Monday, 18 October 2021

Weddings Anniversary

 On this day in 1958 – some months after the event – Philip Larkin signed off on one of his most famous poems. 'The Whitsun Weddings' was widely thought of as his best – perhaps it is – and seemed to represent, along with 'Church Going', the essence of Larkin: until the likes of 'Aubade' and, heaven help us, 'This Be the Verse' came along to complicate the picture. 'The Whitsun Weddings' remains one of Larkin's most popular works – it made it into the BBC anthology of The Nation's Favourite Poems – and it shows him at his most (in Betjeman's phrase) 'tenderly observant'. It flows beautifully and easily, everything perfectly modulated, its Keatsian rhyme scheme (ABABCDECDE) barely apparent. The arresting final image – inspired, Larkin claimed, by the arrow shower in Olivier's film of Henry V – gives us one of Larkin's greatest endings (and he's a poet of great endings). A disenchanted world is suddenly, mysteriously re-enchanted.
Anyway, it's a fine poem, one that is always worth rereading. Here it is – 

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense   
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence   
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept   
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.   
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and   
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;   
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped   
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass   
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth   
Until the next town, new and nondescript,   
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys   
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls   
I took for porters larking with the mails,   
And went on reading. Once we started, though,   
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls   
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,   
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant   
More promptly out next time, more curiously,   
And saw it all again in different terms:   
The fathers with broad belts under their suits   
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;   
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from caf├ęs
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed   
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days   
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define   
Just what it saw departing: children frowned   
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.   
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast   
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,   
And someone running up to bowl—and none   
Thought of the others they would never meet   
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.   
I thought of London spread out in the sun,   
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across   
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss   
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail   
Travelling coincidence; and what it held   
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power   
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Watson's Apology

 I've been reading a Beryl Bainbridge novel that I'd somehow never noticed (let alone read) before – Watson's Apology. I found it, needless to say, in a charity shop and snapped it up. 
  Watson's Apology dates from 1984, and is the second (after Young Adolf) of what might be called Bainbridge's 'historical novels': The Birthday Boys, Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie and According to Queenie – a truly impressive body of work – were to follow. Watson's Apology has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes's sidekick, but is a fictionalised account of a real-life murder, and a most perplexing one. One Sunday morning in 1871, a respectable and scholarly former headmaster, the Rev. John Selby Watson, bludgeoned his wife to death at their house in Stockwell. He kept her body in a back room for two days, then made a half-hearted suicide attempt by drinking prussic acid. Through all the police inquiries and court hearings that followed, Watson remained impassive and uncommunicative, explaining only that his wife had goaded him to a fit of ungovernable rage. In court, he filed, unusually for the time, a defence of insanity.
  Bainbridge's novel draws on documentary evidence, and the characters – and even the house where the murder took place – are drawn from life. However, as she writes in a prefatory note, 'what has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings. These it has been the task of the novelist to supply.' And supply them she does, in a thoroughly persuasive manner, painting a portrait of an unhappy, awkward and frustrated man who made an unwise marriage and whose career ended in failure. As a picture of an unhappy marriage, Watson's Apology is brilliantly effective, not least because Bainbridge lets us glimpse how it might have been a happy one, if only Watson had been less self-absorbed and his wife had not drifted into alcoholism. 
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Bainbridge has the gift of total immersion in the period she is writing of: there is no sense of strain in this, no sign of half-digested research. The sights, sounds and smells of Victorian suburbia are vividly evoked, as is its everyday social life. But the great strength of the novel is its compassionate and convincing characterisation of the unhappy Watson and his equally (but differently) unhappy wife. It is a dark tale, but, thanks to the lightness of Bainbridge's touch, never unbearably oppressive. As it proceeds, however, the impending murder hovers ever more menacingly over the action. In the event it is not described (except by way of forensic reports). This is, I think, wise: by the time of the murder, we have seen enough, we know enough. 
  Translations from the Latin and Greek by John Selby Watson can still be found, some in Bohn's Classical Library and Everyman's Library. He also wrote several biographies, a book on The Reasoning Power in Animals, and Geology: A Poem in Seven Books. Watson made almost no money from these exertions. 

