Sunday 31 May 2009

Tumbleweed and Blues

A couple of days of sun and my mental faculties are all to pieces - it's always the way. I am, as it were, sitting on the stoop, watching the tumbleweed blow by across the wide empty space between my ears. I'm so far gone I can't even vote. Having acquired a postal voting form for the forthcoming EU thing, I proceeded to make such a complete horlicks of it that I had to throw it away. Whoops. I console myself that the EU Parliament is less a democratic assembly than a very expensive collection of rubber stamps. In fact I'm probably doing my democratic duty by not voting for any of them. So there.
As it happened, democracy was the theme of (sadly) the last of Clive James's stint on Radio 4's A Point Of View - the usual procession of dunces and dullards will resume next week. It was a good finale - full text here - but it struck me that, by both Popper's and Camus's definitions, we can scarcely be said to be living in a democracy just now. Our government can't be changed 'at the people's whim'. At present it's the people's overwhelming will - never mind whim - to have an election and change the government, but we can be sure this will never be allowed to happen till the very last minute, as the incumbents know they will lose power when it does. Also, I have an awful feeling that Brown - like Blair before him - is firmly convinced that actually he does know everything, and if people would only listen, rid themselves of 'false consciousness' and stop putting obstacles in his way, this fact would become apparent to all, and all 'problems' could then be 'solved'. The instincts of both Blair and Brown are deeply undemocratic. Both men have seen themselves as heads of state rather than servants of the state - but at least Blair had the sense to remember the formalities. He would never been arrogant and insensitive enough to have the Queen left out of the D-Day anniversary celebrations. He'd have been there alongside her, jutting out his chin in his brave, grown-up, serious look - but at least she'd have been there too.
Never mind - walking on the downs yesterday I saw four species of Blue, including the Adonis, which is in the picture.
And now I must go and stare into the middle distance for the rest of the day...

Friday 29 May 2009

A Scientist - At It Again

Okay it's Friday, it's sunny - it's time to reveal the latest findings of A Scientist. Wonderful, isn't it, what they come up with? Me, I am of course the Playboy - in fact that could almost be me in the picture...

Subway Sacrilege

Despite appearances to the contrary, I don't actually spend my life being affronted by advertising material, but yesterday evening, outside a branch of Subway - purveyors of cardboard rolls with denatured flavour-free fillings - I was confronted by a placard bearing this message: 'Morning has broken. Fix it.'
With what? Why, with a Subway £2 breakfast.
Now, anyone who has chewed their way through a Subway roll will testify that it has some potential as an adhesive, but what broken thing could possibly be fixed by a cardboard roll and a cardboard flagon of milkfroth? The morning eh? The morning's broken. It needs fixing. Oh dear God, that Eleanor Farjeon's lovely verse should be put to such sacrilegious use. With that beautiful old tune adapted by Martin Shaw - and readapted by Cat Stevens - it is a wonderfully plain and simple song of thanksgiving for God's daily remade creation. The theology is lightly worn - more so than in the similarly themed New Every Morning - and its essence is surely the thankfulness, mindfulness and attentiveness that are at the core of all true religion (or perhaps it's closer to Marianne Moore's formulation, Humility, concentration, gusto). Remind yourself of the beauty of Morning Has Brokenhere - and shake a fist at any branch of Subway you happen to pass. And if I've set the tune buzzing in your head all day, there are worse things to have buzzing there, far worse...

Thursday 28 May 2009


'Imagine If They Worked Together.' That is the slogan of a big poster advertising campaign by... Actually I've never noticed (isn't advertising wonderful?), but I imagine it's one of those huge, exotically named finance companies, and I imagine the aim is to justify some massive corporate gobble-up or merger (somehow I doubt if LloydsTSBHBOS is running this one). The posters show two supposed creative geniuses, and ask us to imagine if they worked together, and we no doubt are supposed to think Gosh yes wouldn't that have been great? Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol feature on one poster, so let's imagine what it would be like if they worked together. Personally I imagine they'd cook up a grand scheme to make a monkey of the art market and gain yet more money for production-line tripe - pretty much business as usual then. Another poster shows Bob Dylan and John Lennon. If they worked together, the result would probably have been, at best, an amusing jam session rather than any kind of creative collaboration.
Of course the campaign is based on just the kind of crass misconception you'd expect from advertising 'creatives', as they're ironically called. It rests on a mathematical conception of creativity: Dali good, Warhol good, Dali+Warhol double good. That may be how advertising works - but look at advertising. And look at art.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

At The Pines

A lucky find at Oxfam just now - one I had been hoping to get my hands on for a long time: At The Pines by the gloriously named Mollie Panter-Downes (surely an escapee from a Betjeman poem). Originally published in The New Yorker, this is an account of the respectable years of Swinburne, when he was living in the care of his friend, the now otherwise forgotten Theodore Watts-Dunton, in a villa in suburban Putney. Max Beerbohm's wonderful account of a visit to Number 2 The Pines says it all really - but I'm very glad to have this book. Seriously underpriced too - considering how long it's been unavailable - at a mere £1.99. A lucky find indeed.

