Saturday, 1 October 2022


 Born on this day in 1903 – in Kyiv, as it happens – was the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (pictured above, cutting a rug at Studio 54 in 1978). A dazzlingly virtuosic player, he became ever more the showman as his career progressed, but he had his quieter moments, and did much to bring Scarlatti's extraordinary body of work to the attention of the concert-going public. Here he is playing Scarlatti's beautiful B minor sonata...

Friday, 30 September 2022

Coins of the Realm

 First the cypher, now the coins. A 50p piece and a £5 coin have been minted with the head of our new King in profile, facing left (to alternate, as is traditional, with the right-facing Queen).  The designs are pleasing, the abbreviated royal titles are all present and correct, and Charles was probably right to keep to the English form of his name. As for the face, it seems to me very well done – naturalistic enough, but with a certain regal presence. I see the image was created (from photographs, rather than a sitting) by the sculptor Martin Jennings – his first coin commission. Jennings is the man who made two of the country's finest public portrait sculptures (both of them wearing raincoats)  – John Betjeman at St Pancras and Philip Larkin in Hull. He seems to be just as good working on a much smaller scale. 
Coins with the Queen's head on will of course continue to circulate until they are eventually withdrawn. It will be like the old days, when in my boyhood coins from all previous reigns back to Victoria (except Edward VIII) were in circulation, and it was still possible to get a badly worn Victorian 'bun penny' in your change. Today's coinage is less sturdy stuff, and is not expected to last more than 20 years. 
(PS: The BBC News piece I've linked to contains a very strange use of the word 'effigy'. I'm sure no effigy was made of Charles.)

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

'A rapture none but a naturalist can ever know...'

 'The death of the butterfly is the one draw back to an entymological [sic] career...'
So reflects Margaret Fountaine, the dauntless and altogether extraordinary Victorian butterfly collector, about whom I have written here before. She has only recently discovered the love of butterflies that has lain dormant in her till she is in her late twenties, and is indulging her newfound passion (for butterflies, that is, not her latest crush) in the countryside outside Florence. A short while before, she recalls, 'All of a sudden a large butterfly of the Vanessa tribe whirled high above my head. "A Red Admiral," I think to myself, but that was no Red Admiral, and with a rapture none but a naturalist can ever know I recognise no other than a Camberwell Beauty.' 
  I am finally reading Love Among the Butterflies: The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady, Margaret Fountaine, edited by W.F. Cater from Miss Fountaine's extraordinarily candid diaries, and first published in 1980 after a very successful serialisation in the Sunday Times. It is a superb editing job, Cater reducing the voluminous diaries to something grippingly readable – a page-turner indeed – with his own elegant linking passages maintaining the flow, and Victorian-style chapter headings ( Astonishing forwardness; An unseemly letter – and a smuggled one; Impropriety penalised – tears of despair; Horrors of intemperance – the vanishing chorister; A bold resolution – cupidity and passion...')  drawing the reader into the next part of the story. I am greatly enjoying the ride.
  The awakening of Margaret Fountaine's dormant passion for butterflies occurred in the fittingly Nabokovian setting of a mountain valley in Switzerland, in the countryside near the village of Saint-Jean. Nabokov lived on the Swiss riviera from 1961 to his death in 1977 and spent much of his non-writing time blissfully chasing butterflies, especially his beloved Blues, in the mountain pastures.  

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Queues and Cyphers

There was an unusually long queue in the supermarket – so long that the head of it was out of sight. 'Oh well,' said the man ahead of me, 'so long as the Queen's coffin's at the end of it...' A nice example, I thought, of stoical English humour, and of our mastery of the art of queuing, in which we surely lead the world. Those days of patient, good-humoured queuing to silently file past the royal catafalque showed the watching world how these thing should be done, as did the impeccably managed pageantry that accompanied the funeral itself. I found it gratifying that we can still do these things so well (largely, I suspect, because much of the organisation is in the hands of the armed forces), and the behaviour of the queues showed that English decency, quiet humour and restraint – three of the late Queen's signal virtues – still thrive in the population at large. As so often, the impression of the nature of this country given by the commentariat and the media, especially social media, is wide of the reality. Not that this lesson will have been learned; we are already back to business as usual. 

