Thursday, 26 November 2020

Newark Besieged

 On this day in 1645 the third, and by far the longest, siege of Newark began when Scottish troops to the North and English Parliamentarian forces to the South moved to encircle the Royalist stronghold. The garrison, under the leadership of Lord Belasyse, put up a vigorous defence, despite being outnumbered eight to one, but the besiegers gradually tightened their grip, encircling the town with a network of fortifications and attempting to dam the river so that the town's mills would have no water to drive them. By March, Newark was cut off entirely from the outside world. With supplies running dangerously low and plague breaking out in the town, Belasyse stood firm, refusing to surrender. However, the King himself, having fled from Oxford, surrendered his person to the Parliamentarians at Southwell on 5th May, 1646, and the following day he sent an order to the garrison at Newark to surrender. Lord Belasyse is said to have wept when he received this order, but he could only obey. He duly marched out with his depleted garrison and surrendered. 
   When I was first reading about the English Civil War, back in my far-off schooldays, I inclined to see it in the terms pithily outlined in 1066 and All That: the Cavaliers were 'wrong but wromantic', the Roundheads 'right but repulsive'. Nowadays I'd be more inclined to categorise the Royalists as wrong and wromantic, and the Parliamentarians as wrong and repulsive. Charles I was a wrong-headed monarch, also muddle-headed and fatally pig-headed, but the royalist cause seems far more attractive to me now, partly because of my researches into 17th-century English church monuments, the best of which nearly all seem to commemorate members of Royalist families (just as, earlier, many of the best of them were to Recusants). Evidence of the terrible iconoclastic violence inflicted on sacred buildings by the Puritans also counts heavily against them in my book. But, beyond that, there is something in the whole Puritan mindset that I find repulsive indeed, especially as that mindset seems to be indestructible. It is certainly enjoying a resurgence in this age when the Righteous and Justified army of the 'woke' seems to be on a mission to cleanse the world of sinfulness by rooting out 'wrong' thought, demystifying tradition and authority, destroying the past, and starting again from scratch, convinced that this time the result will be an earthly Paradise, a new Jerusalem. The murderous devastation wrought by such thinking over the centuries since the Civil War hardly needs spelling out. 

  But enough of that – it's time to strike the viol. Here is John Jenkyns's wonderful fantasia inspired by the siege of Newark (in particular Prince Rupert's heroic lifting of the second siege) – Newark-Seidge:

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Toulouse-Lautrec's Earthquake

 Born on this day in 1864 was the painter and printmaker Toulouse-Lautrec or, to give him his full name, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. He is one of those artists whose work – from sketches through to finished paintings – is so distinctive as to be instantly recognisable. It also lends itself well to reproduction, and, as T-L was a great poster designer, his work is to be seen on walls everywhere, from students' rooms to respectable domestic interiors. With its clean lines, sharp draughtsmanship, bold design and strong colours, it always looks good. 
  Although he was hard-working and productive, Toulouse-Lautrec, a heavy drinker and haunter of brothels, was the classic dissipated artist, and died young of a toxic cocktail of alcoholism and syphilis. And, talking of toxic cocktails, he is credited with the invention of the 'Tremblement de Terre' or Earthquake cocktail: half absinthe, half cognac, served in a wine goblet. Don't try this at home, or indeed anywhere. You don't want to end up like these two...

Monday, 23 November 2020

New Iconoclasts

 As England's go-to monument man – this solely on the basis of my book (you know – this book) – I am quite often contacted by hacks writing stories that have some bearing on church monuments. This usually comes to nothing, but with luck might get a mention of my book (you know – this book), so that's fine by me. Lately I'm being asked to comment on the growing threat to church monuments that memorialise historical figures with  connections to the (triangular) slave trade. Justin Welby, the soggy Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have encouraged this with his statement that 'some [monuments] will have to come down'. Naturally, when asked my views on this, I fulminate, burble incoherently, and follow through with an email that makes slightly more sense.
  I had always thought, or hoped, that church monuments had a different legal status and were more strongly protected than memorials in the public arena – so I was happy to learn, from Charles Moore's column in this week's Spectator, that this is indeed the case. Writing about Jesus College, Cambridge's plan to remove the memorial to its slave-trading benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from its chapel, Moore notes that, to achieve this dubious end, the college will have to get a 'faculty' from the Church of England. This involves enlisting the opinions of a diocesan advisory committee which includes historical, architectural and artistic experts, and works on the presumption that the C of E is against the removal of monuments and that only a rigorous 'statement of need' can justify such a removal. If the diocesan decision is disputed, the case may be heard by a consistory court, and that court's decision can be appealed to a yet higher court, the Court of Arches. All of which suggests that, in practice, the removal of offending monuments, however much desired by the ecclesiastical 'woke', is going to be so difficult as to be all but impossible. Worryingly, however, Welby's Church Buildings Council is pondering the issue and drafting diocesan guidelines, so who knows how safe our church monuments are – especially memorials to saracen-slaying crusaders, anyone who invested in the Royal Africa Company, heroes of empire, or indeed thoroughly evil men such as Richard Rich, whose extraordinary monument in Felsted church happens be to be one of the finest of its time? 

The same could be said of the monument to Sir Richard Clayton in Bletchingley church. This wealthy merchant and philanthropist, who rebuilt St Thomas's hospital, made money from the Royal Africa Company and is therefore, to modern eyes, morally tainted. His statue has already been removed from view at St Thomas's hospital (as has Thomas Guy's at Guy's Hospital). Will Clayton's great monument in Bletchingley church be next? At the very least, I daresay we can look forward to a suitably woke 'interpretation' panel conspicuously placed in front of it, and in front of many another offending monument. Madness...