Reading Flannery O'Connor

After so many decades of reading (and forgetting), it's not often I come across a book I can truly say is unlike anything I've ever read before. But so it is with Flannery O'Connor, whose first volume of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955), I am reading now. It's an exhilarating, unnerving, even hair-raising experience. These stories seem to come out of a world where the familiar landmarks are either missing or displaced, where the people seem fully, shockingly alive but living by rules and assumptions that are hard to fathom. O'Connor's children are wise, and her villains are courtly, with a horrible dignity and strange philosophical or religious preoccupations (but they kill you anyway). Her characters, Robert Lowell said, are 'wholeheartedly horrible, and almost better than life' (better?). Everything seems harshly lit and foreshortened - transfigured in some way, but by what? If this is Grace, it's of a strange cruel kind, and it's hard to discern anything good happening to anyone. Yet there is definitely a comic undertone too, albeit of the blackest hue. O'Connor, whose bedside reading was Thomas Aquinas, called her style 'Christian realism'... I don't know - but I do know that reading A Good Man is the most bracing, jolting reading experience I've had in a long time - rather like receiving a succession of electric shocks. Certainly nothing could be further from the emotionally correct pieties of most contemporary fiction. I suspect she might be some kind of genius.

Afterthought: The nearest thing I've had to this jolting experience was reading the equally strange and uncompromising - but very English and very Edwardian - Ivy Compton Burnett.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

A Painted Lady Summer?

Yesterday's sun brought unexpected - and very welcome - visitors to the garden: several Painted Ladies, newly arrived no doubt from North Africa, nectaring hungrily on Ceanothus in the back garden and a white-flowered evergreen whose name I can never retain in the front. At one point two of them started a fight and flew off at high speed in chase of each other - they are extremely strong fliers; they have to be to make their great migration. The Painted Lady is (as the name suggests) a showily marked and easily recognised species, and most summers, if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll probably spot a few. But some years they reach these shores in great waves and can turn up anywhere - I once saw one battling gamely with gusty winds right under Hadrian's Wall. Tomorrow's early sightings give me hope that this might be a 'Painted Lady summer'...

Monday 25 May 2009

Robbie Ross

Here's a birthday well worth marking. Robbie Ross, the bravest, most loyal and most admirable of the Oscar Wilde circle, was born on this day in 1869. Here was a man who had the almost unimaginable courage to 'come out' to his family in the 1880s, and who made no attempt to disguise his sexuality among the hearties of Cambridge - who duly dunked him in a fountain and gave him pneumonia. Nothing unusual in that, sadly, but what came next was extraordinary - Ross not only forced a public apology from the offenders, but mounted a vigorous (failed) campaign against the don who had supported them. Later, when virtually all the 'friends' of Oscar Wilde (including, deplorably, Walter Sickert) were shunning and disowning him after his public disgrace, Ross remained steadfast to the end - indeed to the deathbed. This loyalty provoked a long campaign of vilification from the odious Lord Alfred Douglas (and Ross was also publicly persecuted by the deranged Noel Pemberton Billing). But Ross's greatest and most lasting achievement was as Wilde's literary executor, rescuing his scattered writings, buying up copyrights, sorting out the genuine from the fake, and establishing a definitive edition of the Wilde canon. Then, with typical selflessness, he gave away all earnings and future rights in the works to Oscar's sons. I don't think the category 'gay hero' does any favours to anyone, but if ever there was a man who deserved the title, it was surely Robbie Ross.

Sunday 24 May 2009


As it's Bob Dylan's 68th birthday today, and as we were just talking about it over here - let's remind ourselves of this. Happy birthday, Mr Dylan - may there be many more.

The Elegant Indian

Having recently sung the praises of the English Horse Chestnut, I must put in a word for the Indian Horse Chestnut, which is beginning to come into flower (down south anyway), just as the conker tree candles fade into something more like burnt wicks. The Indian Horse Chestnut is, quite simply, a beautiful tree - shapely and pleasing to the eye, with leaves that are bronze-coloured when they first appear, then open into pendant green hands, the fingers glossier and smoother than the English Horse Chestnut, and elegantly tapered rather than spatulate. The flower spikes are splendid, tighter than the English version, with a pleasing pink tone to their whiteness (and dabs of surprising yellow). They don't last long - any more than the English candles do - but they're a fine sight while they're there. In fact, the only thing to be said against the Indian Horse Chestnut is that the 'conkers' are a disappointment, nothing like the glossy, neatly wrapped beauties that fall from our English trees. Also, the shade of the Indian tree doesn't have the peculiar dense and dappled beauty of our native version (yes I know, it's not actually native). Anyway, if you haven't noticed the Indian Horse Chestnut before, keep your eyes peeled - they're everywhere, in towns, cities and suburbs, and in country house gardens, and always worth an admiring look. And they're now nearing their best.

