Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Blues

Having been, for several days, itching to get out and stroll among the butterflies on the Surrey hills, I finally made it today. Unfortunately I arrived at my destination just as banks of sullen cloud moved into place, completely obscuring the sun. It was decidedly cool too (after days, indeed weeks, of searing heat). However, much to my delight, I soon found a few Adonis Blues flying among the all-weather Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers. When, an hour or two later, the sun finally broke through, the effect was instant: suddenly Chalkhill Blues (milky blue to the Adonis's brilliant near-turquoise) were everywhere, flying along with Adonis and Common Blues galore – a glorious downland spectacle.
 There were more blues – many, many more – as I made my way down the dip slope of Box Hill. Marbled Whites too – and, as I neared the Burford Bridge hotel (where, in 1817,  Keats worked on Endymion), a lordly Dark Green Fritillary was flying along the margin of a copse. A thing of beauty indeed.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Ginger

Born on this day in 1911 was the great danseuse and more than useful actress Ginger Rogers. She was the perfect partner for Astaire, as he was for her, and together they created a particular kind of dance magic that has never been bettered. And, of course, like all the true greats in every field, they made it all look as easy as breathing. Here's a little reminder of her loveliness...


Saturday, 14 July 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist. 1.

Auberon Waugh, whose diaries I was enjoying recently, was also, for some years, a novelist, publishing five titles before abandoning the form in 1972, ostensibly in disgust at the fact that authors at that time received no money at all from public library loans of their titles (which in those days could run into huge numbers). Perhaps he was also tacitly recognising that he could never escape the shadow of his father's achievements as a novelist and that comparisons were always (and rightly) going to be to Evelyn's advantage. But what were Bron's novels like? I know I read them at the time, but have only the blurriest memories, so I thought I'd have another look, beginning with the first, The Foxglove Saga (1960 – long out of print but easily available from online bookshops).
  The title is misleading, as it's no saga. What it is is an accomplished, often very funny comic novel that at times is well worthy of comparison with Waugh pere's works. Beginning with a wry account of backbiting and petty rivalries among the monastic brothers at a Catholic monastery-cum-public school, it gradually introduces a group of pupils who are to be the central characters in the story that unfolds. Among them is Martin Foxglove, beautiful and charming son of the widely adored and apparently saintly Lady Foxglove. Oddly he does not remain at the centre of the unfolding action, most of which revolves around his school friends and their various misadventures. There is also, early on, a brilliantly managed comedy of confusion involving the elderly and ailing Brother Thomas's stay in an NHS hospital – which he is thoroughly enjoying until the do-gooding Lady Foxglove gets busy...
  The most prominent among Martin Foxglove's old school friends are the hapless Stoat and the reckless O'Connor, whose paths – and sometimes Martin's – repeatedly overlap as life takes them from school to an Army training camp, and into the murky world of trading in stolen goods from a Petticoat Lane stall (with a deeply dodgy character who styles himself Joseba da Farratoga). Again and again, Waugh sets up and executes brilliant comic set pieces involving these three and various authority figures and walk-on characters. Misunderstandings, confusion and crossed signals abound, and there are many laugh-aloud scenes and moments (which is a great deal more than you can say about many supposedly comic novels).
  Up to somewhere near the end, The Foxglove Saga is a joy to read. Then, I think, something goes wrong with the tone, and the latent cruelty in Waugh's (both Waughs') comedy comes too near the surface, in the shape of a monstrous baby, born to Dooley, a hospital doctor turned blackmailing biographer, and his ex-nurse wife, Herring. The farcical climax of the novel reads more like Tom Sharpe than either Waugh, and really doesn't work (at least for me). And then Waugh (A.) rounds things off with a thumbnail sketch of what happens next, over a good many years, to each of the major characters. This is seldom a good idea, especially in a comic novel.
  So, a novel full of promise, which for much of its length is brilliantly achieved and very funny, fails to carry through to the end. Never mind – the best bits are truly comparable to Waugh pere at his funniest, and suggest a great comic novelist in the making.  Bron, incredibly, was only twenty when he wrote this one. What happened next? Well, three years later, he published a second novel, Path of Dalliance. I have a copy, and am going to read it. I'll be reporting back...

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Top Marx

I've had this little book for years, and am very fond of it (it's an excellent selection, as well as being a pleasure to handle), but it wasn't until I dropped in on the Enid Marx exhibition at the House of Illustration on Granary Square that I realised the cover design is one of hers. Marx, best known for her classic London Underground textiles, also, among many other things, designed the jackets for Chatto & Windus's Zodiac Books and Phoenix Library (and many another book, including several King Penguins).
  One of the prodigiously talented Royal College of Art generation that included Ravilious and Bawden, she was versatile and prolific as well as gifted. Rather amazingly, at the RCA, Sir Frank Short banned her from his wood engraving classes on the grounds that she couldn't draw, but Ravilious used to let her in to the studio after hours to engrave with him. Marx worked all her long life as painter, printmaker, textile designer and anything else that came her way. She even designed stamps, including a set for Christmas 1976 based on Opus Anglicanum embroideries. All her work has the vigour, exuberance and strong sense of pattern so characteristic of her generation, and she was especially fascinated by animals and fish and by English folk art (she co-created the Batsford volume on English Popular Art). This small but wide-ranging exhibition, full of delightful things, exudes a very English kind of good cheer, and is more than likely to leave you with a smile on your face.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

'I Say!'

