Thursday, 16 January 2020

Landor Miniatures

Following a link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog, I see that another blog, Form in Formless Times, has nominated Leigh Hunt's 'Jenny Kiss'd Me' as the best short poem ever – which I think is stretching it a bit, but it's certainly a delightful little anthology piece. I've written about it here before – and it's even been quoted on Call the Midwife. Oddly I've never featured another short poem of Leigh Hunt's that has at least an equal claim to be one of the best, and is even shorter. This one, a perfectly formed epitaph –

Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm'd both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

And then there's this intriguing little number, which has some formal similarity to 'Jenny Kiss'd Me', but is very different in tone –

“Do you remember me? or are you proud?”
Lightly advancing thro’ her star-trimm’d crowd,
         Ianthe said, and lookt into my eyes,
“A yes, a yes, to both: for Memory
Where you but once have been must ever be,
       And at your voice Pride from his throne must rise.”

And 'Ianthe' is the subject of another short and sweet Landor miniature –

From you, Ianthe, little troubles pass   
Like little ripples down a sunny river; 
Your pleasures spring like daisies in the grass,   
Cut down, and up again as blithe as ever. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Lucy Gayheart

I've just read Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather's penultimate novel, and am in the state of awestruck wonder that Cather's novels almost always leave me in. How does she do it, achieving such effects, building such depths of emotion and meaning under such plain words, in such simple, slight structures? Lucy Gayheart, which is little more than novella length, is pared down even more than most. Divided into three parts, it tells the tale of the eponymous heroine, a free-spirited girl who lives up to her name and who chafes against the restrictions of small-town life, longing for the city, for great things and heroic spirits. And she finds her hero when her musical abilities take her to Chicago, and she falls head over heels in love with a famous singer, Clement Sebastian – but fate has something sudden and shocking up its sleeve, and she retreats, broken, to the small town from which she set out with such high hopes and exalted dreams.
  It's hard to say much more about Lucy Gayheart without the need for massive spoiler alerts, but Part Two picks up the story with Lucy gradually recovering and once again relishing the prospect of escape to the city. But once again her hopes are cruelly dashed. Part Three of the novel  – which no one but Cather would even have thought of writing – is perhaps the most remarkable, picking up the story 25 years on, and bringing Lucy's small-town suitor, the very eligible Harry Gordon, to the fore, showing him for a man more complicated and more sensitive than he seems, and, through his eyes, revisiting the story of Lucy Gayheart and shining a subtly revealing new light on it. The ending – like many other moments of the novel – I found intensely moving. Willa Cather is truly a miracle worker – and I've just realised that now I have only one of her novels (One of Ours) left to read. What am I going to do? Apart from reading them all again...

Monday, 13 January 2020

Thorntree Press, Wirksworth

Just a quick clarification for anyone out there who might be after information about my book: it is not published by Thorntree Press of Portland, Oregon, specialists in, ahem, 'non-traditional relationship models, love and sexuality', but by Thorntree Press of Wirksworth, Derbyshire (DE4 4FL). The book is now reprinting, having sold out following an unexpected surge in demand, and should be available again next week. Any enquiries in the meantime, just mail me at

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Roger Scruton

The death of Roger Scruton, at the now relatively young age of 75, comes as sad news indeed. There will be well deserved tributes galore to this great conservative thinker and writer. I will only add that reading his England: An Elegy was an eye-opening experience for me, one that made me really think about England, and love and appreciate it all the more for the fact that it was slipping away. A poignant and personal book, published in 2000, it was also sadly prophetic of the way things would go over the next 20 years. RIP.

A Curious Monument

One of the best walks in Wellington takes you around the beautiful Botanic Gardens (which can be reached in minutes from the city centre by a steeply climbing 'cable car' – actually a funicular railway) and downhill back into the city through the wonderfully scenic Bolton Street Memorial Park, the oldest cemetery in Wellington. Here is to be found, among much else, the monument shown above. 
This curious essay in a late classical revival style, feebly carved and with undertones of homoeroticism and fascism, commemorates, of all people, Henry Edmund 'Harry' Holland, the second leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, who died in 1933. Presumably it's intended to represent Holland's endeavours to 'free the world from unhappiness, tyranny and oppression', but I don't think it can be accounted a success.
 I have never seen Ramsay MacDonald's grave, but I very much doubt that it bears much resemblance to the Henry Holland extravaganza.

Friday, 10 January 2020


A very nice review of my book by Christopher Hart in today's Daily Mail.
Here's a link to the online version –
– though of course I'd recommend buying a copy of the paper.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020


Wellington Central Library – pictured above 'in happier times' – presents a forlorn spectacle now, the building abandoned and surrounded by hoardings. This closure is due to the need for 'earthquake strengthening' – always a concern in Wellington, as elsewhere in New Zealand – and the work is clearly going to take a long while. A shame, as I've always enjoyed visiting this library, one of the best and most attractive central libraries I know – and one that, happily, still has a traditional, book-centred feel. Unlike many English public libraries, it's well staffed and well stocked and seems very efficient.
  They take their public libraries seriously in New Zealand. The first were established as early as the 1840s, almost as soon as organised European settlement began, and later Carnegie money encouraged the building of more and more good public libraries. New Zealanders seem to be keen readers – hence not only the thriving library service but also the remarkable profusion of second-hand bookshops, at least in Wellington. I'm looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with these at the earliest opportunity...