Sunday, 22 November 2020

And Hopkins

 Talking of Henry Purcell, I just came across this extraordinary sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I don't remember reading even in the far-off days when I was somewhat obsessed with Hopkins...

Henry Purcell

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that,
whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man's mind,
he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man 
as created both in him and in all men generally.

Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love, or pity, or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I'll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder. 

This is a Petrarchan sonnet, written in Alexandrines (six stresses to the line) and in 'sprung rhythm' – something I never fully understood even in the days when I was studying Hopkins. He does well to find so many rhymes for 'Purcell'.

  The poet himself provides a helpful gloss:
'The sonnet on Purcell means this: 1-4. I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius. 5-8. And that not so much for gifts he shares, even though it shld be in higher measure, with other musicians as for his own individuality. 9-14. So that while he is aiming only at impressing me his hearer with the meaning in hand I am looking out meanwhile for his specific, his individual markings and mottlings, "the sakes of him".  It is as when a bird thinking only of soaring spreads its wings: a beholder may happen then to have his attention drawn by the act to the plumage displayed ... The thought is that as the seabird opening his wings with a whiff of wind in your face means the whirr of the motion, but also unaware gives you a whiff of knowledge about his plumage, the marking of which stamps his species, that he does not mean, so Purcell, seemingly intent only on the thought or feeling he is to express or call out, incidentally lets you remark the individualising marks of his own genius.'
  Hopkins explains those 'quaint moonmarks': 'By moonmarks I mean crescent-shaped markings of the quill-feathers, either in the colouring of the feathers or made by the overlapping of one on the other.'
I like that, partly because it makes me think of similar moonmarks on the wings of butterflies, though these are usually curved inward towards the body rather than outward to the wing margins. 
  Hopkins adds succinctly, 'My sonnet means "Purcell's music is none of your damned subjective rot" (so to speak)'. Amen to that. 
  Reading this sonnet again reminded me both of why I found Hopkins so fascinating and why I grew to find him insufferably tiresome, though I still greatly admire some of his poems.   

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Jan Morris, Henry Purcell

 Today brings sad news of the death of Jan (formerly James) Morris, at the ripe old age of 94, having lived more lives than most of us can dream of – as man and woman, as soldier and journalist, historian and travel writer (or rather 'writer who travels'), husband, father and, latterly, civil partner of his former wife. Of his writings, his classic book on Venice will surely survive, along with his much later book on Trieste, and probably his great historical trilogy Pax Britannica, though it takes an unfashionably positive line on the British Empire. Morris was writing to the end, publishing a final volume of musings, Thinking Again, only this year. The world is a poorer place without her distinctive voice.

It was also on this day that England lost one of its greatest composers. Henry Purcell died on this date in 1695, at the age of just 36. The glorious music he had composed for the funeral of Queen Mary the previous years was performed at his funeral too, and he was buried in the North aisle of Westminster Abbey. His epitaph reads, 'Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only his harmony can be exceeded.' 
It's tempting at this point to reach for the Queen Mary funeral music, or Dido's Lament ('When I am laid in earth'), but I'm going for this beautiful, impassioned piece for countertenor voice, which he wrote in the year before his death –

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Platonic Toast

 I see the lovely Nigella Lawson is in the headlines again – this time for devoting a five-minute segment of her latest series to, er, buttering toast. Unsurprisingly this has led to much mockery, something that I'm sure the serene Nigella will rise above. Her critics don't seem to have quite twigged what Nigella's TV series are – not programmes of cookery instruction but demonstrations of the sheer carnal pleasure of eating, filmed in an intimate, high-gloss style that, along with the entirely unreal settings, is suggestive more of high-end pornography than cookery. Nigella takes an almost indecent delight in her food – and who could deny that there is delight to be had from eating hot-buttered toast? Correction: hot-buttered then cool-buttered then sprinkled with sea salt. I wish I could try it myself (though I would use sourdough in preference to the sandwich loaf), but I have to avoid dairy these days, thanks to the lingering effects of a Hong Kong virus I picked up four years ago – but that's another story...  Nigella describes her twice-buttered toast as 'the Platonic ideal of toast'. You've got to love her for that. Speaking for myself, I've been in thrall to Nigella ever since the morning, some years ago, when I saw her emerging from a lift and she turned her melting smile on me. That did it. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Cook and Waugh: The Comic Sense of Life

 Two of the greatest English humorists of the postwar 20th century were born on the same day – today – albeit two years apart. Peter Cook would have been 83 today, in the wildly unlikely event that he'd lived so long (in fact he did well to make it to 58), and Auberon Waugh, had he lived, would have been 81 – which again was never going to happen, given the various legacies of his near-fatal (accidentally self-inflicted) war wound and his heroic smoking and drinking. 
  Peter Cook achieved legendary status remarkably early in life – something that probably encouraged his innate idleness. He was a naturally funny man, one of those who could barely open his mouth without at least seeming to be funny. His TV work with Dudley Moore in Not Only But Also is widely regarded as classic, though the more you see of the original shows the more laboured they seem: they shine bright in the memory because the actually funny bits (mostly the Dagenham Dialogues) are indeed so gloriously funny. The general view on Cook is that, after his initial blaze of glory, he never turned his prodigious talent to something worthy of it. This is probably true, but we'll never know, and it doesn't really matter: it was his talent to do what he wanted with, and he did enough to establish himself as one of the funniest men of his time, which is more than most of us can say.
  As for Waugh, he was, in contrast to Cook, an extremely hard-working hack, turning out vast amounts of copy, all of it in lucid and elegant prose, most of it worth reading, and much of it extremely funny. The best of his work is to be found, I think, in his glorious memoir, Will This Do?, and in his Diaries (of which I've written before). His novels, too, are good fun and deserve to be better known – in fact that reminds me, I must get on and finish my project of reading them all (see Nigeness passim)... He was a tireless scourge of the humourless, the pompous and the self-important, and, in person, a good-humoured and generous man – which is by no means always the case with humorists (or hacks).
  What Waugh and Cook had in common was the sense they gave that very little in life needed to be taken seriously, and very little couldn't be turned into comedy. They had the genuine comic sense of life – a rare thing, and becoming rarer in our over-serious times.  

