Wednesday, 22 May 2019


I must have read Donald Justice's Pantoum of the Great Depression several times before the obvious question occurred to me...

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don't remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don't remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

The obvious question is, of course, What is a pantoum?
It is, I discover, a verse form of Malayan origin which works like this:
Each stanza is four lines long and cross-rhymed.
The 2nd and 4th line of each stanza become the 1st and 3rd of the next, and so on through the poem (which can be of any length).
In the final stanza, the unused 1st and 3rd line of the first stanza reappear, in reverse order, so that the poem ends with the same line it began with.
  That is a challenging form, and the strict rules, as can be seen from Justice's pantoum, are more honoured in the breach than the observance. With its slow pace – four lines forward, two lines back – it's a form that is particularly suitable to a meditative poem about the past (like Justice's) and to the gradual building of a scene or mood. Justice's pantoum uses the form both to embody the stasis of life in the Depression and to establish an ironic distance from its subject – the miseries of that life – but he allows that distancing to break down towards the end, and with it the strict framework of the pantoum.
  More straightforward, more static, and more respectful of the rules, is John Ashbery's Pantoum, which uses the form to build a scene and an atmosphere, mysterious, archaic and vaguely menacing...

Eyes shining without mystery, 
Footprints eager for the past 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes, 
And what is in store? 

Footprints eager for the past 
The usual obtuse blanket. 
And what is in store 
For those dearest to the king? 

The usual obtuse blanket. 
Of legless regrets and amplifications 
For those dearest to the king. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 

Of legless regrets and amplifications, 
That is why a watchdog is shy. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night. 

That is why a watchdog is shy, 
Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying. 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night 
And that soon gotten over. 

Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying 
Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
And that soon gotten over 
For they must have motion. 

Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
Eyes shining without mystery, 
For they must have motion 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes.

The first Western adopters of the pantoum form were French – Victor Hugo, Ernest Founiet, Charles Baudelaire (Harmonie du Soir) – and it has never been popular with writers in English. But Austin Dobson, master of the villanelle, produced a clever and atmospheric pantoum inspired by a line from Tennyson, 'The blue fly sung in the pane'. It's called In Town and is a very nifty piece of work...

TOILING in Town now is "horrid,"
(There is that woman again !)-
June in the zenith is torrid,
Thought gets dry in the brain.

There is that woman again :
"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Thought gets dry in the brain ;
Ink gets dry in the bottle.

"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Oh for the green of a lane !-
Ink gets dry in the bottle ;
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane !

Oh for the green of a lane,
Where one might lie and be lazy !
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane ;
Bluebottles drive me crazy !

Where one might lie and be lazy,
Careless of Town and all in it !-
Bluebottles drive me crazy :
I shall go mad in a minute !

Careless of Town and all in it,
With some one to soothe and to still you ;-
I shall go mad in a minute ;
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you !

With some one to soothe and to still you,
As only one's feminine kin do,-
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you :
There now ! I've broken the window !

As only one's feminine kin do,-
Some muslin-clad Mabel or May !-
There now ! I've broken the window !
Bluebottle's off and away !

Some muslin-clad Mabel or May,
To dash one with eau de Cologne ;-
Bluebottle's off and away ;
And why should I stay here alone !

To dash one with eau de Cologne,
All over one's eminent forehead ;-
And why should I stay here alone !
Toiling in Town now is "horrid,"

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Nostalgia a New Heresy?

The first of Jonathan Sumption's Reith Lectures went out this morning and, it seemed to me, lived up to expectation. It was lucid, elegantly expressed, thoughtful and incisive, and raised some very pertinent questions about the effects – particularly on our freedoms – of the relentless advance of law to fill the space left by the retreat of politics.
  In the question and answer session that followed, I noted that more than one questioner accused Sumption of being 'nostalgic' for some past time. I've noticed this accusation being made before, notably about Brexit voters and UKIP members, both of whom are supposed to be nostalgic for a mythical past, sometimes identified as the Fifties. Which begs the question, even if this were true, what is wrong with nostalgia? Surely it's a part of the human condition to look back fondly on times that now seem better than these – often the times of our childhood and early years. We all feel at some level the sense of a lost Golden Age which is irrevocably past and can never be recaptured – hence the pain of nostalgia. Nowadays, however, the word 'nostalgia' is becoming an accusatory term in political discourse (or what passes for it). It seems to be a kind of code word (even a 'dog whistle'?) that suggest reactionary views, inability to cope with the present, a tendency to the swivelling eye and the foam-flecked chin. Is 'nostalgia' on its way to becoming a new heresy, a deplorable new 'phobia' (of the present), an unpardonable denial of the narrative of Progress and its unshakable faith that the present can only be better than the past? That will never do.
  Not that Sumption is 'nostalgic' anyway – which made it all the odder that this term was deployed against him.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Stoneywell, etc.

