Saturday 31 July 2010

History on the Face of the Land

Tell someone you're going walking in Leicestershire and chances are you'll be greeted by a blank bewildered look, or the bald question 'Why?' In fact, Leicestershire has some of the best walking country in England - and yesterday I was there, in the countryside east of Leicester, amid wide open views, rolling hills, hedgerowed pastures grazed by sheep and cattle, patches of woodland (mostly coverts for foxes - this is Quorn country), little stone-built villages of understated charm with sturdy spired churches, and otherwise, as far as the blue hilly horizon, little or no evidence of human habitation. Beautiful walking country, and - what gives walking in these parts of Leicestershire its special feeling - country with its history still written on the face of the land. Everywhere is evidence of the medieval past, in the form of the distinctive ridge and furrow pattern (as in the picture) left by generations of ploughing, and - most dramatically - the outlines and 'humps and tumps' of deserted medieval villages. In the most remarkable DMVs (as historians call them), such as Ingarsby, the hollow ways that were the village's streets can still be walked, between raised areas where the houses were - even the site of a mill can still be made out, and nearby a motte and bailey castle and the moat of the old manor, the one house of the medieval village that is still standing. Villages were deserted for various reasons - epidemic disease reducing population below viable levels, marginal sites proving unsustainable, loss of crops causing famine - life was hard, and people more mobile than we commonly think - but Ingarsby is a classic case of 15th-century enclosure driving the population off the land. Those sheep pastures, so peaceful and picturesque today, represented the end of village life for the inhabitants of Ingarsby and many another village, at a time when, in Thomas More's phrase, sheep ate men. While the sheep barons grew fat in their big houses (and indeed abbeys - it was Leicester Abbey that enclosed this land), those who had once lived off the land around were evicted and thrown on their own meagre resources, many becoming beggars, many dying of disease and want. To walk amid the remnants of their village life - which survive only because the heavy land has remained as unploughed pasture - is a poignant reminder of a historical experience that resonated for centuries, continuing in different forms (read John Clare!) and still feeds into the unique English relationship with the countryside, into that faint unease behind our enjoyment of it, a sense of brutal disruption, shameful appropriation, of something lost beyond recall.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Vet's Daughter

And still they keep on coming - those women novelists (I promise I'll read a man one day...). I had never heard of Barbara Comyns, a bohemian type who mixed with the (appalling) likes of Dylan Thomas and Augustus John, lived a rackety life, ended up married to a pal of Kim Philby's, spent many years in Spain, and along the way managed to write a string of novels which are highly regarded by, shall we say, a select few. I've just finished reading the one regarded as her best (it was even turned into a musical by Sandy Wilson - a mind-boggling thought) - The Vet's Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, with a new introduction that no one bothered to proofread). It is an extraordinary work, very individual in style and quirky in outlook - Comyns has been described as 'Beryl Bainbridge on acid' - and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. The first paragraph gives a good idea of the book's world and Comyns's style:
'A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that was what he seemed to need me to say, and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn knee-caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet's house with a lamp outside. I said 'You must excuse me' and left this poor man among the privet hedges.'
And that is the last we see of the man with the ginger moustache until he makes a mysterious reappearance at the very end of the story. In the meanwhile we are taken into the house of her father the vet, a drunken brute who has subdued his wife and daughter by violence and terror. Life becomes increasingly intolerable for the vet's daughter, until the opportunity for escape emerges and is taken - but then things take several unexpected turns, building up to a very strange and enigmatic climax, by which time it almost seems the tale has strayed into (aargh) 'magical realism'...
Barbara Comyns came recommended by the owner of this fine bookshop, and as it happens I was in his shop again yesterday with my Derbyshire cousin. I had only finished The Vet's Daughter on the train up and we talked about it briefly before I fell to browsing those well-stocked shelves. He characterised the book as 'English Gothic', and I think that's dead right - it's a rare example of 20th-century English Gothic, perhaps a kind of secular and very English equivalent of Flannery O'Connor. It represents a cast of imagination and a freedom of resource that seldom turn up in English fiction - even among women novelists.