Friday 22 May 2009

20 Olivier, Please

I see it's the 102nd birthday of that ghastly old ham Laurence Olivier. This much I will tell you about him, and await contradiction: He is the only man to have had both a locomotive and a brand of cigarettes named after him. There'll never be another.

By Heart

So, according to a BBC survey, poetry is 'lost' to four out of five of us - because only one in five of us can recite an entire poem by heart. Hmmm. I'm not sure the ability to recite by heart is any index of anything but our memorising abilities. I consider myself anything but 'lost to poetry' - I read it all the time - but I now have precious little by heart, simply because, as I get older, my memory (this form of memory anyway) has become increasingly leaky. When I was a child - especially between the ages of about 7 and 10 - I had a near-photographic memory for verse and could repeat a short poem after one or two readings, and longer passages with little difficulty. I remember astounding my parents, when I was I suppose 8, by memorising the lengthy narrative poem Edinburgh After Flodden (by W.E. Aytoun), of which I understood very little - it was the music I was memorising (as when I learnt the prologue to Henry V at a similarly precocious age). When I discovered In Memoriam - the first poem that really 'got' me - I learnt many pages of that off by heart... Gradually this enviable gift faded, and most of the stuff I'd memorised in those early years was lost. I think the last substantial poem I got by heart was Yeats's Among School Children, when I was at the end of my teens. This too didn't last long and I only have fragments of it now. And if I try to memorise any verse now, I can seldom get beyond about 8 lines with any hope of being able to retrieve it say six months later - the gift has most emphatically left me. But I don't think this has had the slightest impact on my love for and appreciation of poetry.
Is learning verse by heart a good or a bad thing? Neither in itself, I'd say - it's as good or as bad as what's being learnt. And it's a thing some people can do, some can't and many, I imagine (like me), once could and now can't. I wish I could. My dear old English master and mentor never lost the knack, and well into old age had reams of Shakespeare, Keats and much else by heart. A lucky man.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Feel The Noize

Fortunately, in my misspent youth, I didn't go to many rock concerts, inertia's grip usually proving too strong. I say fortunately because my idea of pole position at such events was as close to the speakers as humanly possible. Incredible though it seems to me now, I actually enjoyed the juddering, stunning sensation of being physically assaulted by sound, and even savoured the aftermath of 24 hours of buzzing, ringing ears and partial deafness. If I'd subjected myself to more of these sonic onslaughts than I did, I'm sure I'd be significantly deafer. As it is, my deafness is of that frustrating kind where background hubbub makes conversation (especially in the higher registers) often impossible to follow. For this reason, I avoid noisy venues as much as I can - and for this reason I fled one such only the other night.
The occasion was a quiz night of sorts, the venue a West End bar/club with decor so vile it was like a physical assault in itself, and an acoustic calculated to create a storm of noise from even a fairly modest input of sound. Needless to say, the pre-quiz drinks-and-chat bit was accompanied by bursts of thumping music, as if the voices bouncing off every surface weren't creating enough of a din. I endured this phase manfully, with the help of faithful friend alcohol, but when the quiz finally got under way, the 'celebrity' quizmistress held the microphone close to her face and bellowed into it, like a superstitious peasant with her first telephone, rendering the questions often unintelligible. The background hubbub too seldom subsided, and the result of all this aural bombardment was that I was soon in a state of increasingly acute mental and physical discomfort, bordering on distress. I made my excuses and escaped into the cool, calm night air, and strolled away down Pall Mall, clearing my buzzing head.
Why is it, I wonder, that mere sound can become so unbearable? It certainly seems to get more so as one gets older - as witness my own progress from speaker-hugger to walker-out - but I know people much younger (especially, I find, women) who are also pained by the levels of noise that are now commonplace. To me it now feels as if I am suffering genuine physical and psychic damage when I'm subjected to too much noise for too long - which of course leads me to the opinion that the noise levels we now live with are indeed damaging us in some profound way, and might be related to the general coarsening of character and affect that seems to be characteristic of our time. I don't know if this is the case, but I certainly find it mystifying that so many people seem to relish maximal sonic bombardment, wherever they are and whatever they're doing (e.g. God help us, driving in an open-top car). Perhaps the greater mystery, though, is that many of us go through a phase in life when we positively enjoy what later is a torment and a tribulation to us.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

The Weight

As I'm sure you don't need telling, today is World Metrology Day - that global celebration of, er, weights and measures. Me I'm dresssed as a giant weight, labelled '1 Cwt', to mark the occasion. But a day like this obviously calls for a Fantasy Concert. Here's the line-up.
Confirmed so far:

Sly and the Family Stone
Miles Davis
Rod Stewart
Gram Parsons
The Human League
The Yardbirds

Any more?

