Monday 29 March 2010

Birthday Boy

I can't let the birthday of R.S. Thomas (his 97th - the party will surely be the hottest ticket in the afterworld) go by unmarked. Here he is at his least Welsh, his least craggy and forbidding, but still starkly wise and true...


Dear parents,
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.

It was not the bone buckled;
You gave me enough food
To renew myself.
It was the mind's weight
Kept me bent, as I grew tall.

It was not your fault.
What should have gone on,
Arrow aimed from a tried bow
At a tried target, has turned back,
Wounding itself
With questions you had not asked.

Collecting: My Thoughts

David Attenborough has been speaking out against the misguided laws that prevent children collecting almost anything in the field. Good for him. His argument might seem to sit oddly with his passion for conservation, but there's no real contradiction. Children who grow up with the close, hands-on experience of nature that comes with early collecting experience (rather than an abstract idea of Nature) are more likely to value it in true and useful ways. It is strange that so much of nature is apparently open to us now - with books, photographs and TV films of a quality I in my boyhood could only dream of, available to all - and yet children, enjoying less freedom to roam outdoors than ever before, and circumscribed by 'conservation' laws, have less and less direct, close-up experience of nature, of how creatures feel and smell and behave as well as look, of their variations and distinctions and minute beauties of form. I was a collector myself in a very small way - and even in my boyhood it was beginning to seem eccentric (especially butterfly collecting). Though I now regret every butterfly I killed and set (they weren't many), I am glad of the time I spent examining specimens in the old round glass-topped metal specimen cans into which I carefully transferred them from the net. Fossils - Attenborough's favourites - I never really took to, though I joined my much keener brother on a few geological jaunts. Collecting birds' eggs was much more fun, demanding keen observation and, often, good tree-climbing abilities (and you never really know a tree until you've climbed into it) and rewarding them with small objects of great beauty and interest. The thrill of reaching into a nest and feeling eggs, startlingly warm - or, if deserted, icy cold - would be followed by the delicate task of blowing the egg (a small hole at the mouth end, a rather larger one at the crown of the egg) and, if the egg was unfamiliar, identifying it in, usually, the Observer's book of birds' eggs. I remember the thrill of finding a dunnock's nest in a hedge (beautiful sky blue eggs), a linnet's nest full of eggs that seem randomly scribbled on, a long-tailed tit's nest, oval, beautifully made, with a tiny opening in the side, a cosy feather-and-moss-lined interior, and a clutch of tiny freckled eggs... O dear, I'm off down Memory Lane again. What I want to say is simply this, that collecting in childhood - which necessarily involves learning how animals behave, as well as handling and closely observing specimens - is the best possible basis for real knowledge and appreciation of nature, or at the very least for taking an interest in what is around us, for paying it due attention.

Friday 26 March 2010

'Here Rogers sat...'

I've written before about the pleasure of sitting in the dry in Holland Park and looking out at the rain. Earlier I was doing just that, from a comfortable bench in a south-facing alcove, enjoying the lusty singing of the blackbirds and robins all around. Over this bench is an elegantly lettered plaque bearing the couplet:
'Here Rogers sat, and here for ever dwell
With me those pleasures that he sings so well.'
Rogers? The only literary Rogers I know is the all but forgotten 19th-century poet Samuel Rogers - and surely that couplet sounds Augustan? But no, a little online research revealed that the lines were written by Lord Holland to commemorate his friend Samuel Rogers, the poet and conversationist who, it turns out, was a popular member of the Holland House set. Rogers was one of those figures who loom very large in their time, less for what they have written but for their conversation - Rogers' was sharp, fluent and witty, by all accounts - and their prodigious abilities as mixers. Rogers moved in the highest circles, both literary and social - the kind of man who knew everybody and was invited everywhere. Like T.S. Eliot (though in no other respect), he began as a banker before turning full time to the literary life. His greatest success was Italy: A Poem, a travelogue in verse which initially flopped, but which he cannily reissued with fine illustrations by Turner, Stothard and others - suddenly it was the book everyone had to have, if only on their coffee table. De luxe editions still fetch thousands of pounds in the antiquarian book market - for the binding and the pictures; nobody is interested in Rogers' all too perishable lines. Despite (or because of?) his limited gifts, he was, towards the end of his long life, offered the Laureateship - but, to his credit, turned it down in favour of Tennyson. Oddly, one line of his survives and thrives: it seems he originated 'To know her was to love her'. Thus something of Rogers lives on in countless funeral eulogies - and, with a slight adjustment of tense, in a Beatles song. And I have sat where Rogers sat...

