Thursday 18 April 2024

Chasing the Devil Out of Texas

 Today is the centenary of the birth, in Vinton, Louisiana, of Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown (who got his nickname from a teacher who said he had 'a voice like a gate'). Brown was a popular performer but also something of a musician's musician, a versatile multi-instrumentalist – guitar, fiddle, drums, piano – who worked in a variety of genres, though he was at heart a blues man: he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1983 (for Alright Again!). Here he is showing he could also play a mean country fiddle – and still find time to enjoy a few puffs on his pipe during the keyboard solo...

Wednesday 17 April 2024

Rowland Suddaby

 This image from the golden age of motoring – an age when oil companies commissioned quality artwork (and quality books, in the form of the wonderful Shell Guides, edited by Johns Betjeman and Piper) – caught my eye today. It shows Folly House in Darley Abbey, a place I've visited a few times: it's a village in the Derwent valley that is now part of the city of Derby and has some fine buildings dating from its 18th-century industrial heyday. Of the medieval abbey little remains, and Folly House I don't recognise at all –maybe I missed it? Adjoining Darley Abbey is the magnificent Darley Park, one of the country's finest public parks (IMHO). 
  Anyway, I like the picture, which looks rather like a cross between Eric Ravilious and recent David Hockney. The artist's name was new to me – Rowland Suddaby. He is, it seems, a pretty minor figure, with a decidedly meagre Wikipedia entry and not a lot more information online, though his pictures are dotted about the country here and there. His dates are 1912 to 1972, he studied at Sheffield Art College, moved to London, where he had some small success, then settled in Suffolk. He was a founder of the Colchester Art Society, whose exhibitors included Edward Bawden, John Nash and Cedric Morris. Suddaby worked largely in landscape, painting in a distinctive brushy style and favouring bare trees (rather crudely drawn) and grey skies. Along the way, though, he developed another speciality – arrangements of flowers placed in a window against a view. These, I think, work very well. Here are two I particularly like: first, a Window at 5 Portland Place (overlooking the BBC, All Souls and the then Langham Hotel) – 

And this one, with a more rural (and vernal) view, is titled Flowers in a Window

And here, for good measure is a bright Still Life with Flowers

Monday 15 April 2024

Daffodils, and the Walter Scott Publishing Company

 The daffodils are largely faded or gone, but there's still time for Robert Herrick's beautiful lyric, 'To Daffodils' – 

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

My Herrick is an attractive little volume – date unknown, probably around 1900 – in the Canterbury Poets series, published by the Walter Scott Publishing Company at one shilling (5p in today's money) each. The company had nothing to do with the famous Walter Scott, but was founded by a Newcastle man of the same name, whose mission was to bring cheap but high-quality books – covering literature, ideas, history and much else – to the common man. The company was such a success that Scott, having started with nothing, died a millionaire.
The back pages of my Herrick volume give some idea of the range of the company's publications, and in doing so provide a fascinating snapshot of the mass-market end of the publishing industry at the turn of the last century. As well as the Canterbury Poets – over 100 volumes, each with an authoritative introduction (by Ernest Rhys in the case of Herrick) – the Scott Library (another hundred-plus volumes, slightly more expensively produced at one shilling and six pence) is also listed. This includes essays, letters, philosophy, and classics in translation. Anyone reading through both these libraries would end up well read indeed. And if they wanted to find out more about the lives of the authors, they could move on to the Great Writers series, each with a bibliography by J.P. Anderson of the British Museum. The life of Johnson, I notice, is by one Colonel F. Grant (who he?), but others are by more familiar names, including W.M. Rossetti, Edmund Gosse and Richard Garnett. Also advertised are 'Booklets by Count Tolstoy' (his sententious essays, attractively packaged) and, on a very different plane, The Useful Red Series, factual works on such topics as bridge, indigestion, consumption and choosing a piano. Finally, one volume gets a full-page announcement to itself: billed as 'A Book for Every Dinner Table', it is titled Musicians' Wit, Humour and Anecdote: Being On Dits of Composers, Singers and Instrumentalists of All Times, by Frederick J. Crowest, profusely illustrated with quaint drawings by J.P. Donne. 'Among the hundreds of stories abounding in wit and pointed repartee which the volume contains, will be found anecdotes of famous musicians of all countries and periods.' I think my own dinner table will get by perfectly well without this particular volume. 