Monday, 16 November 2020

The Election that Matters

 After an election marred by voter fraud, a clear winner has emerged. Yes, it's the Kakapo, the world's bulkiest parrot, which has just been named New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2020. A flightless bird which thinks it can escape predators by pretending to be a shrub, and has a habit of climbing up trees and falling out of them, it is self-destructively prone to making bad choices (rather like the New Zealand government, which seems happy to destroy its economy and cut itself off from the whole world in response to Covid). 
The Kakapo is perhaps best known from the much-viewed footage of a male becoming sexually aroused by the sight of a human head (no Biden gags here, please). This is the second time the really rather cute Kakapo has won New Zealand's ultimate avian accolade. Fair play to it, but if I had the vote, I'd definitely have gone for my old favourite, the irrepressible Tui

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Monet 180 Giverny 10

 Born 180 years ago today was the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet (christened Oscar-Claude). For myself I find a little Monet goes a long way, but on a dank and dismal day like today it's cheering to recall the visit I made to the famous gardens at Giverny ten years ago. It was something I did not expect to enjoy very much, but in the event it surprised me. To quote myself: 

'The next day (in company with my brother and the others) I did something I never thought I'd do – visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny. I continued to think I'd never do it when we descended from the hills, having climbed up from the valley and walked through miles of misty woods, into a village swarming with visitors, taking photographs of everything as they strolled along the (very picturesque) street and forming long queues to get in to the house, their numbers augmented by the arrival of an endless stream of coach parties. We retreated to take an early lunch, after which – by a double miracle – the sun had pierced the morning mists and was shining gloriously, and the queues had temporarily gone. Seizing our chance, we went in...
I have to report that, though the place was still fairly overrun, it was ravishing. The garden on a sunny autumn day is just the kind of garden I love most - richly, abundantly planted, full of colour and interest, artifice and nature beautifully blended. The immense profusion of michaelmas daisies naturally had me looking out for butterflies, and, as well as plentiful whites, I spotted several red admirals, a brimstone and a couple of speckled woods. As for the house – yes, rather on the ravishing side too, with an abundance of fascinating and beautiful Japanese prints that I wasn't expecting. Yes, Giverny can feel like Monetworld, international HQ of MonetCorp - and yes, I'm not a huge fan of Monet overall – but that house and garden somehow retain something enchanting despite the visiting hordes (who were back in force by the end of our visit). If Monet had planned the whole thing – if he'd envisaged his own global megapopularity and the pulling power of Giverny – he could hardly have got it righter. It works.'

(Nigeness, October 10th, 2010 – a post that also contains an account of getting locked out of a Norman provincial hotel.)

Friday, 13 November 2020

Robes and Noses

 I have received an email from an American company selling clerical vestments, informing me of their pre-Thanksgiving sale and showing me what they have on offer. Stiffly posed models do their best to look natural in, among other outfits, Senior Fluted Trinity Choir Robes, White Baptismal Robe with Dove, the Cassock with Band Cincture Package (a little 'High' for me), Clergy Alb with Cotton Cincture, and the Premium Square Neckline Surplice (which looks more my style).  If by any chance I get a sudden late-life vocation, I'll know where to go.
Actually I've always rather fancied sitting down at my study desk (if I had one) writing a weekly sermon, but I gather there's rather more to the job these days. Maybe I could beguile the weeks of lockdown by sitting around in a Premium Square Neckline Surplice writing sermons...
This offer, I suppose, is the sort of thing that turns up when you cheerfully 'accept all cookies' as you roam about the internet, though I cannot imagine how this particular company could have got wind of my existence. 
Talking of roaming about the internet, here's something very odd – and funny – I came across on YouTube. Enjoy... 

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Vanessa and Atalanta

 I've written before about the surprising origins of the name Vanessa – invented by Jonathan Swift, no less – but I hadn't fully realised the Swiftian origins of the Latin name for the Red Admiral until I read about it in Peter Marren's excellent Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies
It was not the Swede Linnaeus but the Dane Johann Christian Fabricius who gave the Red Admiral its grand binomial, Vanessa atalanta. He clearly took 'Vanessa' from Swift's poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa', which Marren describes pithily as 'an autobiographical love poem dressed up as a fairy story of nymphs and shepherds'. ('Cadenus' is an anagram of Decanus, a Dean, Swift's ecclesiastical rank.) But what of Atalanta? She is a figure from Greek mythology, a formidable virgin huntress and athlete who was notably reluctant to marry – and her name appears once with Vanessa's in 'Cadenus and Vanessa' – 
'When lo! Vanessa in her bloom
Advanced, like Atalanta's star.'
Surely Fabricius happened on those lines and had his inspiration – there was Vanessa atalanta, ready-made.
Handel wrote an opera Atalanta. Here is a rather lovely aria from it : 'Care Selve' (dear woods) –

As it happens, I saw a handsome Red Admiral this morning, in a local byway that in my boyhood was known (for no good reason) as Murder Alley. The Admiral was taking a quick hit of nectar from a very late bramble flower before flying off and away. It might be my last butterfly of the year – but I've already thought that about a Peacock in Derbyshire and a local Small White, so who knows?