Thursday 25 March 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful: Long-Tailed Tits

Lord, the changes I have seen... When it comes to the bird life of the London region, the changes over the five decades or so that I've been paying attention really have been dramatic. The most unexpected of the lot were the collared dove - an extremely rare vagrant in my early years - becoming a common garden bird, and the ring-necked parakeet, which really has no business thriving so conspicuously in the wild, passing rapidly from exciting novelty to raucous bullying pest. Most of the birds that have come in from the countryside (thanks to loss of habitat and the 'greening' of London) have been big - heron, kestrel, cormorant, egret - and, in the case of the jays and magpies, loud. However, among the incomers that were once seldom or never seen in town are the beautiful, heart-lifting goldfinches and the tiny long-tailed tits. Yesterday, walking past a Kensington front garden and hearing a faint twittering from within a fragrant Verbena bush, I stopped, and there - close enough to touch, and seemingly quite oblivious of my presence - were two long-tailed tits, busily pecking around in the branches. Paradoxically, it's when you see them close up that their tininess becomes most apparent - if it wasn't for their tails, they'd be the smallest British bird, smaller even than the goldcrest. And damn it, they're cute - with their little round bodies and long tails, they have the shape of miniature balls of wool with undersized knitting needles in them, and the roundness makes inconspicuous all the faintly sinister things about birds: the beaks, legs and feet. Their eyes, unlike many birds, have an apparently benign expression, and, like all the smaller tits, the longtails have a cheerful air about them. No doubt the reality of a long-tailed tit's struggle for existence is harsh enough, but to a human they unfailingly bring good cheer - and the closer you see them, the more cheering they are.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Not Reading the Papers

I seem to have given up reading newspapers again. This was less a conscious decision than a combination of circumstances somehow squeezing the newspaper-reading option out of my day-to-day life. I can't say that I feel any lack. In the days when I did read the papers diligently, I soon realised that almost nothing of what I'd read remained in my head the following day (or indeed hour) - it just briefly cluttered up my brain, then disappeared. Newspapers seem to me now such big, uninviting, time-devouring beasts - they ask too much, and why bother? Especially as most of what is in them is padding in various forms - the gist of most pieces can be gathered from headline and pull quote alone - and there is little writing in newspapers that is actually enjoyable to read. Much better and much pithier writing is to be found (surrounded, admittedly, by much dross) around the blogscape - and news, of course, is everywhere; the days are long gone when we needed newspapers for the first part of their name. Do we really need them for anything else? The number of people who do feel the compulsion to buy a paper regularly is clearly in decline, and the wood-pulp-based part of the newspaper industry is contracting (the only paper putting on substantial sales is a rag called The Daily Star, which consists largely of what are known in the trade as 'upskirt' photos - is this the future?). As far as I'm concerned, time spent reading the newspapers is time that could have been so much better spent reading something worthwhile, listening to music, writing something, taking a walk and looking around at the world, or staring vacantly into the middle distance.