Saturday 13 April 2024


 It's Samuel Beckett's birthday today (born 1906). I would have thought I'd have marked the date quite often on the blog, but it seems I've only done so once. Since that was in 2009 – fifteen years ago, long enough for everyone (myself included) to have forgotten – I take the liberty of reprinting that piece. It has some choice quotations in it –

'Well, today is Samuel Beckett's birthday - he liked to claim that it was Good Friday the 13th, but that happy coincidence didn't occur in 1906, his natal year. It is also - despite all evidence to the contrary here in grey cold drizzly London - Spring, a season which always brings to mind the 'brief statement' (26 unparagraphed pages) made by the gentleman in the green baize apron in Watt, before he leaves Mr Knott's house, the gentleman who of course regrets 'everything' and who takes a dim view of the natural world and the turning seasons -
"The crocuses and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep's placentas and the long summer days and the new-mown hay and the wood-pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo in the afternoon and the corncrake in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others and the chestnuts falling and the howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling 'The Roses Are Blooming in Picardy' and the standard oil-lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush and every fourth year the February debacle and the endless April showers and the crocuses and then the whole bloody business starting over again."
  The gentleman may regard the whole business as 'an excrement', 'a turd' - but isn't this an extraordinarily vivid and evocative piece of nature writing? In fact, Beckett often demonstrates a remarkably sharp eye (and ear) for landscape and close-up detail, for the sights and sounds of nature - the bleak landscapes of Molloy, for example (clearly rooted, as is the passage above, in the author's memories of Ireland), are brilliantly realised and linger long in the mind. Perhaps Beckett's attention to nature is all the sharper for his sense of man's inescapable alienation from it - it is a scene across which a man passes but of which he can never fully be (or feel himself) a part. There's another lovely passage earlier in the gentleman's monologue -
"The long blue days for his head, for his side, and the little paths for his feet, and all the brightness to touch and gather. Through the grass the little mosspaths, bony with old roots, and the trees sticking up, and the flowers sticking up, and the fruit hanging down, and the white exahusted butterflies, and the birds never the same darting all day into hiding..."

It seems to me that among Beckett's less celebrated talents is that of a brilliant, if eccentric, reluctant and against-the-grain, nature writer.'

Friday 12 April 2024

In the Slave Market

 In the course of the book I'm reading for review, Sir Samuel Baker, the English explorer who named Lake Albert, makes an appearance – and so does his travelling companion and presumed wife, Florence. Samuel, we are told, 'had found nineteen-year-old Florence in 1859 at an auction of white slaves in a Turkish-administered town in Bulgaria. Her parents had been killed in the 1848 uprising in Hungary, and Baker bought her, and subsequently fell in love with her...' An eyebrow-raising passage – and there was more to the story than this: Baker had been on a hunting trip in the Balkans with the Maharajah Duleep Singh when, to amuse the Maharajah, they visited the slave market in Vidin. There Baker spotted Florence, who was destined for the harem of the Ottoman Pasha of Vidin, and was instantly smitten. In the auction the Pasha outbid him, but the resourceful Baker bribed the girl's guards to release her, and they made off together in a carriage. They were inseparable ever after, and Florence accompanied her husband (they were properly married on their return to England) on even his most arduous travels, in Africa and elsewhere. 
  White slaves, eh, and in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century? Surely slavery was invented by the racist imperialist British to service their sugar plantations in the West Indies and enrich Britannia? Surely there was no slavery in the world but the wicked triangular trade? This is certainly the impression one would get from the BBC and from the kind of history teaching that goes on in schools. Of course it is entirely fallacious and ahistorical, but such is its traction that it has thoroughly permeated our 'woke' establishment culture, to the point where cringing apologies and even reparations are seriously entertained. I may be wrong, but I rather doubt that the Turkish government is intending to offer either apologies or reparations to anyone any time soon.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

How Libraries Saved a Life

 When I saw the front page headline 'Libraries Saved My Life', I had to buy a copy of the Birmingham Mail. It's a great story – here's the link...

... and the subject of the piece, Tracy King, has written a book about it: about how her father lost his life in a brawl with teenagers in a local shopping centre, how Tracy, at the age of 12, was left traumatised and adrift, unable to attend school, and how she spent her time in public libraries educating herself, in effect saving her life, or at least laying the groundwork for a successful one. There's a twist in the tale too: Tracy discovered, years later, that her father wasn't the heroic victim she thought he was...
The inspiring story of Tracy's self-education – a wonderful example of the life-changing possibilities of public libraries, even in a supposed age of affluence – must now be seen in the context of Birmingham City Council's proposal to close 25 of its 35 libraries as it tries to climb out of a deep financial hole (of its own making, no doubt). Naturally Tracy King, now a writer, producer and science communicator, is vehemently opposed to this, and determined that these vital community resources must, one way or another, be kept open and remain available to all. Let's hope they do, for all our sakes.
Her book, Learning to Think, is published by Doubleday and has already been widely praised. 