Friday, 15 October 2021


 Earlier today I had the dismal experience of walking through central Croydon (on my way to more civilised parts). The air of squalor, dereliction and social collapse in what in living memory was a sedate suburban shopping centre seems to get more pungent every time I set foot in the place (which is as seldom as possible). The few survivals from an earlier Croydon – once the country seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury – seem ever more isolated and incongruous amid the hideous skyscrapers and depressing shopping streets. If ever I needed to strengthen my resolve to move to Lichfield – and I'm not likely to – I need only pay a quick visit to Croydon to set me right. 
However, there was one bright note: I noticed this image of Croydon's most famous son, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, over the entrance to one of the shopping centres. It's been given a a gratuitous touch of street cred by the addition of headphones and a jazzy background, but at least it's recognisable, and there. Heaven knows what SC-T would make of Croydon as it is today. 

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Five Years Ago

 Today is the birthday of Katherine Mansfield (born 1888). 
Five years ago, in those dear dead days of unrestricted international travel, before New Zealand cut itself off from the rest of the world in the deluded pursuit of 'zero Covid', I was enjoying the wonderful city of Wellington – how I miss it, not to mention the loved ones who live there...
One morning I took myself off to the Katherine Mansfield birthplace museum, and recorded the experience in a blog post.
Here's the link...

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Uncanny Harmony

 I enjoyed watching the American documentary The Harmony Game on BBC2 last night, even if it was ten years old. A film about Simon and Garfunkel, it was built around the making of their best and last album, the massively successful Bridge Over Troubled Water, which in the early Seventies seemed to be in absolutely everybody's record collection (12" vinyl of course). Paul and Art both contributed, separately, with Art notably more generous and affectionate in tone than Paul – no surprise there. It was very touching to see early footage of the two of them, their love for each other so evident and easy, their natural harmony extending beyond their music – what happened? This question was not explored. 
  The uncanny vocal harmony was still very much in evidence when Bridge Over Troubled Water was being made, and sound engineer Roy Halee knew how to bring out its special quality. He was the major contributor, after Art and Paul, to the documentary, and threw much light on the often unorthodox techniques used to create the album's richly textured, distinctive sound. Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of a string of great albums  (including the greatest, Pet Sounds) produced in response to The Beatles' mid-Sixties endeavours, which sparked a war of emulation – due at least as much to George Martin's innovative productions as to The Beatles' music. Also contributing – and a joy to see – were drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Joe Osborne, two of the three musicians who were the driving force of the Wrecking Crew (the third, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, was sadly already dead when the film was made).  
  The Harmony Game left a certain sadness in its wake. It was impossible to watch it without regretting that Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways after hitting such heights with Bridge Over Troubled Water, and that the estrangement become so bitter. Nothing was said of all that in the film, but it was hovering in the air throughout. 

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Sinden and Bosie

On this day we lovers of theat-ah (hem hem) must celebrate the birthday of Donald Sinden, who would have been 98 today. Sinden evolved from being a fairly conventional and versatile leading man into the fruitiest thesp who ever trod the boards. In his anecdotage he was a popular talk-show guest, and he published two volumes of memoirs, as well as editing (who better?) the Everyman Book of Theatrical Anecdotes. In addition to his long and distinguished acting career, he had a minor claim to fame as perhaps the last living link with Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie'), and thereby with Oscar Wilde. 
   In 1942 Sinden discovered that the aged Lord Alfred was living not far from him in Hove, so he decided to seek him out, having recently read a biography of Oscar Wilde. Cannily he prepared for his visit by reading some of Douglas's sonnets, which their author (and, to be fair, some others) rated very highly. Arriving at Lord Alfred's address, Sinden was surprised to find a row of very mean, two-up two-down houses. 'With some trepidation,' Sinden writes (in A Touch of the Memoirs), 'but tingling with excitement, I rang the bell. A long pause. The door was opened by a little stooping man, not more than five feet four inches tall, with grey hair, bleary eyes and pouches under them and a bulbous nose. "Please come in," said Lord Alfred.'
  The former Bosie responded charmingly to the young actor who had taken an interest in him,  and, after a pleasant conversation, he invited him back for tea the following week. 'And so began a series of visits during which he would talk about his childhood, his time at Oxford, the actors he had known, his court cases, books and writers, and gradually the subject of Oscar Wilde, whom he always recalled with great affection. Tears sometimes welled in his eyes.'
  But then Sinden, browsing in a Brighton bookshop, came across Lord Alfred's Oscar Wilde and Myself and discovered that it was full of vitriolic abuse of his one-time friend, lover and mentor. This was an eye-opener, but Sinden maintained his friendship with Lord Alfred, who one day took him to Worthing and showed him the house where he and Oscar  were staying when Oscar was writing The Importance of Being Earnest. When Lord Alfred died in 1945, Donald Sinden was one of only two people to attend his funeral. He described him later as 'a very dear, kind man' – a generous assessment. 

