Sunday, 20 October 2019

Another One Back from Extinction?

It looks as if the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine might be the latest creature to return from 'extinction' and astound the world. It would be good to know it's still around, as it's a quite remarkable animal – a large carnivorous marsupial, one of only two species in which both female and male have pouches; in the male it serves as a scrotal pouch, into which the tender privities can be withdrawn for protection (a handy arrangement, but it never caught on). The Tasmanian Tiger can also open its jaws unusually wide, up to 80 degrees, stand briefly on its hind legs, and hop rather in the manner of a kangaroo.
  If the Thylacine is indeed still extant, it will join a distinguished and ever growing list of animals wrongly believed to be extinct – in some cases for millions of years. They range from the Highland Singing Dog of New Guinea to that fine New Zealand bird, the Takahe.  The most famous of these 'Lazarus species' is the Coelocanth, and the most mysterious, perhaps, the Australian Night Parrot and the Terror Skink of New Caledonia. Has nobody told these creatures that all life on Earth is supposed to be extinct the year after next (or am I distorting the XR message)?

Saturday, 19 October 2019

'Not sufficient for a kite's dinner'

What with this Amazon business and one thing and another – those things including a sentimental journey to Cambridge to celebrate 50 years (yes, 50) since Appleyard, B. and I met there as callow Kingsmen; another return journey to other haunts, in Marylebone, where, a little more recently, I once worked for The Listener and Radio Times, both long gone from that increasingly chic but still agreeable London village; and a debilitating cough and 'cold' that came on today; and, of course, the seemingly endless shenanigans with Amazon and the book – what with all of that, I haven't been paying much attention to the blogscape or to my blog lately. This morning, though, I enjoyed a fascinating piece on Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence about (or partly about) the taste of the book-buying public in Victorian times, and earlier. That taste was then, it seems, very much drawn to the English classics. The bookseller from whom Henry Mayhew is gathering evidence (for his London Labour and the London Poor) gives an impressive list of works and authors in demand, in which (after Robinson Crusoe) the name of 'Philip Quarles' features. This brought me up short.
 In fact, it seems to be slip of the tongue, or of Mayhew's pen; the only writer of that name, as far as I can find out, is the fictional hero of Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (which I read once, long ago, and am unlikely to return to). The bookseller surely means Francis Quarles, a 17th-century poet of limited gifts who enjoyed a phenomenal success with his Emblems, a collection of elaborate biblical paraphrases, passages from the Church Fathers and epigrammatic quatrains, some of which are embellished with striking engravings by William Marshall. Pope wrote scathingly of Emblems in The Dunciad – 'the pictures for the page atone/And Quarles is saved by beauties not his own'. However, some of the epigrams are good: 'The heart is a small thing, but desireth great matters. It is not sufficient for a kite's dinner, yet the whole world is not sufficient for it.' Of the five books of Emblems, only the first two are original, the remainder being 'adapted' from the writings of the Jesuit Hermann Hugo and illustrated with the same prints as Hugo's work, but reversed. 
  Quarles's Emblems is one of those erstwhile bestsellers that remind us that the past is indeed a foreign country. It is impossible, without entering into the mindset of another age, to understand how such a book could have been such a runaway popular success. But its popularity lasted well into the 19th century, as is attested (presumably) by Mayhew's bookseller. There was a new edition, with new illustrations, as late as 1888. Improbably enough, a distant descendant of Francis Quarles was that star of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.
 Quarles probably wrote the epitaph for his sister, who shares with her husband, Sir Cope D'Oyley, a fine monument in St Mary's, Hambleden, Buckinghamshire – a monument that features in the last chapter of... Aargh, it's back to my book again!

Thursday, 17 October 2019

At Last!

O frabjous day! At last, after an epic struggle with Amazon (preceded by an epic, but less frustrating, struggle with Word), my book seems to be available to buy on Amazon – I say 'seems to be' as I can't quite believe, even at this stage, that it's going to work... A snip at £10, ideal stocking filler, etc. (The cover is a pleasanter colour than that when you see it.)

Monday, 14 October 2019

Wincing Again: Back to Ackerley

I've written about J.R. Ackerley – and in particular that canine shocker My Dog Tulip – before, and now I've been reading him again, this time the autobiographical My Father and Myself (a title that would be more descriptive if it was reversed). I thought I might be on safer ground with this one, but, dear me, I was wrong. I haven't winced so often while reading a book since... well, probably since reading My Dog Tulip.
  Ackerley has a good story to tell in My Father and Myself – the story of how, after his father's death, he discovered that this prosperous and respectable fruit merchant, nicknamed the Banana King, had a family of three girls by his mistress, a fact entirely unknown to and unsuspected by his official family. In a disarming preface Ackerley writes: 'The apparently haphazard chronology of this memoir may need excuse. The excuse, I fear, is Art...' And yet the book is oddly artless, with lacunae left unfilled and areas of ignorance acknowledged, where a slicker biographer might have disguised these difficulties and produced an altogether smoother narrative. Ackerley tells the story of his father as well as he can, given those lacunae – and it's full of surprises and mysteries, particularly from his early years, when not one but two older men took him under their wing, gave him every assistance, and seem to have fallen in love with him (and fallen out with each other over him). He also had an early marriage, to the beautiful Louise Burckhardt (who was painted by Sargent). He met Ackerley's mother in Paris in the same year that Louise died of TB, and took up with her, though they didn't legally marry till nearly a quarter of a century later.
  When the book moves on to J.R's relationship with his father, this opens Ackerley to the irresistible temptation to write more about himself. Not that he loves himself – he seems more disgusted than anything – but he is, as he candidly admits, something of a self-fixated solipsist. He wonders whether his father knew about his son's homosexuality (it would have been pretty hard to miss) and, if so, whether that caused some awkwardness or distance between them. And that gives Ackerley the green light to write a long, explicit and gruesomely detailed account of his sex life (this was where most of my wincing was done). I'll spare you the details, gentle reader, but over the years Ackerley devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and energy to pursuing young men in uniform, and he's happy to tell us precisely what he did to them and they to him. There were so many he couldn't remember anything about many of his encounters – and all the while he seems to have believed that he was pursuing the 'Ideal Friend', a fiction that was surely wearing thin by the time his sexual appetite  finally became less pressing – at which point he fell in love with Tulip, the Alsatian bitch who seems to have been the closest thing he ever got to the Ideal Friend.
  There is another book about Ackerley's father, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre, one of those three secret daughters, another of whom, Sally, married Gerald Grosvenor and became Duchess of Westminster.
  And here is Sargent's portrait of Louise Burckhardt, Roger's first wife.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Pagan Carshalton Rises Again