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Lawyers at War

Hats off to the judges, who, by extending 'Human Rights' portection to troops in action, have handed 'our boys' a devastating new weapon against the Taliban. Picture the scene...

A dugout somewhere in Helmand province. A British platoon under fire.
Enter Sergeant.
Sergeant: It's not good, Sir. We're surrounded on all sides. I don't know how long we can hold out.
CO: That's bad... [A mortar shell lands nearby, a fine shower of debris falls]
Sergeant: What shall we do, Sir?
CO: Well I, er... [Shells ricochet off wall] Wait a minute! I've had a thought.
Sergeant: Sir?
CO: We're in a desperate situation here - as I see it, there's only one thing we can do -
Sergeant: You mean?
CO: Yes, Sergeant [sets jaw firmly, reflection of nearby explosion glints in
eye] These chaps are clearly infringing out human rights here, what with all this shelling us and so on.
Sergeant: They certainly are, Sir.
CO: Tell them...
Sergeant: Sir?
CO: Tell them [dramatic pause, punctuated by small arms fire] they'll be hearing from our lawyers!

Monday 18 May 2009

George Meredith's Shed

Not bad, is it? It's Meredith's 'writing chalet', built in the grounds of his home, Flint Cottage on Box Hill. He would spend hours in the chalet, in a fug of tobacco smoke, writing, pacing about and conversing with his characters at length. And in Flint Cottage, on this day 100 years ago, he died.
Meredith loved Box Hill - 'I am every morning at the top of Box Hill,' he enthuses, '- as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t'other. I breathe fine air. I shout ha ha to the gates of the world. Then I descend and know myself a donkey for doing it...' He was forever walking the Surrey hills and downs, even into old age, and in his work he rhapsodises frequently over the Surrey landscape - here, for example, in Diana of the Crossways: 'Through an old gravel cutting a gateway led to the turf of the down, spring turf, bordered on a long line, clear as a racecourse, by golden gorse covers, and leftward over the gorse the dark ridge of the fir and heath country ran companionably to the south west, the valley between, with undulations of wood and meadow sunned or shaded, clumps and mounds, promontories, away to the broad spaces of tillage banked by wooded hills, and dimmer beyond and farther, the faintest shadowiness of heights, as a veil to the illimitable. Yews, junipers, radiant beeches, and gleams of service-tree or the whitebeam, spotted the semicircle of swelling green down black and silver...'
When he died, Meredith was heavy with honours - President of the Society of Authors (in succession to Tennyson), Order of Merit - and very much a (if not the) Grand Old Man of English letters. But he was an unlikely candidate for G.O.M. status. Little of his work was truly popular, some of it was scandalous, and most of it tended towards the freakish and difficult, borne aloft by sheer fizz and gusto and language intoxication into realms where it was often not easy to follow his thread, if there was one. 'His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning,' said Oscar Wilde, and that's about right (Wilde also described Meredith as 'a kind of prose Browning' - adding, typically, 'but then, so is Browning'). Meredith's reputation declined quite rapidly after his death, and he is unlikely ever to be very widely read again - his prose is too much, far too much, for readers used to the steady undemanding plod of contemporary fiction.
But then there's the verse. For myself, if I had to save just one work of Meredith's from being thrown out of the balloon, it would be Modern Love. This great 'mock sonnet' sequence inverts the traditional use of the sonnet as a proclamation of love, using it instead to trace the course of a relationship collapsing in bitterness, grief and mutual recrimination. The sequence is of course partly autobiographical - Meredith lost his wife (who was Thomas Love Peacock's daughter) to the painter Henry Wallis, who famously painted Meredith as Chatterton in The Death of Chatterton. Modern Love is, I think, rather wonderful - technically brilliant and full of beauty and intense sadness. Who could resist a work that begins like this -

'By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep's heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon the marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.'

- and ends, 50 sonnets later, like this -

'Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:
But they fed not on the advancing hours:
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life! -
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight's ocean force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!'

Saturday 16 May 2009

Part of the Past - At Last!