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

We Are All Guilty (or not)

 A harrowing night's television last night, with My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder on BBC1, swiftly followed by Berlin 1945 on BBC4. Both programmes, unsurprisingly, got me thinking about questions of historical guilt... 
  At present the area of historical guilt that is being most vigorously agitated is slavery – by which is meant the relatively short-lived triangular trade that was suppressed a couple of centuries ago. It seems to me that whenever historical guilt for slavery is discussed, a small troop of elephants is milling about in the room. Chief among them – because it is the one form of slavery that we might conceivably be able to do something about – is present-day slavery in all its forms. This, it seems, may be safely ignored in favour of the perceived sins of the British and Americans of several centuries ago. Another large elephant is the long (and continuing) history of slavery in the Islamic world. And then there is Belgium, whose turn-of-the-(20th)-century wealth was built on slave labour in the Congo. And, in the 20th century, slave labour in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. Slave labour in Japan during World War II is perhaps a special case, as it was enslavement of prisoners of war (in total defiance of the Geneva conventions, etc.). The German use of slave labour in that war was another matter, involving the enslavement of its own (ex-)citizens, and it permeated the German economy to a quite extraordinary extent: there is barely a German brand you can name that doesn't have a history of using slave labour – from ThyssenKrupp right down to Dr Oetker. As for the Soviet Union, its economy was dependent on slave labour in the gulag system for decades – and that had nothing to do with the war. 
  Of course you could argue, quite reasonably, that present-day Belgians, Germans, Japanese, Russians etc. cannot be held accountable for what happened in the past, in different times and different circumstances and under different regimes. And yet this forgive-and-forget attitude does not, it seems, extend to the much more historically distant triangular trade. Present-day British and Americans, uniquely, must be held accountable for the sins of their great great great great great etc. grandfathers, in very different times and circumstances and under very different regimes. Maybe I'm missing something here, but this doesn't seem to me to make much sense (except perhaps as another episode in the long slow suicide of the West)...

Sunday, 8 November 2020


 Watching today's remembrance ceremony from Whitehall was a weird experience: no public, a handful of veterans, the few participants all standing two metres apart, even the ranks of the military bands drastically thinned. Such are these strange times. I couldn't help wondering what the wartime generations would have made of a nation brought to its knees by a virus that, er, kills old people. If Covid had appeared during either war, would anyone even have noticed? (They noticed the postwar Spanish flu all right, but that was vastly more serious and killed young adults on a huge scale.)
  This year marks the centenary of the erection of the permanent cenotaph on Whitehall, and of the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey – both brilliantly creative ways of commemorating the war dead and focusing the nation's grief. Lutyens's beautifully understated cenotaph is an almost abstract construction, essentially a blank monolith onto which memories and grief can be projected – no figurative sculpture, no triumphalism, no flamboyant display of emotion. Lloyd George had envisaged a 'catafalque', but Lutyens's final structure is more eloquent – an 'empty tomb' (the literal meaning of 'cenotaph').
  Curiously, Lutyens first came across the 'cenotaph' idea when he was working on Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood. He had designed a garden seat there in the form of a single block of elm set on a stone, and Charles Liddell, a friend of both Lutyens and Jekyll (and a librarian at the British Museum, and a cousin of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's Alice), christened it the 'Cenotaph of Sigismunda'. That was back in the 1890s, but clearly the word had lodged in Lutyens's memory. The Whitehall cenotaph that he brought into being years later was a direct response to his experience of the devastation wrought by the war in France, which Lutyens visited in 1917. This convinced him that a new kind of war memorial was needed, one that eschewed naturalism and expressionism in favour of an eloquent reticence. He was so right. 

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Alan Garner!

 With a big tip of the hat to Chris Hale, I pass on this astonishing image of the author of The Stone Book Quartet. I guess he must have needed the money (and was clearly no whisky drinker if he liked it with ginger ale – but did he really? We'll never know). 
I found Garner's endorsement even more improbable than this more famous one, featuring dear Kingsley and the long-suffering Elizabeth Jane Howard in their well appointed drawing room – 

What a shame Philip Larkin never did an ad for Gordon's gin. 'Very Philip Larkin, very drunk'?

Friday, 6 November 2020

Lockdown 2.0

 Well, this is a funny lockdown. The Committee for Public Safety might have decreed (on the usual fraudulent prospectus) that the nation must lock down again to prevent a medical catastrophe, but things seem to be going on pretty much as normal out there. True, the 'hospitality sector' is, to varying degrees, closed down, despite having been sedulously Covid-compliant and having already been punished with the ludicrous 10pm curfew. Similarly, the almost absurdly Covid-compliant churches have been ordered – apparently as an afterthought – to close their doors again. 'Non-essential' (to whom?) businesses, many of them already on their knees, have been shut down, and various other healthy communal activities have been curtailed. And yet, out on the street, this really doesn't feel like a lockdown – not the way the last one did, when people were genuinely anxious and afraid, and fear and uncertainty were in the air, along with a kind of unifying wartime spirit, a sense that we were 'all in this together.' Then, the high street was all but deserted, people were crossing the road to avoid contact with another human being, supermarket queues snaked round the block, and every week the besieged population would emerge, blinking, to applaud 'our NHS'. Now, it seems, 'our NHS' is going to be unable to cope even with a limited resurgence of Covid-19, so the nation must be closed down again to protect them (or rather to save their face). Has the NHS learnt nothing from the first wave? It would seem so – unlike the supermarkets, who faced colossal difficulties last time round but had got on top of most of them in about ten days, and who are now so well prepared that there are few queues and no shortages: toilet paper is piled as high as the towers of Ilium, and hand sanitiser to plentiful they're practically giving it away. It's arguable that the supermarkets and their under-appreciated workers were the true heroes of the epidemic: imagine the chaos and deprivation if those stores were being run by the state. 
  What is also striking about Lockdown 2.0 is that there are so many more dissenting voices. Last time around, I rarely came across anyone (at least in the early weeks) who had serious doubts about the government's approach. This time, I have yet to talk to anyone who is buying it, and it is obvious just from walking the streets how much more relaxed people are, and how much readier to bend or break the rules. This time, I think, lockdown won't wash, and the government will have to lift it on or before the appointed date, whatever The Science might be saying by then. 