Sunday 21 March 2010

First Butterfly - and Bullfinches

At last! Later than usual - thanks to this delayed spring and events conspiring to keep me indoors too much - I have seen my first butterfly of the year. It was, unsurprisingly, a Brimstone, and it delivered that unfailing thrill, never to be repeated until next spring, and that lift of the heart heralding the arrival of another butterfly season, with who knows what in store. Last year's was my best in a long time, with my species count (not that I'm that kind of spotter, not really) getting above 30, virtually all of them seen close to home. Today's glorious Brimstone, flying strongly but meanderingly, was the first of some half dozen. The sun was out, the sky enamel blue with a few bright white clouds, and I was on only my second visit of the year to my favourite piece of ancient oak common (Ashtead Common). The first thing I saw - even before the first Brimstone - was a Kestrel being chased away by a crow, and I kept encountering that same bird throughout my walk, perched on the lookout on the highest trees, hovering and circling, and finally, as I left, swooping onto some small prey in the grass with apparent success, though he took off empty-taloned. I saw nothing very unusual - being there was enough, walking in sun, stopping to absorb the beauty of clear spring light on the trunks of ancient oaks and on branches green and grey with lichen, and enjoying the first subtle colour changes of spring, the faint haziness and shimmer of distant trees in bud... I was enjoyably lost in an area of bracken and thorn and birch when I came across a party of four Bullfinches - two pairs (they're believed to pair for life) - and was inordinately excited, as I've seen very few in recent years. These strikingly beautiful birds used to be a common garden sight in my boyhood, though they were unpopular with gardeners who valued their fruit trees (the Bullfinches delight in stripping the flower buds). Now it is a different story, and across the country populations have plummeted... Readers of Hardy might recall that Mrs D'Urberville kept Bullfinches in the house, and one of Tess's duties was to whistle to them. They were popular pet songbirds, renowned as ready learners, good at picking up any tune around them - Tess was extending their repertoire, while they, for their part, were contributing their mite to the symbolism of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Friday 19 March 2010

Hilary Mantel in Arabia

Talking of Sons of the Prophet, I've been reading Hilary Mantel's Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, an early novel set in the desert dystopia of Jeddah. About a cartographer who joins her engineer husband working on contract in Saudi Arabia, it's a creepily effective thriller that sometimes strays a little close to genre territory, but has more than enough of that distinctive Mantel savour to lift it above the ordinary. It portrays Jeddah with memorable vividness as an oppressive suffocating city imbued with ever present menace - indeed as something not far short of hell on earth, a hell in which the only people worse than the expats are the locals. Mantel is unsparing in her depiction of the corruption, the hypocrisy, the brutality, the mendacity, the casual assumption of superiority of the Saudi top dogs. And as for their treatment of women... The novel was published in 1988, long before we were given urgent reasons to worry about Islamism, and seems presciently sensitive to currents that were then just beginning to flow. Since those days, the confidence and arrogance of the Saudis has only grown, and I suspect that, if a publisher were presented with a novel like this today, they would probably decline it, for fear of offending Saudi sensibilities. And the Saudis have a nasty habit of using the libel laws to get books withdrawn and pulped...Eight Months On Ghazzah Street is a real page turner - but most definitely not a book to cheer you up, or make you feel good about our friends in the gutrahs and thoubs. Hilary Mantel also wrote a Spectator piece about her experiences in Saudi Arabia, in which she says that 'when you come across an alien culture, you must not automatically respect it. You must sometime pay it the compliment of hating it.' Indeed.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Abdul Abulbul Amir

Strange the things that rattle around in a person's head. Today I found mine inhabited by Abdul Abulbul Amir - the full story is here, along with the words, which are rather good of their kind and go to the tune of, well, Abdul Abulbul Amir. The reason I know this song is that among the strange miscellany of books in my boyhood home was The Scottish Students' Song Book, a great favourite of my father's, though he had never been either Scottish or a student (still less a singer, but he enjoyed himself). In fact, the songbook ranges far beyond Scottish balladry and whimsy, taking in drinking songs (Down Among the Dead Men, Little Brown Jug, Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl and many more), negro spirituals (and unspirituals, like The Camptown Races), comic narratives (Riding Down From Bangor is another I recall), novelty singalongs like Funiculi Funicula, and the inevitable Gaudeamus Igitur (it is a students' songbook after all). It also contains some beautiful love songs - Drink to Me Only (words by Ben Jonson), Passing By (Herrick), My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose (ye ken who)... These are ones of which some fragment stays in my memory. Heaven knows what became of the book. I rather wish I still had it.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Duffy Earns Her Butt