Born on this day in 1911 was Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, who changed his name to Terry-Thomas and built a glittering career as a comic actor, playing the archetypal upper-class English cad or bounder. He was, like many actors of his time (e.g. Charles Hawtrey), his own creation, having entirely reinvented himself, name and all. Born to a lower-middle-class family – his father was a merchant at Smithfield meat market – he soon began the process of turning himself into 'Terry-Thomas', beginning by imitating all the posh actors and comedians he saw or heard, and adopting the dandyish style that he was to develop to a high, almost absurd pitch (Beau Brummel would not have approved of his excesses). After his parents had managed to send him to a minor public school for a few years, he made his debut in the world of work at Smithfield, dressed in a taupe double-breasted suit with carnation buttonhole, olive-green pork-pie hat and yellow gloves, and flourishing a long cigarette holder and silver-topped malacca cane. He did not last long at Smithfield, believe it or not, and was soon making his way in show business, becoming, by the Fifties, a star of the silver and the small screens, of cabaret and the comedy circuit.
  One of his stranger film roles was in the dire John Boulting version of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. Terry-Thomas was wildly miscast as Bertrand Welch, the most odious and pretentious character in the novel. Amis notes in his memoirs that 'the hash he made of the part was so comic that the result was a large net gain'. The author took an immediate liking to T-T, whom he found to be just the same off-screen as on, and with whom, of course, he shared an avid interest in drinking and womanising. On an epic pub crawl in Edinburgh, they got on like a house on fire.
 And here's a curious footnote. In 1960, when T-T was playing the Liverpool Empire, a prized cigarette holder, decorated with 42 diamonds, disappeared from his changing room, much to his chagrin. The police investigated, and found 40 of the diamonds inside a roll of carpet in the home of a 20-year-old unemployed would-be comedian called James Joseph Tarbuck. Yes, that one – Jimmy Tarbuck (who pleaded guilty and was given two years' probation).

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Golden Booker

Now that it's become humid and oppressive – and even hotter – this heat has made all physical and mental effort something of a challenge. However, my sluggish brain has registered a few blurry impressions of the larger world. Today I learnt that Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient has won the Golden Booker, having been voted (by 'the public') the best Booker winner in the prize's 50-year history – or, rather, voted the best of the five nominees, one from each decade, chosen by the illustrious judges.
  Well, something had to win, and it could have been worse (The Bone People, anyone?), but I remember reading The English Patient at the time, on the fervent recommendation of a friend, and finding it, for the most part, hard going and quite uninvolving, though a good many passages seemed rather brilliant. It is certainly a representative Booker-winning novel, a loose baggy monster with a wide sweep, big ambitions and a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-everything mise-en-scène.
  To his credit, Ondaatje modestly – and surely accurately – declared on winning the award:
'Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list, especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul [In a Free State], one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall. I suspect and know more than anyone that perhaps The English Patient is still cloudy, with errors in pacing.' He also acknowledged that the big Oscar-winning movie of his novel 'probably had something to do with the result of this vote', and went out of his way to praise some of the fine authors who never won the Booker, naming William Trevor, Alice Munro and Barbara Pym. Good for him. 





Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Seriously Imposing

Today my researches took me to St Peter's, Titchfield, down in Hampshire, to marvel at the grand – not to say grandiose – monument to two Earls of Southampton, Thomas and Henry Wriothseley, and Thomas's wife, Lady Jane. That's a view of part of it above, seen through a doorway from the chancel. The whole thing, made by the Dutchman Garret (or Gerard) Johnson, is seriously imposing, occupying most of the South chapel of the church. At each corner stands an obelisk of all things, modelled on the famous red granite obelisk in Rome, and the tomb is on three levels, with Lady Jane, surprisingly, lying above her husband (Thomas) and son (Henry). There are extravagant displays of heraldry – achievements, coats of arms and heraldic beasts – all over the monument, and four kneelers, children of Henry, in pairs on the long sides of the tomb chest. One of them, kneeling to the right of the picture above, was another Henry, the Third Earl of Southampton, who was a major patron of the young Shakespeare, among other poets. He was the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and has been widely identified as the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.
  His grandfather Thomas, the First Earl, by contrast, put all his energies into advancing his career, unhindered by any scruples, in the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI, until he finally fell from grace, losing the office of Chancellor and his place on the Privy Council. In the course of a deplorable career, Thomas, despite his supposed Catholic faith, played a big part in the dissolution of the monasteries and profited hugely from his endeavours. Along the way, he personally tortured the supposed heretic Anne Askew in the Tower of London, turning the wheel of the rack with his colleague Richard Rich – yes, the same Rich who is memorialised in one of Epiphanius Evesham's greatest monuments.
  On the Titchfield monument, Thomas lies in his Garter robes, bland and blameless, his hands together in prayer – but this is a generic image. In real life, Thomas, though slim and handsome in his youth, became, like the King he served with such zeal, fat and bloated – so fat that, at the time of his death, a horse could not be found strong enough to bear his body. No man, or woman, is fat on their monument – at least, not until post-Restoration times, when true likenesses came into fashion and a gentleman was expected to look well fed and a little corpulent.