Meanwhile the new King has chosen his royal cypher – 

That's a Tudor crown, rather than the St Edward's crown that surmounted his mother's cypher. Let's hope that means he's serious about being Defender of the Faith. As for the cypher, it's serviceable and effective, but I was hoping for a little more dash. Here is what his predecessor Queen Anne managed to do with only the letters A and R to work with –

                                                                That's more like it. 

Monday, 26 September 2022

Guess the Author

 It's time for a poem. Without prior knowledge (or recourse to Google), I doubt many people would guess the author of this one – 


The wind blew all my wedding-day,
And my wedding-night was the night of the high wind;
And a stable door was banging, again and again,
That he must go and shut it, leaving me
Stupid in candlelight, hearing rain,
Seeing my face in the twisted candlestick,
Yet seeing nothing. When he came back
He said the horses were restless, and I was sad
That any man or beast that night should lack
The happiness I had.

                                   Now in the day
All's ravelled under the sun by the wind's blowing.
He has gone to look at the floods, and I
Carry a chipped pail to the chicken-run,
Set it down, and stare. All is the wind
Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashing
My apron and the hanging cloths on the line.
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
Can even death dry up
These new delighted lakes, conclude
Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?

Well, it is Philip Larkin, here clearly in thrall to 'Yeats of the baleful influence'* and writing in a lyrical neo-romantic vein. He signed off on 'Wedding-Wind' on this day in 1946, and it appeared first in the typescript In The Grip of Light, then in XX Poems (1951) and again in The Less Deceived (1955). Clearly Larkin was not ashamed of it – nor need he have been: it is beautiful in its way (a way very different from the mature Larkin), evocative and tender, with happiness and delight, infrequent visitors to Larkin's world, allowed an outing. At the time he wrote this, he would have been working on A Girl in Winter, which also sees the world wholly through a woman's eyes – something Larkin was very good at, but did less and less as his art became more masculine and bluff. 

* 'Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?
    Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot of the baleful influence...'
Kenneth Koch 'Fresh Air'

Thursday, 22 September 2022


 The Johnson monument in Lichfield marketplace is now wearing the wreath that is hung on it on the great man's birthday every year (September 18th). Beneath the wreath is one of three reliefs depicting scenes from Johnson's Lichfield years: this one shows him being borne to school (Lichfield grammar school, which also produced David Garrick and Elias Ashmole) by his schoolmates, who had clearly formed an early estimate of his extraordinary gifts. The other two plaques depict his famous penance in Uttoxeter marketplace, where he stood bareheaded in the rain to atone for an early act of disobedience to his father, and, more surprisingly, the occasion on which he was taken by his father, at the age of three, to listen to Dr Sachaverell, a famous and controversial High Anglican clergyman, preaching in the cathedral. I've written before, on his birthday, about Johnson's birth and early years in Lichfield – here's the link...

Wednesday, 21 September 2022


 That fine – I'd say great – American poet Kay Ryan is 77 today. Which seems strange – I always think of her as a young poet. Forever young. The best of her poems will surely live. 
Here, to mark her birthday, is one in which, as so often, she illuminates, in a small and simple poem, a Big Subject. Big, difficult and uncomfortable...

The Fabric of Life

It is very stretchy.
We know that, even if
many details remain
sketchy. It is complexly
woven. That much too
has pretty well been
proven. We are loath
to continue our lessons
which consist of slaps
as sharp and dispersed
as bee stings from
a smashed nest
when any strand snaps—

hurts working far past
the locus of rupture,
attacking threads
far beyond anything
we would have said