Monday, 18 January 2021


 It has been drawn to my attention that Cary Grant (or, as he then was, Archibald Alec Leach) was born on this day in 1904. 
Well, any excuse for a Cary clip. Here he is, on top form, sparring with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Genius-level comic acting, from both of them – and great tailoring...

Blue Monday, Blue Melody

 This day, the third Monday of January, is, we are told, Blue Monday – the unhappiest day of the year, as calculated by 'an equation' devised in 2005 (and applicable only in the Northern Hemisphere). Well, we all like a bit of pseudoscience to start the day, don't we, and this one is harmless enough. 
  An idle train of thought led me from Blue Monday to Blue Afternoon, one of the best albums of Tim Buckley's musical maturity (after he'd moved on from his early folky stuff into the more jazz-infused musical landscapes that he made entirely his own). Tim's posthumous reputation sometimes seems in danger of being eclipsed by that of his son Jeff – so, to keep the flame alive, and as a reminder of what an extraordinary singer Tim Buckley was, here is 'Blue Melody' from the Blue Afternoon album. Enjoy...

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 4

 My enjoyable stroll through the all but forgotten novels of Auberon Waugh is nearing its end. Of the five published (between 1960 and 1972), I have now read four. Having greatly enjoyed the third, Who Are the Violets Now?, I was hoping that number four, Consider the Lilies (1968), might be even more fun. Sadly, it was not to be: after a promising start, Consider the Lilies never quite builds into a satisfying novel. Perhaps the problem is that Waugh is here, uncharacteristically, writing in the first person, taking us inside the head of his narrator and obliging us to see everything through his worse than jaundiced eyes. This opens up possibilities for Waugh the satirist but cramps the style of Waugh the novelist. After a while, this particular first person ceases to be as much fun as he initially promised to be.
   Nicholas Trumpeter is a youngish clergyman taking up a new living which is in the gift of an enigmatic, extremely rich financier, whose disenchanted view of the world looks almost benign in comparison with Nicholas's bottomless cynicism. Trumpeter seems to regard the church he is supposedly serving as a dead letter, good only for functioning as a minor branch of the social services and endorsing whatever causes and grievances are fashionable at any given moment. Nicholas is certainly happy to fling himself into this cause in order to advance his career, or at least keep it afloat, mouthing sociological platitudes, calling on 'the government' to do something about such issues du jour as inflammable nighties, old aged pensioners' dance halls and, of course, the needs of 'young people'. (This is not entirely unfair as a satirical portrait of the Church of England in the Sixties.) Nicholas is in fact quite uninterested in the work of the church, or the most basic requirements of his position, and would happily spend his time reading detective novels (while complaining about being overworked). 
   And then there is Gillian, Nicholas's wife and a most vexing thorn in his side. An old-fashioned atheist and serious believer in all the politically correct views of the time, she is also, according to our none too reliable narrator, physically unattractive, shrewish and entirely humourless. Nicholas's loathing for her has now reached such a pitch that he is actively considering bumping her off in some relatively humane and undetectable way.  As an added bonus, such an outcome would leave him free to carry on his affair with the cassock-chasing daughter of his patron...
   Nicholas Trumpeter, then, is not a nice man; indeed he could be classed as a borderline psychopath. And yet, for much of the time, his disarming frankness, his eye for absurdity and his sheer shamelessness make him surprisingly agreeable company – especially as he narrates, perforce, in the elegant, limpid, ironically inflected prose of his creator. In the early chapters at least, there are good laughs to be had from the dark comedy that unfolds, especially from the antics of Nicholas's more or less deranged clerical colleagues. However, I found as the story went on that the narrator's all-embracing cynicism and absolute self-absorption tended to drain the life out of everything and everyone else around him. Waugh pulls it all together at the end with a couple of narrative moves that serve to wrap things up and reveal the full extent of Nicholas's delusions, but Consider the Lilies does not show Waugh fils at his best, and there is something of a pot-boiler feel to it. Perhaps, however, the creation of Nicholas Trumpeter played its part in the genesis of Waugh's classic Diaries; there are passages where Nicholas sounds uncannily like the persona adopted by Waugh for that other, very different exercise in fiction.  
   And that leaves me with just one more Waugh to go – A Bed of Flowers (1972). I'll be sorry when this little excursion is over. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Twang Dillo Dee, the Amen to Nonsense

