Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Record Low?

 As I come to the end of what was probably the best butterfly season of my life, I discover, courtesy of Butterfly Conservation and their Big Butterfly Count, that butterfly numbers this summer were down to the lowest levels recorded since the Count began in 2010 – lower even than the notorious wash-out summer of 2012. Hmm.
   This Guardian report has the figures, or some of them, and dismal reading they make. To its credit, the report does mention a couple of the factors that might make these figures questionable – notably the glorious spring weather that accelerated many butterflies' life cycles, leading to a lull in activity at high summer when the count was conducted. (As it happened, this lull was followed by another burgeoning in late summer and early autumn, again driven by warm sunny weather.) The Count's findings might be fairly reliable as a snapshot, but no more: the year as a whole was very far indeed from being the worst since 2010. And the figures for individual species quoted in the report are mostly way out of kilter with my own experience of this butterfly year: I have seldom seen more Peacocks than I saw this spring and early summer, the Small White has been vastly more abundant than the Large, and I'd have said Gatekeepers, Commas and Tortoiseshells were more than holding their own, and Meadow Browns well up on last year. Hopefully, when Butterfly Conversation's more detailed figures for the whole year come out, they will paint a very different, more hopeful picture from the Big Butterfly Count snapshot. 

   Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, we have but '36 days to save the Earth', so we'd better get to it...

'All are limitory...'

 On this day in 1973, W.H. Auden died in a hotel room in Vienna, at the age of 66 – not a great age, but with his prodigious intake of alcohol and amphetamines, he was perhaps lucky to live as long as he did. By dying before decrepitude set in, Auden avoided ending his days in an old people's home, like the one he describes in this clear-eyed, touching poem, which I only came across today:

Old People's Home

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage.  The elite can dress and decent themselves,
    are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
    easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit's bane: intelligent
    of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.)  Then come those on wheels, the average
    majority, who endure TV and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
    the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
    unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
    sully themselves.)  One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
    spacious, more comely to look at, its Old Ones
with an audience and secular station.  Then a child,
    in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story.  As of now,
    we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
    to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.
                                       As I ride the subway
    to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her heyday,
    when weekend visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work.  Am I cold to wish for a speedy
    painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

It's interesting to compare this with Larkin's 'The Old Fools', a poem on essentially the same theme, but so much harsher and bleaker, suffused by that crippling terror of extinction that the Christian Auden was armed against. I don't recommend reading it on top of the Auden, but here's a link...

Monday, 28 September 2020

From Hock and Soda to 'the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world"'

 With a double hat-tip to Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on this piece from a blog I hadn't come across before, called Idlings. Although there is much else in the post, it was the title that first attracted me – 'Hock and Soda-Water.' It rang a bell – a post-Byronic poetical bell... Yes, of course – John Betjeman's poem, one of his best, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel':

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAIN CLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

Wilde, with the 'bees-winged eyes' of the heavy drinker, is clearly taking Byron's hint and attacking his hangover with weak hock and soda, or 'hock and seltzer', which comes to the same thing; 'seltzer' is still, I believe, the preferred usage in America. The French equivalent is 'eau de seltz' – which brings me to a baffling phrase that lodged itself in my memory years ago and has stubbornly stayed there. In those far-off days before the internet, I was unable to work out what on earth Samuel Beckett was talking about in the Foreword to Proust,  a brilliant essay in which the young author is guilty of a good deal of intellectual showing-off. His essay, be declares in the Foreword, makes no allusion to 'the legendary life and death of Marcel Proust, nor to the garrulous old dowager of the Letters, nor to the poet, nor to the author of the Essays, nor to the Eau de Selzian correlative of Carlyle's "beautiful bottle of soda-water'". 
   Only now have I finally teased out the meaning of this cryptic allusion: what Beckett means is that his essay will ignore Proust's devotion to Ruskin. He will not present Proust as the French Ruskin. For the 'beautiful bottle of soda-water' is none other than John Ruskin, as described by Thomas Carlyle. 
  'Ruskin was here the other night,' wrote Carlyle to his brother in November 1855, 'a bottle of beautiful soda-water, something like Rait of old times [a reference that is completely lost on me – anyone?], only with an intellect of tenfold vivacity. He is very pleasant company now and then. A singular element, very curious to look upon, in the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world" in these parts at this date.'
   'What can you say of Carlyle but that he was born in the clouds and struck by lightning?' said Ruskin to the historian and Carlyle biographer Froude. 'Not meant for happiness,' adds Froude, 'but for other ends; a stern fate which nevertheless in the modern world, as in the ancient, is the portion dealt out to some individuals on whom the heavens have been pleased to set their mark.' 
  You don't hear that kind of talk in 'the intellectual artistic so-called "world"' of today. 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

'I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him'