Monday 26 July 2010

Enter The Room

I am indebted to Mike in New Zealand for alerting me to the existence of this prime contender for the title Worst Movie Ever Made. I'd never heard of it before, but Wikipedia capably outlines the full fascinating story of The Room and its creator, Tommy Wiseau. The many clips of YouTube more than live up to the trailer (the roof scene 'Oh hi Mark' is especially choice). I'm sorry that Wiseau has taken to claiming the film was intended as a black comedy, as there was clearly no such intention. It stands as a telling example of what can happen when a subtantial sum of money and a movie camera (in Wiseau's case two, just to be on the safe side) fall into the hands of a man of boundless ego, raging artistic ambition and zero ability. I remember years ago sitting in some little arthouse cinema and enduring another vanity project, Chappaqua, in which one Conrad Rooks explored his drug experiences in gruellingly psychedelic style, while the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsgerg, Moondog and indeed The Fugs, pop up in mystifying cameos. The score was pretty much what you'd expect of a co-composition by Ravi Shankar and Phillip Glass, both of whom no doubt lost no time in deleting it from their CVs. What's more,their score replaced the one Rooks had originally commissioned - an ear-bleeding sonic onslaught by Ornette Coleman, The Chappaqua Suite. Like The Room, Chappaqua is classified as a 'cult' - but by golly it isn't half as much fun as Tommy Wiseau's effort.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Chalkhill Blues

Well I woke up this mornin'
Butterflies on my mind.
Yeah I woke up this mornin'
With butterflies on my mind.
Had to get me to them chalkhills
An' see what I could find.

I got those chalkhill blues,
Buggin' me both night and day.
I got those chalkhill blues,
They're a buggin' me night and day.
Got to get me to them chalkhills
An' chase those blues away.

Well I went down to the chalkhills,
I had no time to lose.
Yeah I went down to the chalkhills,
You know I had no time to lose.
But when I got me to them chalkhills,
All I found was blues.

I got those chalkhill blues,
etc, etc.

Jersey Tiger

Dusk in the garden. I was sitting enjoying the peace and the distant screams of swifts high above, when a moth flew distractedly by and settled, wings folded, on a clematis shoot just above and on the other side of the boundary fence. In flight this moth had seemed an orange blur, so I thought it must be one of the Underwing tribe, whose drab forewings and brightly coloured hindwings create a similar effect - but once settled, there was no mistaking this tiger-striped beauty. It was a tiger moth - specifically a Jersey Tiger moth. Once a Channel Islands speciality, the Jersey Tiger has in recent years spread along the south coast, and, for reasons unknown, into parts of London. Including, it would seem, my own, though I'd never spotted one before. As the Jersey Tiger flies by day as well as night, I shall keep my eyes peeled.

Friday 23 July 2010

Born on This Day...

... in 1777, the mystically inclined Romantic artist, colour theorist and friend of Goethe, Philipp Otto Runge. His work - especially his painting of The Hulsenbeck Children (above) - obviously had a huge influence on the very strange and beautiful illustrations in Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. Haunting's the word...

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Memento Mori

The novels of Muriel Spark that most frequently turn up in charity shops are The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington and Territorial Rights. This anyway is my conclusion after years spent scanning the shelves on the lookout for one I hadn't read and which I knew by repute as an early masterpiece and perhaps her best novel, Memento Mori (1959). Finally, in a Kensington charity shop a couple of weeks ago, I found it (in a recent Penguin paperback which appears to be a fascimile of the 1961 Penguin in a new jacket), and was able to confirm for myself that it is indeed an early m and perhaps too her best n. It is an extraordinary book, entirely about death and yet utterly exhilarating and extremely funny (Chapter Three's account of the funeral of Lisa Brooke had me all but rolling on the floor). In the compass of a short novel, Spark assembles a large cast of characters - some vile, others delightful, each of them deftly individuated and entirely convincing - and sets spinning an elaborately complex plot composed of mysterious phone calls, long concealed secrets, old enmities and grudges, blackmail, intrigue and even murder, the whole thing perfectly organised and held together by an impersonal but omniscient narrator. It's at once defiantly old-fashioned and unmistakably modern, even postmodern - and all brilliantly, effortlessly done, with not a word wasted. And of course everybody dies... I'm glad I found it at last.


My cousin sent me a link to this beautiful surprise, which I pass on in the interest of spreading a little happiness (it certainly worked on me). I wonder if Frank Wilson was there when the music started...

Monday 19 July 2010


The myrtle bushes are in full flower now - beautiful flowers, with their grand ruff of anthers, gold against white. There are some fine specimens in the gardens of Kensington, and as I passed one this morning, the opening lines of Browning's The Patriot came into my head. Roses and myrtle - both sacred to Aphrodite - is the poet hinting here at the amatory rewards of being a public hero? Or was it just the music of the word 'myrtle' that attracted him? A fine poem anyway...