 On this day in 1820, John Keats, writing to his sister-in-law Georgiana out in Kentucky, tells her that 
'This is a beautiful day. I hope you will not quarrel with it if I call it an american one. The Sun comes upon the snow and makes a prettier candy than we have on twelvth-cakes. George is busy this morning in making copies of my verses. He is making one now of an Ode to the nightingale, which is like reading an account of the Black Hole at Calcutta on an iceberg.'
(How strange to think of that Ode as a newly written poem being copied out...) Keats picks up again on the temperature contrast when he goes to sit in the sun with snow all around, apricating (I wonder if he knew the word): 
I have been sitting in the Sun whilst I wrote this till it’s become quite oppressive this is very odd for January. The vulcan fire is the true natural heat for winter: the sun has nothing to do in winter but to give "a little glooming light much like a Shade". – Our Irish servant has piqued me this morning by saying that her father in Ireland was very much like my Shakspeare only he had more colour than the Engraving.'
That 'little glooming light' is from the Faerie Queen. What train of thought could have led from the sunshine and snow to the Irish servant? The joy of Keats's letters – one of the joys – is that you never know what is coming next. 
 This letter to Georgiana is one of a sequence written between the 13th and 28th January and sent as one letter. Keats professes to be 'dull', but Keats dull is worth a hundred other letter writers in good spirits. He comforts Georgiana in her Kentucky isolation (her husband, Keats's brother George, is in England) and amiably teases the proud parents: 
We smoke George about his little Girl, he runs the common beaten road of every father, as I dare say you do of every mother – there is no Child like his Child, so original! original forsooth However, I take you at your words; I have a lively faith that yours is the very gem of all Children. Aint I its Unkle?'
Later Keats becomes misanthropic, in a general way: 'Upon the whole I dislike Mankind: whatever people on the other side of the question may advance they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action and never of a bad one.' He goes on to describe how dull he is finding London and its society – probably intending to console Georgiana for the deeper dullness of Louisville society. Anyway it is a theme that is soon sending him off into flights of fancy that are anything but dull:
I know three people of no wit at all, each distinct in his excellence. A, B, and C. A is the foolishest, B the sulkiest, C is a negative – A makes you yawn, B makes you hate, as for C you never see him though he is six feet high. I bear the first, I forbear the second, I am not certain that the third is. The first is gruel, the second Ditch water, the third is spilt—he ought to be wip’d up. A is inspired by Jack-o’-the-clock – B has been drilled by a Russian Sargeant, C – they say is not his Mothers true Child but that she bought him of the Man who cries, "Young Lambs to sell." Twang dillo dee...This you must know is the Amen to nonsense. I know a good many places where Amen should be scratched out, rubb'd over with pounce made of Momus’s little finger bones, and in its place "Twang-dillo-dee" written. This is the word I shall henceforth be tempted to write at the end of most modern Poems. Every American Book ought to have it. It would be a good distinction in Saciety. My Lords Wellington, Castlereagh and Canning and many more would do well to wear Twang-dillo-dee written on their backs instead of wearing ribbands at their Button-holes. How many people would go sideways along walls and quickset hedges to keep their Twang-dillo-dee out of sight, or wear large pigtails to hide it. However there would be so many that the Twang-dillo-dees would keep one another in countenance ..... Some philosophers in the Moon, who spy at our Globe as we do at theirs say that Twang dillo dee is written in large Letters on our Globe of Earth – They say the beginning of the T is just on the spot where London stands, London being built within the Flourish – w a n reach downward and slant as far as Timbuctoo in africa, the tail of the G goes slap across the Atlantic into the Rio della Plata – the remainder of the Letters wrap around new holland, and the last e terminates on land we have not yet discovered. However, I must be silent, these are dangerous times to libel a man in, much more a world.'
I don't think we would have far to look in these times for worthy recipients of the Twang-dillo-dee...