Over at the Other Place, Bryan draws our attention to this report. So 'blogging might now be a part of the past'. At last! I've been waiting to hear those words; they are music to my ears. As a dedicated retroprogressive reactionary laudator temporis acti, I was always uneasy about blogging, an activity which seemed to me dangerously futuristic, or at least to smack of the dreaded Present Day - that's why I was so reluctant to start blogging in the first place. Now, of course, I'm loving it - and, reading this report, I'm hugely relieved to learn that blogging is sliding into the past, becoming vieux jeu, a quaint pursuit for the genially out of touch - that suits me just fine. Let them strip-mall the web to their heart's content, Twittering away like Touretters. No mall for me thank you - I prefer to think of my blog as one of those cluttered, old-fashioned shops you occasionally come across, where you can drop in, have a chat with the man behind the counter (he's in one of those pale brown ironmonger's coats of course), look around at leisure, and never know what you're going to find... No actually, the truth is that I prefer not to think about blogging at all - that way madness lies - but just get on and do it.

Friday 15 May 2009

A Ravening Reader

Ford Madox Ford was, among much else, a great editor and literary talent spotter, the maker of many a writer. What I had forgotten until I started rereading V.S. Pritchett's memoir, A Cab At The Door, is that Ford also made a writer out of Pritchett. It happened when the young Victor was a pupil at Rosendale Road School in Dulwich, where a new master, Mr Bartlett - clearly one of those great teachers who change the course of so many lives - was teaching in an extraordinarily free, improvisatory and informal manner that was positively revolutionary in 1911. His first lessons on English literature were from Ford's English Review, which opened the 11-year-old Pritchett's eyes for the first time to the possibility of being a writer. 'For myself,' he writes, 'the sugar-bag blue cover of the English Review was decisive. One had thought literature was in books written by dead people who had been oppressively over-educated. Here was writing by people who were alive and probably writing at this moment.' Suddenly young Victor's imagination is awakened; he becomes a reader - and determines to be a writer. Pritchett's account of this awakening, and of his early reading, is wonderfully vivid - the amazed discovery of a raging hunger the existence of which had been entirely unsuspected. In his case, the overused term 'voracious reader' is no exaggeration; he is a ravening reader. And his hunger will lead him into trouble with his violently anti-literary father...
Originally Pritchett envisaged himself as a poet, but he was driven back onto the terra firma of prose. His analysis of why he was no poet is very acute: 'The poet, above all, abandons the will; people like ourselves, who are nearly all will, burned up the inner life, had no sense of its daring serenity and were either rapt by our active dramas or tormented by them; but in prose I found the common experience and the solid worlds where judgements were made and in which one could firmly tread.' And few trod more firmly than V.S. Pritchett.

How Not to Poach an Egg

What is it with footballers?. I can't recall anything like this happening to a cricketer - but no doubt I'm about to be corrected... Fred Trueman and the exploding Yorkshire pudding? Ted Dexter and the champagne cork? Colin Cowdrey and the vole?

The Hadow-BBC Mission

A hilariously over-excited report on the BBC news last night about the triumphant(?) conclusion of Pen Hadow's mission (and mission's the word, rather than expedition - a warmist mission, of course) to the Arctic. The story that was actually being told by the pictures and most of the words was completely at variance with the intended message. We saw and heard about the team suffering such extreme cold that their high-tech instruments wouldn't work and frostbite struck in temperatures of minus 30 - inside the tents. We saw Hadow manfully drilling into the ice with a brace and bit - and of course we saw plenty of images of melting ice (this is, after all, the time of year when the Arctic ice does melt around the edges - and the time of year when it's usually perilous to lift anyone off the ice - this year it seemed to be strangely firm). The 'message', in the end, was suspiciously vague and hurried - the ice cap was 'thinner than expected'. Well, we'll see... For a decidedly non-BBC perspective on these matters, see here.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Olympic News

I'm sure you were as delighted as I was to learn that, after all the bold talk of property developers wading in with wads of cash, the London 2012 Olympic Village folly is to be paid for entirely by you and me. Rejoice.

After Lincoln...

Canterbury. The cathedral is up there with Lincoln and York as one of the great buildings of Europe, the historic town is full of interest and easy on the eye, I've always found it a very agreeable place to visit - but there's something missing, isn't there? Some nagging deficiency... Now I realise what is is - Canterbury is simply not gay enough. Of course. Lincoln is famously gay, York is gay as a pipe cleaner - but Canterbury, oh dear me. I don't think I'll be going back until it's a whole lot gayer - though I do rather wonder how I'd know...

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Hot Stuff

I've been sent a press release - why me? Heaven knows - informing me of a new way to beat the recession and its attendant stress and gloom: get outside of a takeway curry, and the spicier the better. Now, you may scoff, but hark! Scientists are on hand to flesh out this at-first-sight extravagant claim with hard facts. Oh yes. Red chilli peppers, you see, release stress-busting feelgood endorphins, and tomatoes are rich in mood-enhancing serotonin. So it must be true. And there's also - as this report on a study of 1,185 curry eaters acknowledges - the little matter of not having had to cook the stuff yourself. No wonder 92 percent of people say they feel 'happier' after eating a takeaway curry (at least until the digestive effects kick in). I feel it incumbent upon me to pass on this helpful list of the 'top five mood-improving curries'. They are:
1. Chicken/beef Madras.
2. Vindaloo.
3. Thai red curry.
4. Pasanda.
5. Jalfrezi.
Happy eating!