It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad:
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had,
A year ago on this very day.


The air broke into a mist with bells,
The old walls rocked with the crowd and cries.
Had I said, ``Good folk, mere noise repels---
But give me your sun from yonder skies!''
They had answered, ``And afterward, what else?''


Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun
To give it my loving friends to keep!
Nought man could do, have I left undone:
And you see my harvest, what I reap
This very day, now a year is run.


There's nobody on the house-tops now---
Just a palsied few at the windows set;
For the best of the sight is, all allow,
At the Shambles' Gate---or, better yet,
By the very scaffold's foot, I trow.


I go in the rain, and, more than needs,
A rope cuts both my wrists behind;
And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds,
For they fling, whoever has a mind,
Stones at me for my year's misdeeds.


Thus I entered, and thus I go!
In triumphs, people have dropped down dead.
``Paid by the world, what dost thou owe
``Me?''---God might question; now instead,
'Tis God shall repay: I am safer so.


So the government has decided not to ban the burka, on the grounds that to do so would be 'rather unBritish'. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this (and there might have been a case for a ban on security/crime prevention grounds - after all, one of the 7/7 bombers fled the country in a burka), isn't it good to see the word 'rather' restored to our public discourse? Can you imagine the adamantine absolutist Broon or any of his lot qualifying any judgment with the very English, understated qualifier 'rather'? Sometimes I rather like the cut of this government's jib.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Gilbert White

Today is the 290th birthday of the great ornithologist, tortoise-lover and hirundophile Gilbert White. I recently read Richard Mabey's biographical account of him, a book which manages to create a convincing picture of the man despite a lack of much standard biographical material - but which really comes alive when Mabey is on the ground, exploring White's remarkably unchanged Selborne terroir (a usefully all-encompassing French word, that - a pity about its pretentious wine-snob associations - we need an English equivalent) and when he is sharing in White's tender loving pleasure in the swallows, swifts and martins whose comings and goings fascinated and enchanted him all his life. The epigraph to Mabey's book is this:
'The language of birds is very ancient and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant and understood.'
Wise words and true.


Events having again prevented me from escaping to my country haunts yesterday, I made do with a stroll around the 'village', hoping, as the sun was intermittently out, that I might spot the odd butterfly. In particular, I was keen to see some of those cheery little July fliers with the beady eyespots, the Gatekeepers. I wandered into the grounds of the local 'Ecology Centre', enjoyed a Red Admiral nectaring on Buddleia, then, turning to the patch of meadow-like grassland behind me, I realised, with a start of joy, that it was alive with butterflies - not only Meadow Browns but beautiful dark Ringlets in large numbers. I waded in the grass for some while, as people walked to and fro on the path, bearing plates of cakes and goodies to the Fair that was going on elsewhere in the grounds. Nobody seemed to be noticing the butterflies, but that's usually the way. Around the corner from the 'meadow' is the consciously-created 'Butterfly Garden', where straight away I was inspected by Speckled Woods, bombed by a pair of Commas and bamboozled by a fast-flying Peacock - but the real joy was yet to come. The clumps of Wild Marjoram, flowering profusely, were surrounded by orange-and-brown clouds of Gatekeepers - feeding, fighting, mating, or just fluttering feebly from plant to plant, there they were, in astonishing numbers for what is in reality not countryside but a small oasis in suburbia. It's a heartening demonstration of what can be done with a little effort in the way of habitat adaptation. With a few Holly Blues and a Small Skipper also spotted (and Whites Small and Large) this amounted to 11 species seen in one short stroll in suburbia. Ah but those Gatekeepers - they lifted the heart...

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Tuli, Madly, Deeply

Yesterday's news of the death of Tuli Kupferberg (hat tip Frank Wilson) - at an amazing age, given his excesses and self-destructive moments - took me back to a time, many years ago, when I would seek out (and they took some seeking out) and buy albums by his 'band', The Fugs. Nothing else offered quite such a pungent mix of fun and filth, scabrous satire, Blakean lyricism, scholarly wit and drug-fuelled craziness. I still have their splendidly titled gatefold album It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest, the Fugs' most expensive (i.e. least cheap), most musically accomplished (i.e. least completely shambolic) album. The tracks range from a blast of acid rock (Crystal Liaison) to strange and sweet lyrics (Rameses II Is Dead My Love, Burial Waltz, When the Mode of the Music Changes), chants and spoken word gags - including a haiku joke - and a track titled Claude Pelieu and J.J. Lebel Discuss the Early Verlaine Bread Crust Fragments (don't ask). I haven't listened to it in years, and most likely never will again, but for some reason I hang on to it still. They don't make them like that any more - and they don't make them like Tuli Kupferberg any more.
I also have a book that he co-compiled with his wife Sylvia Topp, called As They Were. It's a collection of strangely haunting and revealing photographs of famous people as children - no commentary, but none is needed. Once seen, the picture of Hitler as an infant is never forgotten.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Raining Rabbis