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

'Roughly speaking'

On my Mercian travels, I revisited Lincoln Cathedral to marvel anew at its sheer scale and breathtaking beauty. This, in my humble opinion, is the greatest building in England. And so it was in the rather less humble opinion of John Ruskin, who declared that 'I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.' 
I love that 'roughly speaking', as if Lincoln might be worth only one and three quarters other cathedrals, or perhaps two and a quarter – far be it from Ruskin to lay down the law.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Old Nige Prognostickates

Election day already. I guess Old Nige had better prognostickate...
So, I'm calling it for Trump, but it will be messy.
Message ends.

Sunday, 1 November 2020


'Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down.'
There's an essay by me on the one and only Ivy Compton-Burnett in the new edition of the excellent online magazine British Intelligence

Friday, 30 October 2020

Off Again

 I spent yesterday walking in the countryside immediately outside Bath (to the east) – hilly, mostly pastureland, wonderfully unspoilt, nice villages, characterful little churches, muddy going – and tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels for a few days, so there may be a bit of a hiatus. On the other hand, there may not be... Pip pip.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

'She goes on and on...'

 Here is a passage from Kay Ryan's brilliant and utterly disarming prose collection Synthesizing Gravity. She is writing about Marianne Moore –

'... A poet friend of mine recently said, "They should have taken away her library card." God, it's true; she goes on and on. I can barely hold on to a single poem. And at the same time I think she is the Statue of Liberty.
   In "The Ardent Platonist" she writes, "To understand / One is not to find one formidable." She's right; if one is formidable, one is not understood. But how can we not find Marianne Moore formidable since she's so hard to understand? I think we just have to read her until we can contain the complexity that we cannot resolve. That is a bigger kind of understanding. At that point, the poet is no longer "formidable". A word or two becomes sufficient to invoke the complex spirit. We feel, now, an affection, a human affection, and a receptiveness which we could not feel when we were fighting with particulars. But maybe I'm just preaching to myself here, since I am irksomely literal when I read poetry (having a palm tree where my core should be).' 

Reading that, I was thinking of another poet who 'goes on and on' and is 'so hard to understand' – Geoffrey Hill. I reckon Ryan's approach to Marianne Moore's famously 'difficult' work could be applied equally profitably to that of Hill. And, talking of taking away library cards, the lugubrious Geoffrey was a heavy user of the University of Leeds library, where the staff nicknamed him 'Chuckles'. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

'You have brought about your own cessation'

 Last night I watched a new Who Do You Think You Are? featuring the very talented and likeable Ruth Jones, actress and writer. It was good viewing, as this show often is, and it got especially interesting when Ruth, a native of Porthcawl, was finding out about her paternal grandfather, who died before she was born. He was a central figure in the Medical Aid Societies that thrived in South Wales before the war, providing comprehensive medical care to all, in return for a small subscription. Democratically controlled, mutualist and responsive to their local communities, these were, you might have thought, a model for how the embryonic National Health Service should develop. Ruth's grandfather certainly thought so, and bombarded Nye Bevan (the South Walian health secretary) with ever more urgent pleas to be included in the discussions that were shaping what was to be the NHS – and to be part of that NHS when it was up and running. This got him nowhere, and the Medical Aid Societies were sidelined throughout, and done away with altogether when the NHS took over ('By your very efficiency you have brought about your own cessation,' said Bevan) – a state-owned, state-controlled, socialist monolith, with little or no room for democratic control, mutualism and community responsiveness. The received wisdom is that Bevan did base the new service on the Medical Aid Society model – but the correspondence uncovered in this programme told a very different story.
Things would surely have been better if the emergent NHS had indeed been based more on what was already going on in South Wales and elsewhere, and less on top-down Soviet-style statism. 

Monday, 26 October 2020

Swift Resolutions

 Patrick Kurp's post this morning, on growing older, put me in mind (and him too, I'm sure) of Swift's 'Resolutions When I Come to Be Old'.  One of his most direct and straightforwardly human pieces of writing, it dates from 1699, when Swift was only 32 and Gulliver's Travels was 27 years in the future:

-Not to marry a young Woman.
-Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
-Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
-Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
-Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
-Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
-Not to be covetous.
-Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
-Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
-Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
-Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
-To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
-Not to talk much, nor of my self.
-Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
-Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
-Not to be positive or opiniative.
-Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

Number five is a strange kind of resolution, especially as being with children can be one of the great pleasures and consolations of old age. However, other than that, they strike me as pretty sound – especially, perhaps, the last one. Sadly, by the time Swift reached his old age, he was suffering from dementia. 'I shall be like that tree,' he is supposed to have said, pointing to a stag-headed specimen. 'I shall die at the top.'