Carshalton may be XR Central these days, but the place is still pagan at heart (a former Rector, newly arrived and getting his bearings, concluded that we were essentially tree worshippers, and he wasn't far wrong about some of us). On this soggy Saturday morning I found the village swarming with morris dancers of all kinds, some traditionally attired, others more colourfully dressed in a weird fusion of hippy, Goth, Celtic and steampunk styles, with faces luridly painted.
The traditional East Surrey Morris Men, I gathered, were at the heart of the action, along with folk dancers of other kinds, young and old. It was all rather heartening and, yes, very English.

The traditionalists and the more flamboyant modern morrises seemed not to be mingling much. I wonder if there is a schism in the morris world – it wouldn't be the first time. A book I recently had to read for review, The Lark Ascending by Richard King, tells of almighty fallings-out in the world of English folk dance in the Twenties and Thirties, mostly stirred up by one Rolf Gardiner, a man who viewed morris dancing as an expression of the kind of blood-and-soil neo-paganism then in vogue in Germany. Having fallen out with Cecil Sharp, the founder of the English folk revival, Gardiner went on to found a clandestine romantic-fascistic organisation called the English Mistery (later the English Array) which believed that 'our race can be saved and its vigour increased by the revival of instinct and tradition, and by the protection and development of national breeds, on which the existence and continuation of culture depend'. 'National breeds', eh?
Gardiner developed into a rather brilliant agricultural pioneer, whose next organisation, Kinship in Husbandry, evolved into the very successful Soil Association. However, his known affection for National Socialism understandably clouded his reputation. He was even turned down when he volunteered for the Home Guard.                             

Friday, 11 October 2019

Nobel Time Again

I haven't read anything by Peter Handke (though I know a couple of his films), so I have no idea how good he might be as a writer. However, the furore that has greeted Handke's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is giving me much amusement. This piece in The Guardian is hilarious. Salman Rushdie (passed over again?) is particularly incandescent, but the likes of Hari Kunzru, Slajov Zizek and even Jennifer Egan, speaking for Pen America, run him close. This is clearly an award that has annoyed all the right people, and annoyed them intensely.
  The principal source of all this fury is Handke's idiotic remarks about certain incidents in the Balkan Wars in the Nineties, and his unstinting support for Slobodan Milosevic. These are not the kind of things you'd expect to warm the hearts of the Nobel committee. Nor, come to that, was Handke's call in 2014 for the Nobel literature prize to be abolished as a 'false canonisation'. And, whatever else he might be, Handke is an ageing white European male – just the kind of winner the committee was being urged by all and sundry to avoid, in favour of voices, preferably female, from the Third World. (His co-laureate, admittedly, is a 'dreadlocked feminist' called Olga Tokarczuk, but she is still guilty of being white and European.) Could it be that the Nobel committee believe that freedom of expression and quality of writing trump political correctness? It seems hardly likely, but that is the impression this year's award gives. It's actually made the Nobel Prize for Literature slightly interesting for once.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

XR Central

Picture my horror – no don't, it won't be pretty – when I happened on this extravaganza of imbecility just around the corner from my home in the demiparadise that is Platonic Carshalton. A blameless Edwardian semi has apparently been converted into XR Central, painted in hideous 'rainbow' colours, every surface covered with inane slogans and symbols, and an earth rampart covered with white stones ('Act Now!') thrown up in the front garden, along with various items of garden furniture, water features and unhappy-looking plants. The perpetrator of this monstrosity has proudly chalked his name on the pavement outside, and an Extinction Rebellion flag flies high over the lot (now I know where the one in the park came from).
  This invasion of public space by in-your-face assertions of ideology – and always the same ideology (because to its intellectually challenged proponents it's incontestable)  – is fast becoming one of the more tiresome features of modern life. Public space should be neutral, a forum for the whole of the community, not the preserve of strident ideologues. We English used to be very good at keeping our opinions to ourselves, and living peaceably as a result, rubbing along together in an atmosphere of mostly good-humoured mutual tolerance. How all that has changed, thanks to the emotions unleashed by Brexit and 'climate change'.
  Anyway, I hope the council has noticed what has been inflicted on this particular house and will take appropriate action, preferably something involving heavy machinery...