My latest Mercian jaunt began with Stoneywell, a National Trust property hidden away in the rocky, rolling Charnwood forest in Leicestershire. The house, or rather cottage, is an Arts and Crafts gem, designed by Ernest Gimson and built by him and the wonderfully named Detmar Blow for Ernest's brother Sidney and his family, several generations of whom lived there until finally handing it over to the National Trust. A small house on several levels, it seems to emerge organically from the rock it's built on. Nothing about the interior is predictable or regular, and every room is a joy to be in – at least for an inveterate Arts and Crafts fan like me. There's plenty of beautifully made furniture, by Gimson and others, to admire too. I didn't care for the planting of the parts of the garden near the house, which look more Fifties seaside than Gertrude Jekyll (not the Trust's fault), but apart from that, it was a delight – and (having booked ahead) we were taken round by a knowledgable and enthusiastic guide.
  Later there was a walk in Lathkil Dale, one of the most beautiful of the Derbyshire dales (and much quieter than, say, Dove Dale), and a morning visit to a nature reserve adapted from an abandoned quarry, where I saw more Wall butterflies than I have ever seen in a day since my far-off, butterfly-rich boyhood.
 Not a single church on this visit. That's surely a first.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Little and Large

Today I had lunch 'in town' (as we used to say) with an old friend, and, with mutual support, we summoned up the stamina to take in not one but two exhibitions, one before and one after lunch.
First we went to the Elizabethan Treasures exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – about which I can only say that it is truly amazing, and that, alas, it is closing on Sunday. An exhibition of miniatures nearly all by the two great masters, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver (whose The Browne Brothers is above), it magnificently confirms that these two were among the finest painters this nation has ever produced, and that their work amounts to one of the great treasures of English art (and one that's all too easily undervalued, like the equally great work of the 17th-century monument makers Nicholas Stone and Epiphanius Evesham, cf my forthcoming book). If you can make it to the NPG this weekend, do go – and allow plenty of time, as you may well have to wait your turn to get a close-up view of these little gems of English painting; the exhibition is proving very popular. Helpfully, magnifying glasses are provided, and it's well worth taking one to appreciate the almost superhuman delicacy, subtlety and psychological insight of these tiny masterpieces. They make nearly all the large-scale portraiture of their time (Holbein excepted) seem clumsy and crude by comparison.

From the exquisite and small-scale to the broad-brush and large, very large – after lunch it was the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for the blockbuster exhibition, Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light. The 'master of light' epithet is well earned; this turn-of-the-last-century Spanish artist is certainly very adept at portraying strong Spanish sunlight, both direct and reflected. But, beyond that, I didn't find much to praise (apart from some interesting cropping): his paintings tend to the flashy and facile, with something of picture-postcard kitsch about some of them. Even in the more subdued pictures, there's a striving for effect and a lack of delicacy. Some of them suggest comparison with Sargent or Whistler or the Danish Skagen painters – but the comparison is never to Sorolla's advantage. Having said that, I'm sure these big canvases would look very much better in a different setting – hung in a large space, so that they could be seen from a suitable distance, and in a less unforgiving light than that of the Sainsbury Wing's underground galleries. I've never really liked it down there.
  Anyway, tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels, but not for long.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Journey