Sunday, 25 October 2020

A Bit of Sunday Music (and Etymology)

 Once upon a time, the fondly remembered Dabbler blog used to carry a regular feature called Lazy Sunday Afternoon, in which the great Mahlerman would introduce us to some glorious piece or pieces of music that we (I, anyway) had somehow spent all our lives missing.
   Here, in the spirit of Lazy Sunday Afternoon (but without Mahlerman's erudition), is a piece of music I caught on Radio 3 the other day and would like to share. It's a very beautiful (I think) aria from Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade, a musical drama that was premiered in Venice in 1734 – 'Mentre Dormi':

  One of my great pleasures in recent years has been discovering the music of those Baroque composers I never bothered with in my youth, dominated as my listening then was by Beethoven and the Romantic heavy brigade. This ignorance or prejudice (widely shared at the time) has had the happy effect of leaving me with an ever growing number of great composers to discover (or at least to explore their works much more deeply). Vivaldi is just the latest, and I've recently been wallowing in his L'Estro Armonico (having bought the double CD by Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante) – an astonishing collection of violin concertos with an intriguing name.  'Estro' means something like inspiration, or talent, or gift or bent, whim or fancy. Its root meaning, from the Greek 'Oistros', is a gadfly: Socrates used the word to describe himself, irritant that he was. Anglicised as Oestrus, the word then extended its meaning to cover a vehement impulse or frenzy, and thence to sexual arousal and, in biology, the period of sexual receptivity in many female mammals. It is also the root of Oestrogen, the female sex hormone. And to think Vivaldi could have just called his collection 'Twelve Concertoes'. 

Friday, 23 October 2020

My Top Picks, etc.

Those nice people at Amazon have sent me my weekly reading list. 
My Top Picks are
Captain Underpants: Three Pant-tastic Novels in One by Dav Pikey
and The Lost Spells by Robert McFarlane (a nature writer I know is a Good Thing but I find in practice unreadable). 
An interesting pairing.
And then come the books specially Recommended for You:
Sweet Sorrow, 'this summer's must-read from the bestselling author of One Day' (er, no thanks),
and Yotam Ottolenghi's Flavour (hmmm).
There we are – another triumph for those all-knowing algorithms.

Meanwhile, down at my local Sainsburys, the Argos concession – which recently declared its proud support of the LGBT+ community with rainbow-coloured bunting – is now using its bunting to declare its equally proud support of Black History Month. Quite what form this support takes, or could possibly take, is hard to imagine – Argos is, after all, nothing more than a retail counter attached to a warehouse. But we should not be surprised by any of this: the Woke agenda has been greedily subsumed into corporate culture and PR (which doesn't make it any less dangerous). It is one of the many ways in which the new managerial elite is reminding us of who is in charge and what attitudes we must strike if we want to get on in this craven new world. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A virtuoso of self-loathing

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

John Betjeman was a virtuoso of self-loathing – and one who was penetrating enough to know that his self-loathing was also a form of self-regard ('I pat myself upon the back'). The stanza above comes from a longer poem, 'Guilt', and I happened upon it in a new book on Betjeman that I'm reading for review (so had better not say much more). 
Here is 'Guilt' in its bleak entirety – 

The clock is frozen in the tower,
The thickening fog with sooty smell
Has blanketed the motor power
Which turns the London streets to hell;
And footsteps with their lonely sound
Intensify the silence round.

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

With breastplate of self-righteousness
And shoes of smugness on my feet,
Before the urge in me grows less
I hurry off to make retreat.
For somewhere, somewhere, burns a light
To lead me out into the night.

It glitters icy, thin and plain,
And leads me down to Waterloo –
Into a warm electric train
Which travels sorry Surrey through,
And crystal-hung, the clumps of pine
Stand deadly still beside the line.

'Waterloo' comes as something of a shock, a touch of bathos, and 'sorry Surrey' is a bit tricksy – and unfair on my home county. But 'Guilt' is still a powerful piece of work, and a very long way from the cheery nostalgia and easy charm of Betjeman's more popular poems. He was always a much more complex and interesting poet, and man, than the avuncular teddy bear beloved of the TV chat-show circuit – for which persona, and for his popular success, he also, inevitably, hated himself. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

One of Norway's Finest

Today, with my loyal Norwegian readership in mind, I mark the birthday of one of Norway's finest 19th-century painters, Frits Thaulow, born on this day in 1847. I've written about him before, mostly in connection with his Dieppe years, and I never tire of Jaques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of him with his statuesque wife and children (above). 
   Although Thaulow was Norway born and bred, he spent much of his painting career elsewhere, first in Denmark – where he worked in Skagen before it became famous for the Skagen Painters – and then in France, where Paris didn't suit him, but various lesser towns did, especially Dieppe. His work can be filed under Impressionism, and his strong suit was landscape, especially landscapes with plenty of water in them.  Or indeed watery townscapes: here is one of his Venice paintings, Under the Rialto Bridge

And here is a typical riverside scene from somewhere near Dieppe –

Thaulow also had a penchant for crepuscular mood pieces, as in this Ambiance du Soir. I wonder where it was painted – any guesses?