The BBC Does Poetry

The BBC, in one of its periodic fits of do-goodery, is about to launch a Poetry Season, beginning pretty much as it means to go on - with a waffly account of Why Poetry Matters by the endlessly irritating Griff Rhys Jones, whose passionate love of poetry will, I fancy, come as news to most of us. The BBC of course is convinced we can only swallow the bitter pill of poetry if it's helped down by a celebrity - hence we are promised My Life In Verse with Robert Webb (one half of popular comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, m'lud) - and more celebs to follow under the same banner. There's also Armando Iannucci on Milton, and the obligatory gameshow element, in the form of a children's recitation contest with the self-explanatory title Off By Heart. Perhaps the most bizarre item - though I'm sure there will be competition - is Simon Schama's John Donne, in which Donne's poems are read, on-screen and off, and discussed at length, by the preening Irish actress Fiona Shaw. What on earth was the thinking behind giving to this most assertively masculine of English poets a female, Irish voice and intonation? It seems, frankly, bonkers, and ruins the enjoyment - and, come to that, the meaning - of the verse.
Ah well, perhaps these worthy projects have some good effects. Maybe some people who are unversed (as it were) in poetry will be drawn in by that sprinkle of celebrity stardust. Maybe it's good to be reminded, however crassly, that poetry matters - though it's a difficult argument to frame at the best of times, even by those of us who love it and somehow know it does matter. Are we saying anything more than that it matters to us? Maybe that is all that can usefully be said.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Edward Lear

A sketch made at Petra, here on the illustrated blog to mark Edward Lear's birthday (born 1812). Lear was a man of wide-ranging abilities and interests, with a strange but sweet nature - perfectly encapsulated in Auden's poem, one of that brilliant little set of pen portraits he wrote before leaving for New York. A shame he didn't write more of them...

A Butterfly Encounter

Yesterday being my last day at large before NigeCorp reclaimed me, and the weather sunny but windy, I went walking on Epsom Downs. Sunny but windy - indeed a fierce east wind - so I wasn't expecting anything much in the way of butterfly action. But, to my great delight and excitement, I saw the first Green Hairstreak I have come across in several years. I was taking a look at a sunny sheltered corner of nothing very much - brambles, nettles, ground elder, Queen Anne lace, hawthorn - when a lively Speckled Wood flushed and briefly chased... what? When it settled again on a hawthorn leaf, I realised immediately that it was the beautiful and unmistakable Green Hairstreak. I stood staring, and no doubt grinning like an idiot, for several minutes, until it took off and disappeared (the flight is very fast and darting, green/brown against green/brown), then, wonderfully, alighted again, much closer to where I was standing, affording me several more minutes of gazing. Then it was off again, and lost, but I'm sure I'll never forget this encounter... No photograph, by the way, does full justice to the brilliance and sheen of the Green Hairstreak's emerald underwings.

Monday 11 May 2009

Happy Birthday, Israel Baline!

The great songwriter Irving Berlin was born on this day in 1888. Here are Fred and Ginger taking one of his instant classics and lifting it to another level, not only with their incomparable dancing but with Fred's easily undervalued singing, which, in its delicate understated way, communicated the essence of a song far more effectively than many a more heavyweight artist - Enjoy!

A Gentler England

Well, I am back from my little tour of Lincolnshire, or a small part thereof - it's a huge county, some of which (especially the flatter parts) have, I must admit, little charm, but most of which is full of interest (the Lincolnshire Pevsner is one of the fattest of the set - and no wonder, in view of its wealth of fine churches)and a good deal of which is far from flat. We drove through much lovely rolling countryside, lush, well wooded and watered, with grand distant views. As for Lincoln Minster, it is certainly up there with Canterbury and York, and I wouldn't argue with anyone who claimed it as England's greatest and most beautiful cathedral (e.g. Ruskin, who declared Lincoln 'out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles'). But what was most striking to one visiting Lincolnshire (and rural Notts over the border) from the uncivil metropolis was how pleasant and polite everyone was, in shops and restaurants and on the streets. There was a pervasive sense of the well-tempered hive, of people making at least the minimal effort to get on, to make life as smooth and good-humoured as possible because in the end we're all in the same boat. That is a sense that is increasingly absent in the great angry conurbations, and it felt like stepping back in time - through several decades - to encounter this sense of jogging along quietly and agreeably enough, rather than elbowing and shoving and self-asserting and kicking up. The reasons for the contrast are obvious enough: outside the conurbations England is much more thinly populated and much more monocultural, so there is less of the felt pressure of overpopulation and of the tensions that inevitably arise when it seems we are not all in the same boat, that we don't have the same interest in the common (unspoken) project, that it's every man for himself. Thank heavens London is not England - any more than New York is America, or Paris France - and that another, gentler country still thrives, and is there to be found once we leave the ill-tempered hives of our overlarge cities. Pace Philip Larkin, England is not yet gone - not by a long chalk...

