Monday, 12 April 2021

History is wasted on me

 So today is the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's single orbit of the Earth. I would have been in my last year of primary school at the time, and I have only the vaguest memory of the event, which I think I found mildly exciting, if, like so much else in life, rather bewildering. History is wasted on me. 
I think I was more excited by Christopher Cockerell's Hovercraft making its first Channel crossing – this was in the hot summer of 1959 when I was on holiday at Bexhill-on-Sea – and by the unveiling, the same year, of Alec Issigonis's Mini car. These, for some reason, had more impact on my boyhood self. What had no impact at all, as far as I can recall, was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, by which time I was at grammar school and should have been paying more attention. The world may have been holding its breath, crossing its fingers, cowering under tables in expectation of the Big One, but this boy's soul was untroubled by a moment's anxiety, and I can't even remember the grown-ups talking about it. There you are – as a witness to history and chronicler of my times I am entirely useless. I seem to have lived through these moments in a state of what Dr Johnson would call 'stark insensibility'. Hey ho. 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

'Spring has got into the wrong year'

 Another cold grey-white morning, as this stop-start spring continues its latest retreat into winter. Philip Larkin seems to have been having similar weather when he wrote this poem, on today's date in 1970, and it was clearly doing nothing to lift his spirits... 

How high they build hospitals!
Lighted cliffs, against dawns
Of days people will die on. 
I can see one from here.

How cold winter keeps
And long, ignoring 
Our need now for kindness.
Spring has got into the wrong year.

How few people are,
Held apart by acres
Of housing, and children
With their shallow violent eyes.

That pay-off line is unduly harsh (and not even accurate – how many children do you know with shallow violent eyes?). However, the middle stanza is fine and, as it happens, a perfect evocation of how things feel as this lockdown drags on and on, 'ignoring our need now for kindness'.
The image of the hospital building as a cliff was to be reused in Larkin's much more substantial poem of 1972, 'The Building' – 'This clean-sliced cliff'. 

More cheeringly, nature, whatever the weather, carries on as near regardless as it can. The trees are coming into leaf ('Like something almost being said'),  blossom abounds, and, in rare moments of sunshine in the past few days, the odd butterfly has ventured forth. I've seen a Holly Blue, a Speckled Wood, a few Small Whites – and, best of all, Orange Tips, the cheeriest of spring butterflies. The male of this species, with his orange-tipped wings, is also among the most amorous. In a vivid passage in his Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, Jeremy Thomas writes: 
'For as long as the sun shines, the male Orange-Tip flutters along hedges, shrubs and bushes in search of a mate. His initial approach is not discriminating, as he investigates any white object, including the Green-Veined Whites that emerge in abundance on most Orange-Tip sites ... Little will stop a young male once he has recognised a young female of his own species, especially if she is a virgin, whereas older females are examined for no more than three seconds. But once a fresh female is detected, he will force his way through the densest foliage, whereupon she, if receptive, signals her readiness by raising her abdomen at right angles for about four seconds, and mating begins. Curiously, the same posture is adopted by older females in an attempt to deter males that are pestering them.'

Thursday, 8 April 2021

William Herbert

 Born on this day in 1580 was William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, one of the numerous Herbert clan, which included the poet George (on a collateral branch) and, centuries later, very distantly and obliquely, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert – or so he believed. William was one of those Interesting Elizabethans, a man of many parts – nobleman, courtier and politician, founder of Pembroke College, Oxford, holder of a wide range of public offices and honours, and dedicatee of the First Folio, along with his brother Philip, that 'incomparable pair of brethren'. He is also believed by some to be the 'fair youth' of the Sonnets and the 'Mr W.H.', the 'onlie begetter of these sonnets'. One of his lovers, Mary Fitton, has also been suggested as the original of the 'dark lady'. William had an affair with Mary Fitton when he was 20, got her pregnant, admitted paternity but refused to marry her, and was sent to the Fleet prison for a while, where he passed the time writing verse. More interestingly from my particular point of view, he had earlier been urged to marry Elizabeth Carey, granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, patron of Shakespeare's company of players. He refused to do so (he seems to have been decidedly averse to matrimony, though he did have one regular marriage, to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury). This Elizabeth Carey is the remarkable woman whose beautiful monument by Nicholas Stone is in St Dunstan's church, Cranford. I have written about her and her monument on this blog, and also, of course, in this book.   

Wednesday, 7 April 2021


 Sad to hear that the actor Paul Ritter has died, and at the early age of 54. He was one of those versatile, accomplished performers who do great work on stage and screen but never become stars – he probably wouldn't have wanted to be one anyway. He was a brilliant Pistol in The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of (some of) Shakespeare's history plays. I think he would have made a great Beckett actor had he lived a little longer. As it was, he found fame in the unlikely setting of a TV sitcom, Robert Popper's Friday Night Dinner, where his performance as Martin Goodman, the imperfectly earthed father of the family, was comedy gold, and will long outlive him. There are a couple of compilations of his greatest Friday Night Dinner moments on YouTube, but you need to watch whole episodes to fully appreciate his characterisation. I believe they can be found on All4 and Netflix.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Over My Shoulder

 Here's a little something to bring good cheer (and a reminder of live music) in these trying times – Max Raabe and the Pallast Orchester performing 'Over My Shoulder':

The original, performed by Jessie Matthews in the musical Evergreen, is, er, something else...

Monday, 5 April 2021

Gertrude Käsebier

 This image caught my browsing eye this morning. I love the lighting, and particularly the energy and movement in it – unusual for photographs of its period (turn of the last century) – and its feeling of intimacy and spontaneity. It's called 'Dancing School' or 'The Dance' and it's a gum bichromate print by Gertrude Käsebier, who was America's leading woman photographer in her day. She was one of the first to earn money by photography, and she encouraged other women to do the same. The emphasis Käsebier, who had a husband and family to support, put on the commercial side of photography led to a falling-out with her former mentor Alfred Stieglitz (who, according to Edward Dahlberg, 'had genius, but he was not a good man'). Below is Käsebier's portrait of Stieglitz, a photograph that looks like an Expressionist painting –

Gertrude Käsebier was known for her domestic interiors and mother-and-child compositions, her striking images of Native Americans, and her portraits. Among her many subjects was an old friend of this blog, the notorious Evelyn Nesbit – 

Sunday, 4 April 2021


 As a change from my favourite painting of the resurrected Christ – Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (see past Easters passim) – here is something very different, an austerely beautiful, decidedly Hellenistic take on the subject by Perugino.
   A happy Easter to all who browse here.