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
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
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)
CORTICUS: Eheu!
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 caf├ęs, 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

Rowlandson

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.