This morning I set out for the wilds of Norfolk – an enterprise never to be undertaken lightly – with a view to seeing a fine church monument. This was to be the last monument visit related to my now nearly completed book...
  Having managed the grim business of crossing London by Underground – often the most stressful part of a journey – I arrived at Liverpool St with minutes to spare before my train left, and settled down in the rattling, noisy carriage confident that I would arrive at Norwich in ample time to make my connection. Suffice to say that the train was halted at Colchester by An Incident up ahead: a freight train had been observed 'smoking heavily' and needed to be dealt with (counselling? Nicotine patches?). After upward of 20 minutes, we finally got moving again – just in time, it transpired, for me to miss my connection at Norwich. A fine station, a fine city, but I would sooner not have had to wait the best part of an hour for the next connection. Happily I'd arranged for a taxi at the other end and, when I got off the train, there it was waiting, punctual and ready to go. Things were looking up.
  The driver, rather surprisingly for this corner of Norfolk, was a youngish oriental lady, very charming and affable but with certain limitations, including the following: she knew the village I needed but had no idea where the church is (and it's way outside the village); her satnav, when she got it working, turned out to be somewhat unreliable, with a habit of falling off the windscreen and disconnecting itself; and her mastery of the satnav keyboard was decidedly lacking. After a long, time-consuming scenic tour of various back roads and lanes, we finally happened upon the church. I knew it was locked (I'd phoned beforehand) but I also knew that the key was available from the old vicarage, which I was assured was hard by the church. There was, needless to say, no sign of it, but, after yet more satnav business, we located it, hidden away down a side road some way from the church. By now I was running so late I realised I had barely time to nip into the church, take a quick look and a photo, and be no my way back to London. But heck, there it was – the old vicarage – so I might as well pop in and get the key. The old vicarage, however, was not quite what I'd been expecting: it was a large opulent house set a long way back from the road – and behind firmly locked security gates. I pressed all the buttons I could see, but nothing happened. I waved and jumped about in case someone in that distant mansion happened to be looking out. There were video cameras too, so I tried to attract their attention. All to no avail. No response, no sign of life (despite firm assurances that I could call any time and pick up the key – the work of a moment was the impression I got). Hey ho. There was nothing to do by this time but give up. I could manage without this particular monument, and I'd been in two minds whether to make the journey. I rather wish I'd stayed in one mind and not bothered.
  Anyway, we got back to the station surprisingly fast, fate having finally smiled on my endeavours, albeit a little late in the day. The genial taxi driver was full of apologies and slashed the fare. And so I embarked on the long journey home. Amazingly, this time I made the smoothest of smooth connections at Norwich and was home in, oh, barely four hours.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

'The radio's prayer'

On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp writes about that 'metaphysical medium', radio. He notes that in films set in the Thirties and Forties, the radio is invariably playing a comedy show or news of Pearl Harbor. The English equivalents are ITMA (the popular wartime comedy show) and Neville Chamberlain's solemn announcement that the nation is at war.
  'Like prayer,' Kurp writes, 'radio demands attentiveness, openness and imagination'. In this country, radio can be overtly like prayer: we have that magical incantation, the Shipping Forecast, which Seamus Heaney celebrates in a sonnet –

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

The Shipping Forecast finds its way, too, into a fine Carol Ann Duffy sonnet that bears the title Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

And not that long ago, radio also regularly featured the late evening office of Compline, which gives its title to this Larkin poem – 

Behind the radio’s altar light
the hurried talk to God goes on:
'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done...
produce our lives beyond this night,
open our eyes again to sun.'

Unhindered in the dingy wards
lives flicker out, one here, one there,
to send some weeping down the stair
with love unused, in unsaid words:
for this I would have quenched the prayer

but for the thought that nature spawns
a million eggs to make one fish.
Better that endless notes beseech
as many nights, as many dawns, 
if finally God grants the wish.

Has television ever inspired a poem? I can't think of any. There's nothing metaphysical about television.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Joad's Pianola

Talking of Larkin, I came across a mysterious reference in one of his early letters to the celebrity philosopher C.E.M. Joad, about whom I have written before. Larkin talks of having 'played a few records and bashed out several choruses of blues like Joad playing his f*cking Bach [Lord, young Larkin is foul-mouthed – that's my asterisk, needless to say] every morning on the pianola'.
  I had not until now associated Joad with the pianola – did he really play one? Indeed he did, and here's the proof (below) in a cherishable little Pathé documentary, in which we also get to see the Socrates of the 20th century running around in baggy shorts playing hockey (it looks like a men v women match, no doubt designed to prove yet again the uselessness of the fair sex) and to hear him addressing the vexed question of when it might be ethically justifiable to break the law. When defrauding the railway companies perhaps? If so, it was an argument that didn't carry the day at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court in 1948.