its character and history, its wounds and its promise. It is the elemental theatre of living community. Its institutions and buildings, including churches, are no longer abandoned monuments to inevitable decline but full of necessity and hope and the new chapter is played out within its bounds. People and place matter in this story. Their particularity is transcendent. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Does Not Compute

The door of one of our local closed churches, I notice, is now hung with dozens of hearts in various sizes and garish colours, extravagantly signifying devotion to the new cult of NHS worship. To make matters worse, a large notice declares that 'Our Doors Are Closed But God Is Here'. To put it another way, God is here but He can't see you now...

And here's a random, unrelated thought. Just imagine if the spoken word artist 'George the Poet' had been born white, with all the privileges attendant on whiteness: he would surely by now have won at least ten awards, been elected to the National Council of Arts, opened the BBC coverage of the 2018 Royal Wedding, appeared twice on Question Time, turned down an MBE, and become a more or less permanent presence on Radio 4... Wait a minute – er, he's done all that anyway. Does not compute.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Infected Books

The long overdue reopening of 'non-essential businesses' in England is a welcome reminder of the 'old normal' (i.e. normal life) and seems to be helping to generate a more relaxed atmosphere. Among these 'non-essential businesses' are bookshops, with Waterstone's inevitably to the fore. It's a shop I only visit if there's nothing better (which, sadly, is the case where I live), but I'm glad they're open again and, by all accounts, doing a roaring trade. Buying books in an actual shop is certainly a richer experience than buying online (and if Waterstone's ever had anything I want, I'd do it more often). The down side, however, is that Waterstone's are bending over backwards to reassure the fearful returning shopper by reintroducing a practice that had long ago died out – disinfecting books. Customers will be asked to put aside any book they've touched but not bought, on a trolley which will in due course be trundled away into 72-hour quarantine.
  I'm pretty sure Patrick Kurp posted a piece on the disinfecting of library books a few months ago, but I can't for the life of me find it. The story, anyway, is essentially one of a panic, with no real foundation, that blew up in the late 19th century, peaked in the early years of the 20th, then died down – and the point is that it has long been known that there is no evidence that the handling of books can pass on any serious infection: this piece from the Smithsonian magazine gives an account of the panic and its groundlessness. However, I can personally attest that the practice of disinfection did not die out as early as is widely believed: certainly, in my childhood, it was common practice for public libraries to disinfect or incinerate books returned after contact with someone suffering from any of a range of infectious diseases.
  And now Waterstone's has revived the notion of infected books – it seems you can't keep a bad idea down, especially in this new age of anxiety. 

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Anno Domini

Continuing the lockdown trawl through 'my papers', I'm coming across a lot of features I wrote, years ago, about visits to various places around the country, some of which I've entirely forgotten; others I partly recall, while a few are still quite vivid in my memory. Just now I found a piece on the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, which I do remember – who could forget it? The building is eccentric and rather ugly, but interesting, with clever use of natural light. The artworks, though, are a jaw-dropping monument to the ghastly good taste of a late-Victorian hotelier with too much money at his disposal. One of the prize exhibits that I mention in my piece is an enormous painting which, when it was bought, was the most expensive ever sold by any living artist. Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (for it was he) paid £6,900 – around £850,000 in today's money – for  Anno Domini, or The Flight into Egypt by Edwin Longsden Long. I had quite forgotten what this looked like, but found it online and was duly enlightened. Here it is...
Well, I suppose if you like this kind of thing, then this is just the kind of thing you'll like – and the bigger the better: this one is about 8ft by 16ft. Long made a highly lucrative speciality of this kind of Biblical epic on canvas, which had immense – and today quite incomprehensible – appeal to the public. Many were displayed in his own gallery, the Edwin Long Gallery, on Bond Street, and  after his death some of them were collected together to form the nucleus of a very popular gallery of Christian art which replaced the Gustave Doré  gallery. The past in indeed another country.
I always quietly relish coming across these reminders of how soon the most celebrated and expensive art of its age can be entirely forgotten, surviving only as something to cause later generations to stare in disbelief. Damien Hirst and co, this could be you.

Friday, 12 June 2020

'The first fear...'

Coming across this poem by Kay Ryan, I couldn't help thinking that, although it contains wisdom of far wider application, it also has something interesting to say about the response to the Covid epidemic. We seem to be having a deal of trouble unflattening our raft...

We're Building The Ship As We Sail It
The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years -
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

We Are History

My father was, by the standards being applied today, clearly a racist and an imperialist. His language alone would condemn him now, though it was completely commonplace at the time, as was his casually jocular approach to Jews and to foreigners, whom he regarded, in a typically English way, as (a) funny and (b) unfortunate in not having drawn first prize in the lottery of life (by being born English). He cheerfully related 'Rastus' jokes from the comic books of his boyhood, and, as mentioned above, casually used words which now cannot even be printed. As everybody did. The fact that he never did or said an unkind thing to anyone, regardless of colour, race or (a big factor then) social class, and treated everyone with the same good-humoured respect, would count for nothing now against his catalogue of crimes. If there were a statue to him, the thugs of the new fascism would be itching to take it down. If he had a street named after him, it would be on Sadiq Khan's renomination list...
  It comes as a shock to realise how little distance on has to travel into the past to find cause for offence, if that is what one's looking for (and large numbers of people seem now to look for little else). Recalling my own schooldays, I remember that blatantly racist jokes were common currency, the more extreme and tasteless the better. They were part of a race to the bottom which also accounted for the popularity of 'sick' jokes and 'spastic' jokes – the kind of things we prefer to forget ever disfigured our minds. And yet, if we boys had then had access to social media, we would have been enthusiastically trading such 'jokes' back and forth. Practically everyone of my generation would have enough on their record to make them social pariahs, and very probably criminals too. And yet we were perfectly ordinary people, representative of our times, just as my father was of his. Those times collectively form The Past, and ultimately History. Astonishingly, the Past was, at the time, the Present; similarly, our Present will become the Past – and heaven knows what the moral judges of the Future might make of it. What is certainly true is that to abolish or censor History is, and can only be, a massively self-destructive enterprise. We are History.