Thursday 7 May 2009

Browning's Birthday

It's Robert Browning's birthday today (born 1811), so here is his great poem in the voice of the 'perfect painter'
Andrea del Sarto (that's his eloquent self-portait above). The poem includes not only 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp...' but also 'Less is more', a maxim which seemed to become popular currency some time in the 1970s - was it a recoinage or conscious quotation? No matter. The poem is a wonderfully acute psychological study, as well as a vivid evocation of a time and a place and a painful situation. Unlike much of Tennyson (and, to be fair, quite a lot of Browning - he wrote too much), it seems timeless in its freshness and directness of address. Browning will surely last.
As for me, I'm off to Lincolnshire for a few days and won't be able to blog. I'm looking forward to Lincoln Minster...

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Penelope Fitzgerald's Birch Forest

Continuing my backward reading of the later novels of Penelope Fitzgerald - I shall meet my younger self coming the other way, somewhere around Offshore - I've just finished The Beginning Of Spring, and, as with The Blue Flower and The Gate Of Angels, I closed the book with a gasp of admiration and astonishment. How does she pull off these mimetic miracles of total immersion, in a time, a place, a small group of people? No doubt a lot of it must be down to deep, detailed research - but anyone can do research, only Fitzegerald can digest and integrate it so completely that it feels like the everyday detail of a living world. And all is done so deftly, with such a sure lightness of touch, never a word wasted, all put to a use which only reveals itself at the very end.
The Beginning Of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, where Frank Reid, a Russian-bred Englishman is running the printing works he inherited from his father. As the novel begins - as we enter Frank's world - his wife has just left him, taking the children, but then changing her mind and dumping them at a railway station. The children, as always with Fitzgerald, are vivid characters, brilliantly drawn - as are all those around Frank, especially his Tolstoyan assistant Selwyn Crane (author of Birch Tree Thoughts). Things happen, not in a novelistic way, but in the perplexing, unplaceable way they happen in real lived life. The most important, it turns out, is Frank's taking in - on Selwyn's recommendation - the mysterious Lisa to look after the children... When she takes them out to the dacha, events begin to move, at accelerating speed, towards the climax. But immediately before they do, Fitzgerald - so economical with words - stops to devote nearly two pages to a description of the birch forest. At the time it seems an almost jarring change of pace - but it is of course, like everything in this novel, serving a purpose. And it is as wonderful a piece of closely observed, sharp, accurate 'nature writing' as I've ever read. As it is - I think - the point of this post, it's worth quoting in its entirety:

'The birches were the true forest. They had created for themselves a deep ground of fallen leaves and seeds, dropped twigs and rotting bark, decomposing into one of the earth's richest coverings.
As the young birches grew taller, the skin at the base of the trunks fragmented and shivered into dark and light patches. The branches showed white against black, black against white. The young twigs were fine and whip-like, dark brown with a purple gloss. As soon as the shining leaf-buds split open the young leaves breathed out an aromatic scent, not so thick as the poplar but wilder and more memorable, the true scent of wild and lonely places. The male catkins appeared in pairs, the pale female catkins followed. The leaves, turning from bright olive to a darker green, were agitated and astir even when the wind dropped.They were never strong enough to block out the light completely. The birch forest, unlike the pine forest, always gives a chance of life to whatever grows beneath it.
The spring rain, however welcome, made a complication. The drops ran down the branches as far as the heaviest twig, then hung there perilously, brilliant silver above, dark below. They were tenacious, apparently intending to stay on at all costs. If small birds landed on the branch at the same time, sometimes with the intention of getting at the drops of water, the whole system seemed in jeopardy. Twigs and bough bent beneath the invasion, sighing, swaying back and forth with a circular motion, crossing and recrossing to settle back into their myriad delicate patterns. And yet quite large birds, starlings and even jackdaws and wood-pigeons, risked the higher branches in the early morning.
In July the fine seed-bracts, pale as meal, were set free from the twigs. The air was full of floating mealy seed. It was useless to try to keep it out of the dacha, all that could be done was to sweep it into weightless mounds in the corner of every room and on the veranda. By autumn, when their aromatic sharpness seemed to have vanished, or rather to have been assimilated into the burial scents of the decaying earth, the birches were hung with yellow leaves, but now the branches seemed too delicate to bear the twigs, the twigs too fragile for the stalks. The long thin fronds seemed to be stretching towards the ground, threatened with exhaustion. In each tree, even in the middle of the forest, there were five or six different movements, from the airy commotion at the top to the stirring of the older branches, often not much thicker than the younger ones, but secure at the dark base. When the heavy autumn rains began the trees gave out a new juicy scent of stewed tea, like the scent of the bundles of birch twigs in the steam-room of a public bath house which the customers used to beat themselves, leaving stray damp leaves on the tingling skin. By early winter the whole forest seemed worn out with the struggle. The clearings were crossed with fallen trunks, here and there, to be stepped over. By the time spring came again they would have sunk into a sepulchre of earth and moss, and beetles innumerable.'