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Sassoon's Surprize

 In the course of my researches, I came across this passage from Siegfried Sassoon's The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938).
Sassoon, sitting in the attic of his Kentish home, has become aware of the flutterings of a butterfly trapped behind the gauze covering the skylight... 
'By standing on a chair – which I placed on a table – I could just get my hand between the gauze and the glass. The butterfly was ungratefully elusive, and more than once the chair almost toppled over. Successful at last, I climbed down, and was about to put the butterfly out of the window when I observed between my fingers that it wasn't the Small Tortoiseshell or Cabbage White that I had assumed it to be. Its dark wings had yellowish borders with blue spots on them. It was more than seven years since I had entomologically squeezed the thorax of a "specimen". Doing so now, I discovered that one of the loftiest ambitions of my childhood had been belatedly realised. I had caught a Camberwell Beauty.'
  This vivid description of the thrill of encountering one of the most beautiful and unpredictable of our English rarities – the butterfly formerly known as the Grand Surprize – has, to modern ears, a chilling edge, as it becomes apparent that Sassoon, without a qualm, straight away squeezes its thorax, delivering a quick death and establishing possession of a 'specimen' he has long dreamt of. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
  The Camberwell Beauty is the butterfly known to Americans as the Mourning Cloak. I have only seen it in Canada, and it was one of the great butterfly encounters of my life. It is the butterfly Patrick Kurp was writing about the other day, and quoting Nabokov's poetical description

Like the Camberwell Beauty, Sassoon's Military Cross also turned up, as if by magic, in an attic (his step-grandson's). This was many years after it was thought lost. You can read the story of that 'grand surprise' here... 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Doomscrolling and Tallis

 On the radio this morning I caught a word that was new to me – 'doomscrolling'. It's a word that fits what it describes – obsessive seeking out of negative news stories online. It used to be known as 'doomsurfing'. but nowadays we scroll rather than surf, running a treadmill rather than riding the wavecrests. Before we even had the internet, the phenomenon (or its old-world equivalent) was labelled the 'mean world syndrome' – a belief that the world if a far more dangerous place than it actually is, again as a result of too much exposure to relentlessly negative material. There are certainly many among us suffering from this syndrome: some months ago a survey found that most people believed the death toll from Covid to be around 7 percent. Even now, after many more deaths, the actual figure stands at 0.12 percent. Enough said.

 I picked up 'doomscrolling' on Radio 4, but was soon back with my default network – wonderful (mostly) Radio 3. There I heard this rather lovely modern take on Thomas Tallis's setting of Archbishop Parker's metrical translation of Psalm 2 – the work that inspired Vaughan Williams's beautiful Tallis Fantasia. The Spirit of Tallis is written by Christopher Monks and performed here by his ensemble Armonica Consort.  I think it's just the kind of thing we need in these strange times...

Actually, this is a taster video. Oddly the piece on its own seems reluctant to upload (or is it download?). However, it is definitely there on YouTube in glorious isolation, if you feel like seeking it out...

Saturday, 9 January 2021

'But once I lived in Gloucestershire...'

 Born on this day in 1881 was one of the most splendidly named of all English poets – Lascelles Abercrombie. His poetry long ago fell out of fashion, along with that of most of the other 'Georgians' (and, from what I've seen of it, its fate seems to have been deserved). However, Abercrombie had a successful career as a literary critic and academic, and he was, for one glorious period, at the centre of a literary group from which two great poets would emerge. The group was the 'Dymock poets', based on and around the village of Dymock on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border. From 1911 to 1916 Abercrombie lived in a cottage, The Gallows, at Ryton, near Dymock, where the loose-knit circle of poets met, stayed or visited – John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Gibson and the two greats in the making, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. It was at Dymock that the intense friendship between Frost and Thomas – the friendship that was to make a poet of Thomas – was born. 
   Frost's 'Iris by Night' recalls a memorable walk that he and Thomas, 'elected friends', took at Dymock –

One misty evening, one another's guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-coloured ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

And Frost's strange, uneasy poem 'The Sound of Trees' was written for Lascelles Abercrombie – 

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Later in his life, Abercrombie seems to have looked back on the Dymock years as a kind of lost paradise. In 1932 he wrote:
'I have lived in a cottage in the daffodil country and I have, for a time, done what I wanted to do ... and I have known what it is to have Wilfred Gibson and Robert Frost for my neighbours; and John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Will Davies, Bob Trevelyan, Arthur Ransome, have drunk my cider, and talked in my garden. I make no cider now, and I have no garden. But once I lived in Gloucestershire.'