Monday 28 February 2011

A Violet Picture

In London the last day of February is one of dank, bone-chilling cold and leaden (if not charcoal) skies. Utterly cheerless. But yesterday, in a brief interlude of sun, I saw the first violets of the year, a couple of small patches of them, just in full flower, growing in the grass under a tree in a local front garden. Utterly cheering. So here's a violet picture to lift the spirits and reassure us that, despite all appearances, spring is on its way.

Sunday 27 February 2011

John Steinbeck, 109 Today

How many of our earliest literary enthusiasms stay with us? I think very few in my case (Samuel Beckett among the handful). One early passion that definitely fell by the wayside was my love of John Steinbeck - born on this day in 1902. Fired by a first reading of Of Mice and Men at about the age of 14, I sought out all I could find of Steinbeck, reading my way through The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, In Dubious Battle, Sweet Thursday and the rest, my enthusiasm rarely flagging. I still remember the thrill of finding Travels with Charley in a small display of paperbacks in a back-street newsagent's shop... Even early in my period of Steinbeck mania, I never felt the urge (as I did with others) to reread and reread - a suggestion that the passion was shallow-rooted - and certainly, as the years passed, I never thought of revisiting Steinbeck. I doubt I would find much to my taste if I did (perhaps Of Mice and Men stands up - but the longer works, would they be worth the effort?). But I like to think that everything I've read has somehow fed into something somewhere in me, hopefully to good effect, and that nothing in the complex ecosystem of our reading selves goes entirely to waste. So hats off to the birthday boy - he gave me a lot of pleasure and excitement. At the time.

Friday 25 February 2011

Work, Sleep and Bicycles

They're at it again - trying to measure our happiness - an endeavour based in the utilitarian thinking of Bentham and Mill, though the utilitarians never got very far with it, and what they meant by happiness was probably closer to well-being. Asking that question 'Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?' seems unlikely to yield any very useful results, but it's interesting to read Mark Easton's piece with its splendid graphs, all seeming to establish that being in work (with a short commute), getting plenty of sleep and riding a bicycle are the keys to happiness. (Similar methods, I believe, can show that having religious belief correlates strongly with happiness, as does being married.) I suppose I'd agree with work and sleep - work in the broadest sense that is, incorporating much more of what we do in our lives than our paid employment. Sleep or the lack of it certainly has a huge impact on state of mind, but it's hard to see how the state could do much about insomnia. For myself, I'd opt not for cycling but for walking. This seems to me the activity most conducive both to well-being (physical and mental) and to happiness - and it's a whole lot safer than riding a bike to work. So Work, Sleep and a Pair of Feet will do me.

A Chapter of Holmes

I'm reading Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. It is indeed a wonderful book, fully deserving of the praises that have been lavished on it (here's one of several Patrick Kurp posts on it). With his fluent style, eye for the telling detail and lightly worn mastery of both the literary and scientific/philosophical aspects of his subject, Holmes is, as ever, a joy to read. And a particular beauty of The Age of Wonder, for me, is that it lends itself perfectly to my reading pattern. Most of my reading, I suppose, is fiction, but when I finish one novel, I like to read something in the non-fiction line before the next (going straight from one novel to another can be jarring - and sometimes invidious either to one or other of the novels). The long, rich chapters of The Age of Wonder - each almost a short book in itself - are perfect for this purpose. So, after finishing Masters of Atlantis - a hard act to follow if ever there was one - I've been reading the second of Holmes's two chapters on the great astronomer William Herschel and his gifted sister Caroline, about both of whom I previously knew next to nothing. Now, such are Holmes's powers, I feel almost as if I know them personally, and I feel enriched for it - and, now, ready for the next novel.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Bright Star

It was on this day in 1821 that John Keats died in Rome, with Joseph Severn at his side. Rather than rehearse that heartbreaking scene, I'll mark the day with the last poem he completed, the finished version of which was in the volume of Shakespeare's poems he took with him to Italy.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever-or else swoon to death.