 As mentioned the other day, I am reading The Diary of Fanny Burney – and I'm finding it thoroughly enjoyable. It's hugely readable (though there are some passages that can be skipped with no great loss), written with unforced wit and sparkle, and full of brilliant dialogue and pin-sharp, but never malicious, character sketches. One of the chief pleasures for a Johnsonian are the young Fanny Burney's frequent meetings with the Doctor. It is clear that, once she had got over the shock of his physical appearance – his 'almost perpetual convulsive movements, either of his hands, lips, feet or knees, and sometimes all together' – she swiftly came to love him, and he, already enchanted by Evelina (Burney's first novel), soon grew to love her. 
   The most touching of Fanny Burney's encounters with Johnson is the last, on November 25th, 1784. She goes to visit the ailing Doctor at home in Bolt Court: 

'He was in rather better spirits than I have lately seen him: but he told me he was going to see what sleeping out of town might do for him.
   "I remember," said he, "that my wife, when she was near her end, poor woman, was also advised to sleep out of town; and when she was carried to the lodgings that had been prepared for her, she complained that the staircase was in very bad condition – for the plaster was beaten off the walls in many places: 'Oh,' said the man of the house, 'that's nothing but the knocks against it of the coffins of the poor souls who have died in the lodgings!'"
   He laughed, though not without apparent secret anguish, in telling me this...'

   Later, Burney touches on the sensitive subject of Hester Thrale Piozzi (who had apparently severed all communications with the Doctor – and, indeed, Fanny) and has to make a swift retreat.  She duly steers the conversation on to Ann Yearsley, a Bristol milkmaid with no formal education who had produced a volume of poems, despite having read nothing but a little Shakespeare, Milton and Young (Night Thoughts). Pondering this, Johnson declares that "there is nothing so little comprehended among mankind as what is genius. They give it to all, when it can be but a part. Genius is nothing more than knowing the use of tools; but there must be tools for it to use: a man who has spent all his life in this room will give a very poor account of what is contained in the next."
   I saw him growing worse, and offered to go, which, for the first time I ever remember, he did not oppose; but, most kindly pressing both my hands:
   "Be not," he said, in a voice of even tenderness, "be not longer in coming again for my letting you go now."
   I assured him I would be the sooner, and was running off, but he called me back, in a solemn voice, and, in a manner the most energetic, said: 
   "Remember me in your prayers!"
   I longed to ask him to remember me, but did not dare. I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him.'

   Fanny Burney never saw Johnson again, and a few weeks later he was dead.

Friday, 25 September 2020

The Rightful Queen

 I was walking along the high street this morning, minding my own business, when I was accosted by a woman with henna'd hair, alarming pink lipstick and a glint in her eye. She was pulling along a small suitcase on wheels, but stopped to engage my attention.
  'They don't know what to do with me,' she declared.
  Before I could ask for elucidation, she embarked on her story. She is, it turns out, the rightful Queen of England. She knows this because she was told it by an eminent Irish lawyer after Mass at Westminster Cathedral, as they took the train together back to Thornton Heath. He had leaned over to her and whispered, 'You don't know this but you are the rightful Queen of England, and so was your mother before you.'
   She was also given the same surprising news by Bernadette Devlin, the firebrand Irish MP, who was subsequently the target of an assassination attempt, and by Airey Neave, MP, who was promptly blown up outside the Houses of Parliament. And, if that's not enough corroboration, she was told the same thing by Seventies singing sensations The Osmonds (who have so far survived). The vocal combo knew because the extent of her rightful realm takes in not only Britain and Ireland but also the whole of the United States. She has been pressing her (and her mother's) claim tirelessly, bombarding in particular David Cameron, but of course she has got nowhere: the conspiracy to suppress her story involves the entire British establishment as well as, obviously, the Royal Family. 
   To my surprise, having outlined her story to me, she stopped, thanked me for listening, and went on her way, pulling her little suitcase behind her. I wished her good luck. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Rooney Day


Today is a momentous day – the centenary of the birth of that titan of showbiz Mickey Rooney, who, against all expectation, died six years ago. I celebrated his 90th birthday with this post, and also pondered the mystery of the diminutive goblin-like Rooney's sexual allure in this post
As a reminder of Rooney's versatility and cultural sensitivity, here's a picture of him playing Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's...

And here he is in blackface, with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis...


Surely this day deserved a Google doodle.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

At the Barbers' Again

 The mood down at the barbers' this morning was restive bordering on rebellious, with a deep distrust of 'experts' to the fore. As one of the barbers put it, in his distinctive Greek-Cypriot accent: 'Believe the barber – don't believe the [expletive deleted] experts.' On the evidence of the 'experts'' performance in recent years – and his own impressive record – he has a point. 
 The particular 'experts' they had in mind today were the two grim-faced doomsters to whom the government has handed over the running of the country. As the notorious graph they unveiled for the occasion is transparent nonsense (see, for example, this), I'm hoping they might finally get called out. No, I'm not, not really: this madness will go on.

Meanwhile, the National Trust has helpfully unveiled a list of 93 properties with links to colonialism and slavery. This will come in handy when I plan the itinerary for my 'Let's Celebrate Colonialism and Slavery' tour of Britain next year. Thanks, National Trust.