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Quote of the Day

From Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, born this day in 1813:
'Our age does not stop with faith, with its miracle of turning water into wine; it turns wine into water.'

A Well-Tempered Hive

I'm afraid I'm still in a strange (but pleasurable) stunned state after the Great Event, incapable of much by way of intellectual engagement, especially with the deranged, depressing and incomprehensible passing show of politics and economics and epidemics. Yesterday our little party took a walk through the drizzle to a local 'May Fayre', which was everything an English May Fayre should be - cold, damp, dishevelled, the scene expressing the characteristic mix of stoical resignation and dogged cheerfuless, a slightly embarrassed observation of attenuated tradition. There had been a maypole and a May Queen (that tradition Ruskin was so creepily eager to revive) and there were stalls around a muddy field - manned by well-wrapped figures hugging themselves and shuffling from foot to foot to keep warm - offering the familiar amusements and the familiar domestic rejects for sale, all raising money for local good causes. And there was a stall manned by a beekeeping couple, who had lost a swarm this spring, like so many others, but were still in business. They are hoping to replace the lost queen from a local source, as importing from farther afield carries a higher risk of getting a queen with an 'evil temperament', and the temperament of the queen dictates the behaviour and attitude of the swarm. There is a huge difference, it seems, between an evil-tempered queen and a good-tempered one, and tending to a well-tempered hive is a pleasure, with little or no risk of stinging. This was all very illuminating - and this morning I have just eaten some of their honey (in the comb) and it is the most delicious I ever tasted... Where was I? Nowhere very much - but in England definitely. In these damp May Fayres England lives on, unnoticed, unsung, unworried, still - despite everything - a pretty well-tempered hive.

Sunday 3 May 2009

The Day After

As can be seen from the above photograph, the Wedding was a resounding success...
Actually it was. Indeed it was one of the happiest days of my life - as I think it was for quite a few who were there, not least the Happy Couple - in their case the term is no cliche but a living fact, and very wonderful to behold - and the bride so beautiful it took the breath away... When I've recovered from the overload of happiness and loving emotion and alcohol, normal blogging will resume.

Friday 1 May 2009

The Wedding Eve

It's my son's wedding tomorrow (sorry if your invitations didn't arrive - you know what the post is like these days...) Fancying I might be called upon to utter some kind of speech, I turned for inspiration (naturally) to the works of Samuel Beckett. You may recall the story What A Misfortune, in More Pricks Than Kicks, in which our hero Belacqua weds Miss Thelma bboggs, who 'had at least the anagram of a good face, while as for soul, sparkling or still as preferred, it was her speciality'. At the wedding reception, Walter Davitt, a subfusc civil servant who is Thelma's biological father, rises, in a somewhat exalted condition, and - well, over to you, Sam -

'[He] paid out his discourse in a pawl-and-ratchet monotone that could never be unsaid, as follows:
'It is on record that a lady member of the Lower House, and femme couverte what is more, rose to her feet, those feet - for she was of Dublin stock - that Swift, rebuking the women of this country for their disregard of Shank's mare, described as being fit for nothing better than to be laid aside, and declared: "I would rather commit adultery than suffer one drop of intoxicating liquor to pass my lips." To which a gross baker, returned in the Labour interest, retorted: "Wouldn't we all rather do that, Madam?"'
This opening passage was rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage...'

However, Walter rallies and returns to the fray -

'"Il faut marcher avec son temps" said a Deputy of the extreme Right. "Cela depend" answered Briand in his sepulchral sneer "dans quoi il marche." So do not heckle me, Herrschaften, because that would about finish me.'
He drooped his head, like a pelican after a long journey, pricked up the ears of his fearful moustache, and shuffled and shifted his feet like one surprised in a dishonourable course of action...'

Oh yes, something along those sort of lines should do the trick. I predict a triumph...

Seasonal Advice

Right, this is serious - the Met Office has assured us we're in for a hot, dry 'barbecue summer'. I therefore advise stocking up on the following: umbrellas, goloshes, waterproof capes and mackintoshes, rubber waders, sandbags, mops, Mae Wests, inflatable dinghies, Very pistols, distress flares, luminous marker buoys... Have I missed anything?