I stepped out onto Kensington High Street at lunchtime and it was raining rabbis - well, they might not have been rabbis, but they were all in that 18th-century black-coat-and-homburg outfit (not a good look - flowing robes, with equally flowing locks and beards, would be much more impressive). They were everywhere, but most concentrated behind a flimsy crash barrier as near as the cops allow to the Israeli Embassy - yes, they were protesting against Israel, which, their placards declared, is not a Jewish state but a Zionist state, is anti-Torah, therefore anti-Jewish, therefore should be done away with. Funny old world.


Oddly - synchronistically? - just after publishing the post below, I was idly scanning Saturday's Telegraph Review and came across this. Clearly David Miller also believes that for several decades our women novelists have made a far better fist of things than the men, but he sees it, interestingly, in terms of the women reflecting larger horrors in the outside world 'so much better than the men'. Why so much better? Perhaps because they have reflected those horrors with subtlety, delicacy and (often) humour, unlike such clodhopping 'great writers' as, say, Ian McEwan.

Monday 12 July 2010

Kay Ryan's Ladder

Brit remarks under Another Good Writer Gone (below) that I read an awful lot of female novelists. It hadn't really occurred to me, but of course he's right - I do (indeed, I'm reading another right now, catching up with one of Muriel Spark's, of which perhaps more when I've finished it). Why? It's certainly nothing programmatic - it's just that (as it seems to me) for several decades now, so many of the best novelists, especially in England, have been women. I don't know why this is - perhaps the shaping of the novel by Jane Austen and Henry James somehow 'feminised' it, playing to the traditional strengths of women rather than men - psychological and emotional insight, fascination with nuances of behaviour and dialogue - or is that all stereotypical (after all James was a man)? Anyway, I realise that my predilection for female writers also extends to poetry - at least American poetry, where my recent reading has involved Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, and another poet I discovered (like so much else for which I'm grateful) by way of Anecdotal Evidence: Kay Ryan, who recently served a stint as America's poet laureate. Here is one of hers which I keep going back to and which seems to me a marvel of compressed wisdom and perfect placing of words...

Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

So simple, so true - and so in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Painting the Clouds

I caught some of Radio 4's adaptation of Wodehouse's Summer Lightning last night - good stuff, though not a patch on the book (without the authorial tone of voice so much is lost). The music sounded familiar... Of course! It was this joyously catchy number. Perfect - all together now: When I pretend I'm gay, I never feel that way...

Blanco White: One Sonnet

One of poetry's one-hit wonders was born on this day in 1775 - Joseph Blanco White (aka Jose Maria Blanco Crespo). Born in Seville, he was intended for the priesthood and got as far as ordination before religious doubts led him to exile himself in the more accommodating atmosphere of England, where he became a Unitarian and drifted into the arms of the dear old Church of England. A friend of Thomas Arnold and Newman, among others, he published various works of theology and travel which did well enough in their time. However, it was one sonnet - described by Coleridge, its dedicatee, as 'the most grandly conceived sonnet in the language' - that ensured his name would live, if only in anthologies of English poetry. The sonnet, variously titled Night and Death or To Night, is indeed quite overpoweringly grand for a sonnet, and extraordinarily smooth, harmonious and symmmetrical. It's still impressive - but would you read it again? Not very often, I surmise...