And this one carries the title Kveltstemning, Dieppe – which my Norwegian readers will know means Evening Mood, Dieppe. However, I'm pretty sure that is not Dieppe: neither of Dieppe's old churches looks at all like the one looming through the murk here, nor do those gabled houses look right for Dieppe  

Anyway, happy 173rd birthday to a good painter and, by all accounts, an excellent man. 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Experts and Tags

'I don't know much about science, but I know what I like.' 
That line was quoted by Val MacDermid on Radio 4's Broadcasting House this morning. Apparently it's from Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers
   It does seem remarkably apposite in these Covid-deranged times, when every man and woman is his/her own expert in fields of science whose very existence he/she probably never suspected until recently. We pick, of course, the bits of 'the science' that match our preformed view of what's going on, the research findings that seem to prove us right.  It's open season for confirmation bias – and no wonder in times like these, when there is so much information out there and yet no one really knows what the heck is going on. 
   Addicted as I am to Latin tags (the sure sign of a man who has otherwise forgotten all the Latin he ever learnt), the phrase 'Experto crede' has been rolling around in my head for some while. With 'experts' as thick on the ground as the autumn leaves, that's hardly surprising. Experto crede – believe the expert, right? Well, yes, except that this is 'expert' in its older sense of one who has experienced (it's the same root, obvs): not one who has mastered a body of knowledge but one who has actual experience of what he's talking about – which, of course, rules out whole swathes of present-day expertise. I shall return 'experto crede' to the ragbag of tags (the tagbag) and move on. Claudite iam rivos, pueri – sat prata biberunt...

Saturday, 17 October 2020

A Year in the Life of a Book

 It was on this day last year that I announced to a startled world that my book, The Mother of Beauty, was finally available to buy
   What happened next? Well, I was delighted that the book got a warm reception from many individuals whose opinions I value, and pleased that it seemed to be selling steadily, if at low volume, on Amazon. I sent out a few copies for review, more in hope than expectation – among them, belatedly, one addressed to the books editor of the Daily Mail, who I did not expect to show the slightest interest. In fact she responded very positively, so I got some extra copies printed in case of need, then headed off to New Zealand for a month with the family there. Next thing I knew there was a rave Book of the Week review in the Mail – and, as a result, all available copies sold out in two days, leaving me to organise a hasty reprint by remote control from Wellington. This lost me three weeks of sales (so much for 'hasty'!) and led to some desperation among readers anxious to buy the book. An American publisher that happened to have the same imprint (but published books on unorthodox sexual relationships) was so bombarded with inquiries that it had to put up a big disclaimer on its website. 
  Hey ho. A few more reviews followed, my book got a mention in the Church Times (and, I gather, a sniffy review in the Church Monuments Society gazette – I haven't seen it). Things gradually settled down, and now sales seem to be close to flatlining – which is unfortunate, as a belated (too late!) extra reprint has left me with three or four boxes of The Mother of Beauty on my hands. If anyone would care to relieve me of a copy or two, you can do so either by way of Amazon, or, if you'd prefer not to further enrich Jeff Bezos, direct from me at Remember – Christmas is coming...

Friday, 16 October 2020

'A florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks'

 On the day in 1396 was born William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, statesman and military commander. A favourite of the ineffectual king Henry VI, he features in literature as a character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, parts 1 and 2 – and as one of the three subjects of Geoffrey Hill's  extraordinary sonnet sequence 'Funeral Music':

    William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: beheaded 1450
    John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester: beheaded 1470
    Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers: beheaded 1483

Actually, as Hill makes clear in the short essay he wrote to illuminate 'Funeral Music', William de al Pole was 'butchered across the gunwale of a skiff' by an angry mob, rather than judicially beheaded. Tiptoft was a nobleman and scholar who, as Lord High Constable, presided over executions (of Lancastrians) of such gratuitous brutality that he became known as 'the Butcher of England'. At his own beheading, he asked the executioner to strike three times 'in honour of the Trinity'. Woodville was also a scholar, whose translation from the French of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers was one of the very first books printed in England (by William Caxton). He fell foul of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and was beheaded at Pontefract (Pomfret) castle. 
   In 'Funeral Music', Hill writes, 'I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks' – an appropriate enough soundtrack for the Wars of the Roses. The battle of Towton, mentioned in the second sonnet, was probably the largest and bloodiest ever fought in England. The grim, relentless slaughter was enacted in a snowstorm, and when the caked snow thawed after the battle, the furrows and ditches ran red with blood for two or three miles around.
'Funeral Music' is a pretty shattering poem – brace yourself...


Processionals in the exemplary cave,
Benediction of shadows. Pomfret. London.
The voice fragrant with mannered humility,
With an equable contempt for this world,
‘In honorem Trinitatis’. Crash. The head
Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood.
So these dispose themselves to receive each
Pentecostal blow from axe or seraph,
Spattering block-straw with mortal residue.
Psalteries whine through the empyrean. Fire
Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone
Creatures of such rampant state, vacuous
Ceremony of possession, restless
Habitation, no man’s dwelling-place.


For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain—
For none but the ritual king? We meditate
A rueful mystery; we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.


They bespoke doomsday and they meant it by
God, their curved metal rimming the low ridge.
But few appearances are like this. Once
Every five hundred years a comet’s
Over-riding stillness might reveal men
In such array, livid and featureless,
With England crouched beastwise beneath it all.
‘Oh, that old northern business …’ A field
After battle utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.
Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable
Mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly
Among carnage the most delicate souls
Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.


Let mind be more precious than soul; it will not
Endure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,
Settles with tears and sweat, is possibly
Indestructible. That I can believe.
Though I would scorn the mere instinct of faith,
Expediency of assent, if I dared,
What I dare not is a waste history
Or void rule. Averroes, old heathen,
If only you had been right, if Intellect
Itself were absolute law, sufficient grace,
Our lives could be a myth of captivity
Which we might enter: an unpeopled region
Of ever new-fallen snow, a palace blazing
With perpetual silence as with torches.


