Tuesday, 3 October 2023

Sozzled Admirals

 An American correspondent sends me a boyhood memory of thousands of 'yellow jackets' feasting on sweetly rotting plums on a golden October afternoon. 'Yellow jackets' was new to me, or seemed to be (it's getting harder to tell these days). Looking it up, I discovered – of course! – that what Americans call 'yellow jackets' (or yellowjackets) are what we on this side of the pond call simply 'wasps': predatory social wasps, insects that used to be a major nuisance of late summer in my boyhood, but which nowadays seem much less intrusive. Recently I've been seeing large numbers of them, along with honeybees, enjoying the nectar of ivy flowers. Also joining in the feast are the Red Admirals that are still gloriously abundant around here (and, in smaller numbers, Commas). Fallen fruit is very much to the Red Admirals' taste, and the more overripe the better. When autumn sun warms the wild yeasts on the skin of rotting fruit, enough alcohol is produced to create a lightly sozzled condition in the butterflies, which shed their inhibitions and become quite fearless of humans. There is a good account of Red Admirals feasting on fallen plums here...   Soon the butterfly season will be over, but it is ending in something of a blaze of glory, thanks to those Red Admirals, be they drunk or sober. 

Sunday, 1 October 2023

The Philip Larkin

 Yesterday, on my travels, I spotted this unlikely, and frankly not very inviting, pub sign in Coventry, where Larkin 'unspent' his early years. The Philip Larkin, formerly The Tudor Rose (among other incarnations), is a fine specimen of Brewers' Tudor, recently refurbished, and on its website describes itself as 'your cheery local'. Not quite the sort of thing one associates with Larkin... I'd like to think that a true Philip Larkin pub would have more the atmosphere of his 'Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel' –

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.

Friday, 29 September 2023

Fifty Years Ago

 Fifty years ago today, in a Vienna hospital, W.H. Auden died, his heart having finally succumbed to the effects of what he called 'the chemical life' – a daily routine of benzedrine in the morning, alcohol in the evening and barbiturates at night. He was sixty-six. The day after his death, the poet L.E. Sissman recalled, 'I was incensed to see a suggestion in the New York Times to the effect that the poet's work might not outlive him' – which seems a notably stupid judgment on one of the half dozen greatest poets of the twentieth century. Sissman described him as 'a virtuoso poet, capable of besieging and capturing the most difficult of traditional forms, from the sestina and the villanelle to the canzone; capable in almost the same breath of mimicking the tempo and language of an American blues or folk song; capable of a Popean delicacy of means or a Swiftian volley of scorn; capable of Anglo-Saxon sparseness and Tennysonian orotundity.' He was indeed, all those things and more. 
  I hope the dying Auden found himself in a limestone landscape, hearing the murmur of underground streams...

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
    Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
    With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
    That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
    Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
    Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
    For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
    That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
    To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
    Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
    By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
    Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
    On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
    There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
    And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
    They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
    Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
    Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
    Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
    With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
    Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
    For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
                                            That is why, I suppose,
    The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
    The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. 'Come!' cried the granite wastes,
    "How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be
    Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,
"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
    Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
    Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
    By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
    That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."

    They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
    Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
    And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
    Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
    It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
    Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
    By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
    Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
    Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
    Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
    Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
    Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
    To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
    These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
    Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
    Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
    Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape. 

Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Opening Sentences

 'Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.'
Some readers might recognise the above as the opening sentence of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a book I once tried to read, to see what all the fuss was about. I still have no idea, and was so bored I had to give up about a third of the way in.) Anyway, a poll of Amazon readers has identified that sentence as high among the 'most memorable and captivating opening lines from the world of literature'. It finds itself sandwiched in the top five between 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' and 'It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen' (1st and 2nd) and 'All children, except one, grow up' and 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' (4th and 5th). What, no Pride and Prejudice? I suppose Rowling's high placing shows that the reading public (or Amazon's portion of it) has not been put off her works by the ridiculous slurs of her 'woke' antagonists. Which is good. 
   Here is the far from memorable or captivating opening sentence of the book I'm reading at the moment, and if you can identify it you must be very far gone in Kingsley Amis addiction: 
'"Right. On your way, brother. I'm not having you in my house. Go on, hop it."'
These words are spoken by a pub landlord, chucking out a man he suspects, on no particular grounds, of homosexuality. And such things certainly happened. Some time in the mid-Seventies my brother was in a somewhat rough pub in a Buckinghamshire village when two chaps walked in and asked for lager. 'No,' said the guvnor, 'I don't have lager.' 'Why?' they inquired innocently. 'Because I don't serve f*cking p**fs,' he replied. 'On your way.' 
  What is this novel that begins so unpromisingly? It is Difficulties with Girls, a late (1988) effort by Kingsley Amis, one in which his comic genius is only fleetingly discernible. In it, he resurrects Patrick Standish and Jenny Bunn, now Mrs Patrick Standish, from his unsatisfactory early novel, Take a Girl Like You, moves the action on a few years (to 1968), and sees what he can do with them. The answer, sadly, is not very much – and not very much extended over rather too many pages. Once again, as in Take a Girl, he attempts to see things from a female perspective (Jenny's), and once again he fails: Jenny never really comes to life, whereas Patrick, the familiar priapic Amis stand-in, is all too alive. I'm only reading this one because (a) it's one of the few I haven't read, and (b) I spotted it in my favourite charity bookshop, and it offered the prospect of light relief from a rather heavy book I've been reading for review. And it's not all bad: Amis's withering portrayal of publishing and literary types is amusing as ever, if obviously dated, and, even when he's writing a clearly below-par work, his classic, irony-laced style keeps things readable, on a sentence by sentence basis. I read on. 

Sunday, 24 September 2023


 Born on this day in 1717 was Horace Walpole (formally Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford), man of letters, antiquarian, politician, art historian, etc. I doubt his writings – notably the lurid Gothick novel The Castle of Otranto and his Letters – are much read outside Academe these days, but his lasting memorial still stands: the extraordinary house he built and furnished at Strawberry Hill, recently restored to something like its former glory. I visited a few years ago, and wrote about it for a swanky interior design blog. If you fancy a touch of Gothick splendour this Sunday morning, you can find the piece here...

Friday, 22 September 2023

Golden Gram

I know I'm getting older (as we all are, as we all know), but it still came as a bit of a jolt to realise that a few days ago it was the 50th anniversary of Gram Parsons's death – half a century! The death was a sordid affair, the result of a massive intake of morphine, barbiturates and alcohol, and what happened next was a sorry tale. A footnote in this book (now available on eBay!) tells the story succinctly: 

'3 A kind of farcical modern iteration of Shelley’s funeral took place in 1973 at Joshua Tree in the Californian desert, when two friends of the singer Gram Parsons attempted to cremate his body, which they had stolen from Los Angeles airport. Pouring five gallons of petrol into his open coffin and lighting it, they created an enormous fireball and fled, leaving Parsons’s charred remains behind. They believed they had been acting on his wishes.'

But what a talent, what a voice! I remember the shock of hearing of Gram's death, but I remember at least as vividly the electric impact of hearing this, the opening track of his posthumous Grievous Angel album, for the first time. All those years ago...

Thursday, 21 September 2023

Renaissance Man

 A version of this image turned up on my Facebook homepage today, pointing the remarkable resemblance between the 'Friend' from Raphael's 'Self Portrait with Friend' and the versatile actor and musician Oscar Isaac, who turned in such a brilliant performance in the Coen Brothers' wonderful film Inside Llewyn Davis (which I wrote about here). The original painting, which hangs in the Louvre, shows Raphael – if it is indeed him; it's not entirely certain – with a 'friend', who might or might not be a pupil or fellow artist, but has never been identified. To make matters still more uncertain, the picture is believed to be only partly painted by Raphael. Anyway, I eagerly await further examples of film star/Renaissance portrait crossover...