Thursday, 26 January 2023

A Simian Nigel

 I was amused to learn that a newborn monkey belonging to an endangered species, the Cotton-Top Tamarin, has been given the 'endangered' name of Nigel. As an endangered Nigel, I have to applaud this gesture, though my own feelings about my Christian name are at best ambivalent, and I wouldn't be too sorry if it died out. Indeed, I have written about the Nigel question on this blog before, e.g. here and here... 

The Ghost in the Garden

 At Christmas I was given a book that I had never heard of, and which turned out to be, for most of its length, a fascinating and absorbing read. The Ghost in the Garden by Jude Piesse is about Charles Darwin's childhood garden at The Mount, the family home in Shrewsbury, a garden of which only tantalising traces remain today. This garden, memories of it and impressions and ideas derived from it, followed the great naturalist through his life, Piesse argues. It was a kind of lost paradise, where he collected bird's eggs and pebbles, climbed trees, learned about flowers and insects and pigeons, and fished in the Severn, and it was also, with its ample evidence of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, a seedbed of Darwin's interests and theories. It was in his mind throughout the Beagle expeditions, as evidenced by letters to his sister, and when he created his new garden at Down House in Kent. It was at his childhood home that he wrote, in 1842, the first outline of his theory of how evolution worked. 'Darwin's childhood garden is not just Darwin's after all,' writes Piesse. 'It is a tangle of experiences that both shaped and exceeded him; a hatchway of interconnecting pathways – both man-made and natural – that lead into the future and back to the past.'
  Jude Piesse gives a vivid account of her explorations and researches, building a rounded picture of the life of the garden and of the young Darwin. All this is told in parallel to her return to Shrewsbury, her home town, her feelings for it, and, in particular, her new life as a mother – just the kind of thing that usually puts me off a book of this kind, but here it worked wonders. The author's rediscovery of a child's-eye view of the world through her own children's experience chimed perfectly with her exploration of the young Darwin's own discovery of the natural world around him. The weakness of the book is that, like so many, it is too long, so that towards the end Piesse seems to be following some pretty tenuous threads and bulking out her material. This is a shame, as the book as a whole does a great job in bringing Darwin's childhood garden to the fore as a hugely important influence in his life and work, and it does so in an imaginative and original manner. At three quarters of the length, it would have done the job even better. 

Monday, 23 January 2023

Manet Day

 Edouard Manet's birthday has come round again – 191 today – and I nearly forgot to mark it. I'll post this one simply because I like it – the pink of the dress, the loose and easy brushwork, the girl's resigned expression, the feel of nothing much going on, just waiting, lighting a cigarette and forgetting about it... The picture, painted around 1877, is called in English Plum Brandy, but in French simply La Prune (the plum), and it depicts a plum soaking in brandy, a popular drink of the time (which the girl also seems to have forgotten about). My own idea of plum brandy is slivovitz, the fiery damson spirit that I discovered in Croatia in my youth, but that's another story...

Sunday, 22 January 2023

'The Author of Little Jim'

 In Tamworth churchyard the other day, I noticed a rather imposing obelisk, and wondered who it commemorated. 'A talented man whose generous temperament found one of its favourite expressions in songs of patriotism and philanthropy,' said the inscription. He was, furthermore, 'The Author of "Little Jim"', and his name was Edward Farmer. (1809-1876). None the wiser, I dug around a little online and discovered that Farmer was the chief detective on the Midland Railway, who, when not fighting railway crime, wrote verses, some of which he published, and one of which – 'Little Jim, or The Collier's Dying Child' – was a huge hit. It is a classic piece of sentimental 'parlour poetry', made for recitation, and guaranteed to wring the heartstrings. Here it is – 

The cottage was a thatched one,
The outside old and mean,
Yet everything within that cot
Was wondrous neat and clean.

The night was dark and stormy,
The wind was howling wild;
A patient mother sat beside
The death-bed of her child.

A little worn-out creature –
whose once bright eyes were dim,
It was a collier’s only child,
They called him ‘Little Jim.’

And oh! to see the briny tears
Fast hurrying down her cheek,
As she offered up a prayer, in thought –
She was afraid to speak,

Lest she might waken one she loved
Far dearer than her life;
For she had all a mother’s heart,
Had that poor collier’s wife.

With hands uplifted, see, she kneels
Beside the sufferer’s bed;
And prays that He will spare her child,
And take herself instead.

She gets her answer from the boy,
Soft fall the words from him –
‘Mother, the angels do so smile,
And beckon Little Jim.

‘I have no pain, dear mother, now,
But oh! I am so dry;
Just moisten poor Jim’s lips once more;
And, mother, don’t you cry.’

With gentle, trembling haste she holds
A teacup to his lips;
He smiles to thank her, then he takes
Three tiny little sips.

‘Tell father, when he comes from work,
I said ‘Good-night’ to him,
‘And, mother, now I’ll go to sleep.’
Alas, poor little Jim,

She sees that he is dying,
That the child she loves so dear
Has uttered the last words she
May ever hope to hear.

The cottage door is opened,
The collier’s step is heard;
The father and the mother meet,
Yet neither speak a word.

He feels that all is over,
He knows his child is dead;
He takes the candle in his hand,
And walks towards the bed.

His quivering lip gives token
Of the grief he’d fain conceal;
And, see, the mother joins him,
the stricken couple kneel.

With hearts bowed down in sorrow,
They humbly ask of Him
In Heaven, once more to meet again.
Their own poor ‘Little Jim.’

There were a great many poems on this theme in Victorian times, and it is easy to mock such work – indeed it was much mocked and parodied in its time (e.g. 'I have no pain now, mother dear, But Oh I am so dry; Connect me to a brewery, And leave me there to die.').  However, such harrowing but comforting verse surely gave real solace to parents living in a time when the death of a child, or of several children, was something that many, perhaps most, would have to endure and somehow make sense of, and survive. 'Little Jim' probably did more good work in the world than many far better poems.  

Friday, 20 January 2023


 And now David Crosby has gone to join the great celestial jam session. Having more than earned his title as 'rock's most unlikely survivor', he finally made it to the age of 81. He was undeniably a hugely talented musician, with a gift for vocal harmony that seemed almost supernatural. Here, as a memorial, is one of his best songs, taken from his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. A poignantly beautiful song of disillusionment, and a warning against gurus who claim to have an answer for everything, it was originally written for George Harrison (according to Crosby). That's Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell joining in on harmony vocals. What more could you ask?

Thursday, 19 January 2023

'They are far away in time...'

 Here, to celebrate the birthday (in 1839) of Paul C├ęzanne, is one of his most famous paintings (or rather sets of paintings; there are several versions – this is the one in the Courtauld's collection). And here is the poem R.S. Thomas wrote about it (collected in Between Here and Now, 1981)...

The Card Players

And neither of them has said:
            Your lead.
                        An absence of trumps
will arrest movement.

Knees almost touching,
hands almost touching,
                        they are far away
in time in a world
                         of equations.

                        The pipe without
             smoke, the empty
             bottle, the light
on the wall are the clock
             they will go by.
                                 Only their minds
                                 lazily as flies
round and round the inane
problem their boredom
                            has led them to pose.


Wednesday, 18 January 2023


 Another saddening death – the writer Jonathan Raban, who has died at the age of 80. There's a good obituary here. I can't pretend to have read much of his work, but I did greatly enjoy his fascinating account of the betrayal of early 20th-century settlers in rural Montana, Bad Land, and wrote about it on this blog – here's the link.