Monday 8 April 2024


 By public demand (hem hem), here is my latest contribution to that fine magazine Literary Review – a review of a book I greatly enjoyed reading. As ever, I urge you to take out a subscription – LR is far and away the most readable magazine of its kind...

The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime that Fooled the World
By Joseph Hone (Chatto & Windus 336pp £18.99) 
    This book has a great story to tell – the author calls it, without exaggeration, ‘perhaps the most sensational literary scandal of the last hundred years’ – and Joseph Hone tells it brilliantly. Strictly speaking, it was not quite a ‘literary scandal’ but rather a bibliographical one, as it involved the faking of physical books, not of their contents. It was a scandal affecting the most exalted levels of book collecting and the book market, and the man responsible for the faking was one the most revered authorities and collectors of his time, Thomas James Wise.
   The story of Wise’s crimes was first told by the two men who uncovered them (though there were more to be discovered later, by Hone himself among others). Booksellers John Carter and Graham Pollard published their findings in 1934 in a book with the deceptively bland title An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets – and it caused an instant sensation, not only shaking the antiquarian book trade and dethroning Wise, but becoming a news story in itself. It was the result of a long process of painstaking detective work, making use of the latest forensic techniques, notably the chemical analysis of paper, to provide clinching evidence. Carter and Pollard’s exposé stuck scrupulously to the facts, and the authors took care to stay out of the courts by never actually stating Wise’s guilt. The evidence they presented was so overwhelming that they didn’t need to.
  Hone expertly spins two narrative strands, at first in parallel, then increasingly intertwining, until they finally come together in Pollard’s climactic face-to-face confrontation with the cornered Wise. One narrative strand follows Wise from his early days in the various literary societies that thrived in late Victorian times to his first forays into illicit book-making, and his rise to fame and honours as a giant of the book world – and, ironically, scourge of the forgers. ‘He is the terror of all fraudulent booksellers,’ declared one admirer, ‘and fakes are to him what rats are to a terrier.’ In fact, fakes were to him a lucrative, absorbing and perversely enjoyable sideline.
 Wise got the idea for his particular line in forgery from his work with the literary societies, who liked to bring out scholarly limited-edition facsimiles of early and obscure works by their revered authors – Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and the like. These often became sought-after items, but it was always made clear that they were facsimiles. Wise’s bright idea was to bring out editions of works by these authors bearing earlier dates than the known first editions, and to pass them off as genuine, with carefully concocted stories of provenance to explain why they had never before seen the light of day. Wise already had a formidable reputation as a book hunter and an expert knowledge of book production, so he was sure to be believed. Soon he was doing very well out of the rising commercial value of what were then ‘modern firsts’. But his nefarious activities went beyond this: as Carter and Pollard did not know, Wise was also a thief, tearing out pages from books in the British Museum library to make up ‘perfect’ copies of rare volumes.
  But what of Pollard and Carter? They were an odd couple – Carter a suave, debonair product of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and Pollard a scruffy, rather louche one-time communist, leading a double life as bookseller and MI5 agent, spying on his former ‘comrades’. An Oxonian, Pollard was a member of the hard-drinking Hypocrites Club and credited as ‘the Jesus man who introduced corduroy trousers to polite society’. It was the book trade, and their passion for book collecting, that brought these two together, and gave them their great project – to expose Wise, who was widely disliked, and regarded by the younger generation of bibliophiles as something of a dinosaur. Hone makes a page-turning narrative of their detective work, technical though it often is, and the reader will be cheering them on, especially as Wise was such an unpleasant character, for all his ability to ingratiate himself with those who could be useful to him – including the very authors whose works he was set on faking.
  Why did he do what he did? Hone suggests that he was driven by a burning desire to take his seat at the top table of the book world, despite his obscure background and limited education (he was no Oxbridge man). The obverse of this insecurity was an overweening arrogance that in the end seems to have convinced him he could run rings round everybody and get away with anything. ‘Wise never served his books,’ Hone concludes; ‘they served him’, just as the many people he duped and exploited served him. Wise died a few years after the publication of An Enquiry, his reputation severely damaged. His huge library of beautifully bound books, the so-called Ashley Library, was bequeathed to the British Museum. They still reside in what is now the British Library, where, curiously, access to any and all of them is severely restricted. Having managed to examine some of them, Hone finds that the books ‘look odd’ and somehow wrong, products of a time when paper in suspiciously ‘virginal’ condition and elaborate ‘buttery’ leather bindings were desired. Tastes change. The book trade, though, remains as mad as ever: when Wise’s forgeries turn up today, they can sell for more than they did when they were made.