When Carol Ann Duffy was named Poet Laureate, it seemed an odd appointment, not least because she is a pretty good (sometimes very good indeed) poet, and not exactly a comfortable establishment figure. I was expecting a sullen silence, punctuated occasionally by an outburst of barbed and disobliging verse - but no, she has proved amazingly prolific and responsive. Her latest is this prompt response to the latest crisis in the nation's life. Setting a current national hero in the Homeric tradition - this (if faintly absurd) seems to me just the kind of thing a Poet Laureate ought to be doing. Truly she is earning her butt of Malmsey (if that's the going rate for the job).

Starling and Windflowers

As I ate my lunchtime baguette on a bench in Kensington Gardens today, a flashy young starling flew down and stationed himself at my feet. Fixing me with a stern eye, he threw back his head and launched into an impromptu recital, a concert of piercing swooping whistles interspersed with chuntering trills. After several minutes of this virtuoso stuff (actually it was nothing to the starlings who haunted my boyhood back garden, giving convincing impressions of the telephone, the lawn mower and the guinea pig), he stopped and tilted his head towards me meaningfully. It was clear he had been singing for his supper, but I'm afraid I didn't oblige; if I had thrown him one crumb, the voracious tree rats would have been upon me and I wouldn't have had a moment's peace. The glossy starling flew off with only mild disappointment to slouch on a nearby tree branch... And then I noticed that the Wood Anemones were out - the blues, and a few white. Such a beautiful flower - I'm sure I must have blogged about it before... Oh yes, so I have.

Mysteries of the Modern World: The Double Is

That's the Double Is as in 'the reason is, is that...'. 'the thing is, is that...' Everybody's doing it, including broadcasters. Jeremy Bowen, that hireling of the Zionist lobby (hem hem), did it on the Today programme this morning, in the construction 'the reason is, though, is that...' Keep your ears cocked and you'll hear it several times a day - and it's only started happening recently. Why? I'd suggest that it's another semiconscious attempt to give a simple statement extra emphasis in a world that is full of noise of one kind and another, and where in everyday use words seem to be losing meaning and impact. This probably also explains the extraordinary increase in the use of 'strong language' (a telling term) in everyday discourse, even among the perfectly respectable, but especially in the public arena. As for the Double Is, perhaps it is also related to the fact that a generation brought up without formal lessons in grammar (or Latin) have little sense of the structure of language, of what the words they use are actually doing. Or perhaps the reason is, is that...

Monday 15 March 2010

Down Memory Lane with Nige

Talk of milk bottles and milkmen (did they really cry 'Milko'? They certainly whistled) over on Gaw's excellent blog put me in mind of my Lincolnshire grandmother. A highlight of her week (it was a quiet life) was the hebdomedal wrangle with her unfortunate milkman. Whatever sum this long-suffering soul billed her for the week's milk was invariably wrong by my grandmother's somewhat confused reckoning, and had to be wrangled over at great length, my grandmother sputtering the while with righteous indignation, the honest milko removing his pencil from behind his ear to run her through the figures repeatedly until eventually she had to concede that, yes, on this occasion he was perhaps right. As indeed he was on every other occasion he presented her with a bill...
Gaw appends a picture of old-fashioned milk bottles - which, as Sir Watkin points out, are not the real old-fashioned milk bottles but the newfangled stubby affairs that replaced them. The great thing about these newfangled stubbies was that, as well as being ugly, they made it all but impossible to pour a small quantity of milk, especially from a full bottle, without the stuff going everywhere. And this, in a clear proof of the conservative dictum that 'all change is for the worse', has been increasingly the case with each innovation in milk packaging, from ill-shapen, dribbling plastic bottles with their tiny ungrippable caps and fiddly stay-fresh foil to the all but unopenable cartons - don't get me started on cartons... The old, tall, elegant, wide-mouthed milk bottle was a design classic - pleasing to look at and handle, and a perfect pourer. Therefore it had to change. However, there's a related case where the reverse has happened and a design that is catastrophically unfit for purpose has remained unchanged down the decades - a case where change could only be for the better. The metal milk jugs and teapots that are standard in hotels and genteel tearooms seem designed specifically to do anything but pour. Squat and cumbersome, with no more than a tiny indentation in the forward edge by way of lip or spout, these come about as close to perfect uselessness as anything could while still claiming the identity of jug or teapot. What's worse, the handle and lid of the teapot are entirely uninsulated and can only be used with the hand protected by a napkin - a napkin that will soon, as like as not, be soaked in spilled tea/milk, as will everything in the vicinity. The fact that this design persists is truly a mystery, especially as, in such establishments, the coffee pots and chocolate pots are spouted and perfectly adequate. Oddly, I owe my extensive experience of these things largely to my Lincolnshire grandmother, with whom, in childhood, I sampled the delights of many a hushed tearoom in many a genteel hotel - but that's another story...