Friday, 8 October 2021

A Guilty Pleasure, Good News for Retroprogressives, and an Earworm

 In one of the charity bookshops of Lichfield (there are at least two good ones, not to mention the excellent literary/historical bookshop in Dr Johnson's House) I came across this garish number with its wildly inappropriate cover image. Naturally I snapped it up. I haven't read I Like It Here in donkey's years, so I thought I'd give it a go. An early Amis (1958), it's a fairly slight affair, the tale of a writer who for various reasons finds himself reluctantly abroad, in Portugal, with wife and family. It's nothing like as bilious as Amis's other Englishman abroad novel, One Fat Englishman, and its protagonist, Garnet Bowen, is a great deal more likeable and less deplorable than the appalling Roger Micheldene. Reading Amis tends to feel like a guilty pleasure, but there's no good reason why it should: he was an excellent writer, as well as being very often very funny – a rare and cherishable combination. I Like It Here has already had me laughing out loud several times – at this passage, for instance, describing Bowen's first impressions on arrival in Portugal: 
 'Everything looked cheerful, expensive and brand-new, even vaguely important. Perhaps it was all to do with the sun and how bright it was. It was a pity that such terrible people said that colours were brighter in the South, because they were right. Oh well, they talked so much they were bound to be right occasionally, just by accident. Bowen looked nervously about for peasants. It would be unendurable if they all turned out to full of instinctive wisdom and natural good manners and unselfconscious grace and a deep, inarticulate understanding of death. But surely they couldn't, could they? No peasants were on hand to offer themselves as evidence. He had an uneasy feeling, though, that this situation was not going to last...'
Or there's this bravura description of the man who might or might not be the distinguished author Wulfstan Strether:
'Visually the fellow measured up: he was tall, slightly stooping, with almost white though abundant hair, and with a bearing, a nose, a mouth, a pair of eyes that could be unhesitatingly pigeonholed as authoritative, hawk-like, sensitive, piercing. This was to ignore, perhaps, the properties of his ears (elongated, red), hat (staringly white), shirt (damask, extra-zonal, unwise), and his dialogue recalled Charles Morgan rather than anything Downing College would approve – though the distinction was admittedly a fine one. But all this was countered by the quality of his voice (the statutory reedy tenor) and its accent (older speaker's upper-class, with even a scintilla of hyah about the word here). He looked about sixty and, while amiable enough, a terrible old crap.'
(I think by 'extra-zonal' Amis must mean 'not tucked in at the waist').
Yes, there's a lot to enjoy in I Like It Here. And all for the princely sum of £1.99. Books in charity shops seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper, with oddments being sold off for 50p and less.
  Old vinyl LPs, on the other hand, are on offer at surprisingly high prices, scratched and battered though many of them must be – a dramatic turnaround from a few years ago, when you could barely give them away. And yesterday I learned that new vinyl is now the bestselling physical form of recorded music, having overtaken the CDs that were supposed to render vinyl obsolete – great news for us retroprogressives. 
  My own collection of somewhat battered vinyl LPs I recently subjected to a drastic cull, and have lugged large quantities of them down to a local charity warehouse. Among them was John Cale's strangely beautiful, or beautifully strange, Paris 1919, which I have on CD and listen to quite often. Rather too often, it would seem, as I was recently plagued night and day for 48 hours or so by a most unlikely and unshakable earworm – this: 

Oh well – I guess I should be glad it wasn't Antarctica Starts Here...