By chance, in my reading of Keats's letters the other day, I came across the seed from which that great sonnet grew. In 1818, on his walking tour of the Lake District, he writes how the lakeland scenery 'refines one's sensual vision into a sort of North star which can never cease to be open-lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power'...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Odd Birds

Well, despite my best efforts to put off the day when I came to the last page, I have finished Charles Portis's Masters Of Atlantis (as mentioned in Sax Rohmer... below), and I can confirm that it is indeed the funniest book (new to me) that I've read in many years - so funny that it's had me laughing aloud in public and private places, and urging everyone I know to read it. It's hardly a 'comic novel' in the conventional sense: there is no striving after comic effects, and the setting up of comic situations is so subtly done as to be unnoticeable. The actions and thoughts of the deluded protagonists are to them perfectly serious, and Portis tells it straight, describing what is going on in impeccably deadpan tones. The thing is that what these people are doing and thinking happens to be inherently very funny, and need only be described in Portis's spare, dry, perfectly judged language - and wonderfully sharp dialogue - to become comedy.
Masters of Atlantis tells how Lamar Jimmerson, stationed in France at the end of the Great War, finds himself in possession of a booklet that he takes to be a summation of the lost wisdom of Atlantis. It has come to him, he believes, from one Pletho Pappus, Master of the Gnomon Society - though his efforts to find Pletho on the island of Malta and make himself known to him by various signs come to nothing. It is on Malta, though, that he crosses the path of Sydney Hen, an English aesthete, who pounces eagerly on the Ancient Wisdom, and is clearly bent on dominating the long-suffering Jimmerson. The seeds of the inevitable great schism in Gnomonism are already being sown....
What follows tells mostly of Jimmerson's establishment of a thriving (for a while) Gnomon Society in America - an endeavour in which he is much assisted by the silver-tongued bull artist Austin Popper, a man with a remarkable ability both to get into scrapes and to talk himself out of them (or, in extremis, take to his heels). He is the agent of motion in the narrative, in contrast to the increasingly torpid Jimmerson, and Popper's adventures give the novel much of its forward momentum - his spell in the Rockies with a Romanian crackpot called Golescu, attempting to extract gold from bagweed, is particularly rich in comic incident. But enough. Perhaps the best thing would be to offer a sample paragraph - here's one from early in the story, when Jimmerson and a go-ahead fellow Gnomon, Bates, are looking to extend the reach of their glorious movement:
'Bates too pitched in anew. Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales Inc, he got his hands on a mailing list titled 'Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana', which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean wisdom than the general run of men. Lamar was a little surprised to find his own name on the list. It was given as 'Mr Jimmerson'. His gossiping neighbours in Skokie, it seemed, had put him down as an odd bird. They had observed him going into his garage at night in a pointed cap and had speculated that he was building a small flying machine behind those locked doors, or pottering around with a toy railroad or a giant ball of twine.'
The pointed cap, by the way, is the Poma, a conical cap denoting high Gnomon authority. Even at the end, when the Gnomon Society is sadly reduced, Jimmerson is still wearing his increasingly moth-eaten Poma - and 'Still the eye was drawn to it'.

Friday 18 February 2011

Ball Feels the Heat

One of the reasons I've been sceptical about anthropogenic climate change from the get-go is that to me it's always reeked of 'spilt religion'. It felt less like the conclusion of reasoned inquiry than a body of unshakable belief - faith indeed - and a badge of identity, coming complete with a readymade narrative of impending apocalypse and of sinful man in need of atonement, a readymade apparatus of ritual (recycling etc) and symbolism (rooftop turbines etc) and a readymade way of dividing Good from Evil - everything in fact to satisfy man's unquenchable need for a religion. It soon became apparent too that its adherents were capable of behaving less like rational inquirers and more like religious enthusiasts, pouncing on heresy (i.e. dissent) with hysterical mob fury. The latest victim is, of all people, Johnny Ball. If the enforcers can persecute a children's entertainer (and gifted educator) like this, it's no wonder scientists are reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet. What kind of science is it that feels the need to harry and silence all who object to it? It looks far more like something from the dark days of religious persecution - a witch hunt indeed...