Sunday 14 March 2010


On an unpromising suburban side street near my home is a patch of rubbly derelict land awaiting 'development'. I always give it a look when I'm passing. In summer, when the buddleias and brambles that have invaded it are flowering, there are often butterflies feeding - peacocks, red admirals, meadow browns, speckled woods, whites, last year of course painted ladies. This morning as I passed, I noticed that a heap of dumped earth on the site was now overspread with speedwell, and it was already in flower! - a heart-lifting sight. Speedwell comes in many varieties, and I am not enough of a botanist to distinguish them, but the generic name is Veronica. Is this because of a perceived resemblance of the flowers' 'faces' to the image on the 'vernicle', the imprint of Jesus's face on the cloth given to him, according to pious legend, by St Veronica? The speedwell name apparently comes from the fact that travellers would wear a spring of it to speed their journey. And why not? But I left my little patch to thrive where it was, beautifying its little roadside spoilheap.


Sun at last! I've just been sitting in the garden feeling its warmth on my face - the first time this year, always a precious moment. The long-awaited spring is on its way - there might even be the odd butterfly out and about... After a Saturday spent sitting in trains and on hospital chairs, my feet - and my mind and spirit - are desperate to walk. I must get out. As Mick Jackson put it in the song so cruelly appropriated by five unrelated Jacksons, 'I just can't - i just can't - I just can't control my feet...'

Saturday 13 March 2010

Quote for the Day

'There is no being eloquent for atheism. In that exhausted receiver the mind cannot use its wings, - the clearest proof that it is out of its elenent.'
Augustus Hare, born on this day in 1834. One of those forgotten Victorians (though his travel books still turn up in second-hand bookshops). Some enterprising soul wrote his biography 20 years ago or so - I have it somewhere. Can I lay my hand on it? No I cannot...

Friday 12 March 2010

Fun With The Floyd

Two stories in the news today made me laugh. This one is just a classic (though it shouldn't hugely surprise anyone who's ever had a chat in the pub with a fireman). And then there’s Roger Waters’ prog rock hissy fit about single tracks from Pink Floyd 'concept albums' being downloaded as if they were, you know, just tracks off any old album, not a (drum roll please) concept album. This is all about money of course, but Roger and the boys have come up with this artistic defence in the latest leg of their ongoing struggle with EMI (yeah, stick it to The Man!) – a case, note, with such massive potential implications for national security that it was heard in camera. Get over yourself, Rog! Who – apart from a man insulated for decades from reality by vast quantities of money, adulation and impregnable self-importance – gives two hoots about 'concept albums' these days? They were one of the worst ideas (sorry, concepts) ever to occur to the drug-addled brain of a prog rock noodler. Their appeal at the time was strictly limited to navel-gazers with no sense of humour and too many drugs at their disposal. They were also the undoing of many a band, offering a slippery slope into absurdity that was altogether too tempting. For myself, my brief and faint interest in Pink Floyd, piqued by their early singles - quaint specimens of English psychedelia - was quenched altogether by the departure of Syd Barrett and the arrival of Dark Side Of The Moon. Funny, isn't it, how the Floyd didn't complain at the time about making big money and career breakthroughs by releasing singles? Rock 'n' roll!