Saturday 10 July 2010


Life being especially demanding at the moment, my outdoor world has for most of the time shrunk to one of streets, parks and gardens, and in that urban/suburban outdoors butterflies have been disappointingly few. Compared to the great Painted Lady Summer of last year, this has been - despite plenty of warm sunny weather - a poor one for us frustrated butterfly spotters (though it's good to see that the Small Tortoiseshell seems to be staging a comeback). I was sitting in the garden this morning, idly musing along these lines, when something caught my eye, flying down to a sunny patch of parched lawn. A Comma? No, too big. Far too big. As it settled, and the sunlight shone through its unmistakably patterned wings (fritillaria, a dicebox), I realised - this was, unbelievably, a Silverwashed Fritillary! The subtle colouring of the wings showed it to be a female - and she had landed in my garden, miles surely from her usual haunts. Unfortunately she had settled close to the cat, who took an ill-intentioned lunge at her. Effortlessly eluding this, the fine fritillary rose with a few powerful wing strokes and was gone, leaving me agasp. A Silverwashed Fritillary! In the garden! These are the days of miracles and wonders. I blame global warming.

Thursday 8 July 2010

A Tiger-Lily and a Rose

There were rather few volumes of poetry on the bookshelves of my childhood home - I remember an early Golden Treasury, a big Victorian edition of Longfellow with grandiose line engravings, an anthology of stirring verse for boys called Lyra Heroica (edited by W.E. Henley, author of Invictus, friend of RLS and peg-legged model for Long John Silver), and a small volume bound in blue cloth that probably had more effect on my embryonic taste in verse than any. It was a joint anthology of Tennyson and Browning, 'contrasted by Guy Boas', who also supplies a slightly precious Introduction, beginning 'To put a tiger-lily and a rose into the same vase does not make harmony, but it arrests attention...' The collection, with fine frontispiece portraits of the two poets - Tennyson young and beardless, Browning with a chin pelmet of silky beard - was first published in 1925, but was clearly a big success, on its 17th printing by 1949, the date of my copy. I wonder if anyone reading this also has it? I have a friend who grew up with it in the house... With the poems crammed tight into its 250-odd pages, Tennyson and Browning really is a very serviceable anthology of both poets' work. As a child what I took from it was chiefly the bounce and excitement of the lighter Browning poems (the volume opens with How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix) and the mighty music of Tennyson's sonorous lines. In fact, though many of the poems as a whole were then impenetrable to me - how could a child understand My Last Duchess or Andrea del Sarto, Oenone or Maud? - it was the music of both poets that came through and no doubt wove itself into the rhythms and cadences in my head. That small volume also inspired in me a strange precocious obsession with In Memoriam, which I even attempted to learn by heart. When In Memoriam was first published, anonymously, one review was a particularly fine example of critical acumen: 'These touching lines,' the reviewer declared confidently, 'evidently come from the full heart of the widow of a military man.' Evidently.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Happy Birthday, Ringo

The Beatles having proverbially set about dying in the wrong order, Ringo Starr - arguably the luckiest drummer in history - today celebrates his 70th birthday. It seems improbable and jarring (rather like the obligatory Ringo track on a Beatles LP), but it's a fact - and soon a swarm of pop and rock stars will be hitting the big 7-0, Ringo's somewhat more accomplished fellow drummer Charlie Watts for one (next June, shortly after Bob Dylan in May). Oddly, today is also the 69th birthday of two notables - Michael 'something of the night' Howard and Bill 'something of the nut' Oddie, who was to comedy roughly what Ringo was to music, but who, since moving into wildlife TV, has never looked back. In 1970 Oddie released a single of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'At, sung in the style of Joe Cocker's With A Little Help From My Friends - a song originally performed, in a style all his own, by Ringo Starr. Why did Joe Cocker ever think he could better that?

Friday 2 July 2010

Another Good Writer Gone

The death of Beryl Bainbridge is sad news - a nice appreciation here. The smoking finally caught up with her, I suppose - after she'd given up - as with all those lifelong drunks who suddenly keel over the minute they foreswear the sauce. Another good - really good - writer gone, and one who never took herself too seriously. That she never won the Booker is more a recommendation than anything (Penelope Fitzgerald inadvertently won it one year, but that doesn't make her a lesser writer). It was pleasing to see how much time the BBC News devoted to her death. A pity the clunking obit credited her with a novel called The Bottle Opening Factory. She'd have laughed though.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Apologies and Rewards

Apologies for the scant blogging - a combination of summer torpor (my brain's inclined to estivate) and the latest crisis in the ongoing saga of my mother's health, or rather her old age. As a result of the latter, I was called away to the Bucks-Oxon border yesterday to look after her overnight. While there, I was rewarded, at 5 o'clock this morning, by one of the most breathtakingly beautiful morning skies I have ever seen, and, a little later, on the platform of a commuter station, by the sight of a Marbled White butterfly. Life, that wondrous mysterious surprising thing, goes on. Of course.