As with torches we go, at wild Christmas,
When we revel in our atonement
Through thirty feasts of unction and slaughter,
What is that but the soul’s winter sleep?
So many things rest under consummate
Justice as though trumpets purified law,
Spikenard were the real essence of remorse.
The sky gathers up darkness. When we chant
‘Ora, ora pro nobis’ it is not
Seraphs who descend to pity but ourselves.
Those righteously-accused those vengeful
Racked on articulate looms indulge us
With lingering shows of pain, a flagrant
Tenderness of the damned for their own flesh:


My little son, when you could command marvels
Without mercy, outstare the wearisome
Dragon of sleep, I rejoiced above all—
A stranger well-received in your kingdom.
On those pristine fields I saw humankind
As it was named by the Father; fabulous
Beasts rearing in stillness to be blessed.
The world’s real cries reached there, turbulence
From remote storms, rumour of solitudes,
A composed mystery. And so it ends.
Some parch for what they were; others are made
Blind to all but one vision, their necessity
To be reconciled. I believe in my
Abandonment, since it is what I have.


‘Prowess, vanity, mutual regard,
It seemed I stared at them, they at me.
That was the gorgon’s true and mortal gaze:
Averted conscience turned against itself.’
A hawk and a hawk-shadow. ‘At noon,
As the armies met, each mirrored the other;
Neither was outshone. So they flashed and vanished
And all that survived them was the stark ground
Of this pain. I made no sound, but once
I stiffened as though a remote cry
Had heralded my name. It was nothing …’
Reddish ice tinged the reeds; dislodged, a few
Feathers drifted across; carrion birds
Strutted upon the armour of the dead.


Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.

'A kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh'

 The first essay in Kay Ryan's recently published Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose begins with the arresting sentence, 'I have always felt that much of the best poetry was funny.' She's not talking about comic verse; indeed the first example she gives is Hopkins's far from funny 'The Windhover': 'Who can read [it] and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?'
   Well, I'm glad it's not just me. I often feel exactly this impulse in the face of poetry, paintings, or indeed anything in art or nature that is conspicuously beautiful. Ryan likens the reaction to 'one of those involuntary ha!s that jump out when you've witnessed a wonderful magic trick', and I am much given to those ha!s when reading really good poetry, looking at great paintings (as at the National Gallery the other day) or witnessing some fine instance of nature's 'useless beauty' (my butterfly watching is punctuated by many a ha!). 'Maybe that ha!,' Ryan suggests, 'is the body's natural response to perfection: a perfect trick (one has been utterly deceived) or a perfect poem (one has been utterly deceived).'
   She goes on to examine a short, perfect poem by Robert Frost, 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' – 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– and to quote a passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood on poetry as 'a superior amusement'. 'I love two things about Eliot's definition,' she says. 'First, the bedrock, indefensible truth of it: that poetry is a superior amusement. Second, Eliot's mess of an attempt to explain what he means. I am heartened in my own efforts when I see his bluster. I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, there is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.'
  And I am clearly going to find great enjoyment in this wonderfully straight-talking collection. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Joy of Paint

 This morning I took my place in the queue outside the National Gallery and shuffled towards the entrance and my appointment (pre-booked, of course) with Titian: Love, Desire, Death – Titian's seven Ovid-inspired Poesie ('poetries') together in one place for the first time in more than 400 years. I had heard that the National is not a place to go maskless and unchallenged, so for once I masked up: if Paris was worth a mass, Titian is surely worth a mask. 
   It was so good, so deeply cheering to be back in the National. Approaching through the galleries leading to the exhibition room, it was hard not to stop and linger, and as I passed through a grin of aesthetic joy was already spreading over my face. It stayed firmly in place as I relished the spectacle of Titian's great masterpieces – 'the most beautiful paintings in the world' in Lucian Freud's view (and I wouldn't argue) – all gathered together. Three were already familiar, being in the National's collection (or shared with the National Gallery of Scotland) and two are resident elsewhere in London (the Wallace Collection and Apsley House), but The Rape of Europa had come all the way from Boston, and Venus and Adonis from the Prado. Though they were painted across two decades and show Titian's development of an ever more daringly 'loose' style, all display almost superhuman technical virtuosity, and all are intensely sensual and immensely 'painterly'. Indeed they are some of the most painterly paintings ever executed – lush, juicy, sensuous – and to see them is to revel in the sheer joy of paint. If ever there was an exhibition that has to be seen in the flesh – and the word couldn't be more appropriate – it is this one. These are pictures that have to be seen full scale, examined closely and from a distance; reproductions give little or no idea of their stunning impact. Wearing a mask was a small price to pay for this experience, and, it has to be said, the crowd management measures in force mean that the room where the Poesie are reunited is not overcrowded. It is easy to stand undisturbed, and look and look, and give these astonishing pictures their due.  
  Staggering from the gallery in an aesthetic daze  – this had been my first exhibition since February – I went and had a spot of lunch before making my way to my next appointment with art: Robert Dukes's new exhibition at Browse & Darby. Here too was a 'painterly' painter, and here too was the sheer joy of paint. His glorious little still-lifes of fruit – lemons, oranges, quinces, an artichoke in flower – sing like nobody else's, and make me wish intensely that I could afford to have one hanging on my wall. In this exhibition Dukes also continues his exploration of other painters' works, with compositions 'after' Veronese, Caravaggio, Morandi, Rembrandt, and a particularly striking set  painted 'after Balthus' (and a 'homage to' Michael Andrews). As with the Titians, reproduction is wholly inadequate, but here are some oranges and quinces...

Robert Dukes's exhibition is on until the 6th of November (see the Browse & Darby website for details), and Titian: Love, Desire, Death until the 17th of January.