Wednesday 10 March 2010


I don't want to turn this blog into a medical bulletin board - especially as the situation has been changing so much from day to day - but it looks as if my mother is now, amazingly, on the road to some kind of recovery. Despite early appearances (and diagnosis), she suffered only a minor stroke, and most of the damage was done by the blow to the head she took when it felled her (she was found semiconscious in a pool of blood). Now she appears to be returning from death's door to something like her old self, though still with much mental confusion. Our hope and prayer is that this recovery continues to the point where she can also return in due course to something like her old independent life. That would be some recovery...
Thank you again for all your kind messages. I hope I shan't have occasion to revert to this subject - and that I might soon return more actively to the wonderful world of the blogscape.

Friday 5 March 2010

The Rings of Saturn

I'd been meaning to read some W.G. Sebald for a while, partly because Patrick Kurp rates him highly, and our tastes seem to coincide to an almost uncanny degree. As it happened, a copy of The Rings Of Saturn arrived just before I got the news about my mother, so it has accompanied me through this (continuing) crisis, and will no doubt be for ever after associated in my mind with it. (By a similar, but happier, process, I often find that if I think back over places where I have holidayed, I remember immediately what I was reading - very often Saul Bellow. Humboldt's Gift in storm-lashed Positano, Augie March on Corfu, Herzog in Dieppe...). Reading Sebald has proved strangely consoling, the perfect distraction, escapism even. The Rings Of Saturn is a strange book, not in any conventional sense a novel. It has affinities with the kind of thing the great psychogeographer Iain Sinclair writes - if less convivial and fantastical than Sinclair. Dispensing with what he called the 'grinding noises' of the machinery of plot, Sebald provides no more in the way of structure than a walk, from Lowestoft to Norwich, undertaken by himself, or a version thereof, a self of whose outward circumstances we learn very little. Paul Klee described drawing as 'taking a line for a walk', and Sebald seems to be doing something similar, expect that the line - and indeed the walk - are only intermittently discernible. What is happening is essentially a mental journey, formed of digressions and allusions growing out of each other, taking in such topics as silkworm breeding, herring fishing, Croatian wartime atrocities and the October hurricane (a brilliantly vivid description). The book is peopled with exiles - Conrad, Chateaubriand, Michael Hamburger - and the self-exiled - Swinburne, Edward FitzGerald, various reclusive eccentrics in country houses. The pervasive figure of Sir Thomas Browne, another East Anglian, tops and tails the book. For a lover of digressive and miscelleneous literature - Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne's Essays, Sir Thomas Browne indeed - this is irresistible stuff. What The Rings Of Saturn adds up to - apart from a deeply satisfying reading experience - is hard to say, but it is full of facts (with some errors - deliberate?) and wonders, superb descriptive writing, keen insights and a strong sense both of place and of history. Like Sinclair in London Orbital, Sebald catches what it's actually like to walk around in the marginal, strange, overlooked places of modern Britain, and always sees the past glimmering darkly behind the present. I shall be reading more of him - in happier circumstances, I hope.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Thank You So Much...

for all your kind and generous messages, which have been deeply touching and sustaining. I might well be posting off and on; in the darkest times, as Wordsworth discovered, a person can be surprised by joy - and you never know if a Mitcham Cabbage might be round the next corner...

Tuesday 2 March 2010


I'm sorry to say I'm unlikely to be blogging much over the next week or so. My dear mother - until Sunday a very active and fully independent 88-year-old - suffered a double stroke on that day, and is in hospital, in a very bad way. We await developments and, to be honest, pray for her release, as she could not bear to live with the degree of impairment and dependence that would inevitably follow this.