Butterflies: Sadly Missed

Gaw - of Ragbag and The Dabbler - brightened my day yesterday by sending me this lovely account of an early spring walk in Bow Cemetery - a place I didn't even know existed, but which I clearly must visit; it even seems to have its own microclimate... Scroll down through those beautiful photographs of early flowers and lichened tombstones, and near the bottom is a Red Admiral basking on a broken stone - 'Sadly missed' indeed. I have yet to see a butterfly this year, and I have been missing them and yearning for their return more than ever. Partly this is because my recent bedside reading included Patrick Barkham's wonderful The Butterfly Isles (spoilt only by poor proof-reading and the odd lapse into journalese). This account of a summer, spring and autumn spent in search of all 59 butterfly species of the British Isles is suffused with love and enchantment, while also remarkably honest about the pains and tribulations of the quest. Some lepidopterists tick off all 59 species every year, as a kind of five-finger exercise, but their attitude seems more like that of the 'twitcher' than the true amateur - the butterfly lover. Barkham is most definitely a lover, and the enthusiasm is infectious. As is the frustration that goes with it as February continues grey and cold and butterflyless - so it was a joy to read of that glorious piece of butterfly magic in Bow cemetery.
Incidentally, the Red Admiral, a hibernator, now overwinters in large numbers and is seen by some lucky soul in every month of the year - indeed there was one recent year when it was seen somewhere in Britain on every day of the 365. My own most unexpected sighting was a few years ago, in a shop window in Lille in January. In the dazzling electric light, a fine Red Admiral was careering sleepily about, to the amazement of all. 'Alors - un papillon!'

Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Voice of the Turtle

Hilarious scenes are unfolding in Chipping Norton where an-ultra-rare sighting of an Oriental Turtledove in a back garden has sparked twitching frenzy among the anorak-and-bins brigade. Ignoring Jeremiah's strictures - 'Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming' - this unfortunate bird has found itself decidedly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's hope the poor thing continues to elude the twitching throng and survives the cold.
I remember Turtledoves - the non-Oriental kind - from boyhood summers, especially on the wooded cliffs at Folkestone, but I haven't seen one in England for years, nor heard that sweet soothing song... 'For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.'
How far the frenzy in Chipping Norton seems from the poetry and beauty of the turtledove.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Sax Rohmer, the Golden Dawn and Atlantis

Sax Rohmer - a writer who knew how to look the part - was born (under the more prosaic name of Arthur Ward) on this day in 1883. Scanning his Wikipedia entry, I note that the prolific creator of Dr Fu Manchu was (or was not - ever the man of mystery) a member of some branch of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Following the link to that fissile Order - of which, famously, Yeats was a member (he was, as Auden put it, 'silly like us') - I found a fine comic narrative of absurdity, delusion, squabbles and double-crosses. It gets funnier as it goes on, especially from the Golden Age section onwards. 'The Bradford and Weston-super-Mare temples remained loyal to him, but their numbers were few...' - and how wonderful that the last active temple was in New Zealand... Reading about the Golden Dawn chimed nicely with the novel I am enjoying at the moment - Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the occult Gnomon Society of America. I intend to report more fully when I've finished reading it, but it could be a while - Masters of Atlantis is so funny that I keep reading sections over again and slowing down the better to savour Portis's exquisite deadpan comedy. I think it's the funniest book I've read in many years.

Friday 11 February 2011

Two Hoots

The other morning, listening to the pre-dawn birdsong - which is getting livelier by the day (yes, spring is coming) - I was cheered to hear a couple of tentative hoots from a passing Tawny Owl. Not so long ago, this used to be a commonplace sound of the suburban night; now I rarely hear it - still less the eerie screech of the Barn Owl. In my boyhood there were Tawny Owls resident in every local park and spinney, and Barn Owls in the larger ones, their ghostly forms gliding by at dusk an unfailingly thrilling sight. A little further out towards the country, there were Little Owls to be seen too - those small diurnal owls that are the original owl of Athena/Minerva. I haven't seen one locally in years - nor have I seen a Barn Owl. I wonder why owls - suburban owls at least - have fared so badly in recent years. Other raptors seem to have thrived, with kestrels now commonplace, sparrowhawks very numerous, and even buzzards flyling over the wilder parts of Surrey - red kites will surely be next on the scene. Perhaps the owls are essentially country birds, and as suburbia got noisier and more brightly lit, it no longer suited them. But I miss those haunting cries 'shaken out long and clear' on the suburban night...

The Owl
Edward Thomas

Donwhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

The Greatest Living Englishman?

Today is the 96th birthday of a man with a good claim to be the greatest living Englishman - Patrick Leigh Fermor. He not only wrote at least two of the 20th century's greatest travel books - A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water, which, long after the event, chronicled his walk across pre-war Europe - but he also had an extremely good war, so good that his exploits on Crete were turned into a film, Ill Met By Moonlight (starring Dirk Bogarde as PLF! What were they thinking of?). He wrote much else of course, of which I've read with great enjoyment the two Greek volumes Mani and Roumeli, and his account of a monastic retreat, A Time To Keep Silence - but A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water contain enough between them for a lifetime's rereading, so densely packed with erudition and allusion (and comedy and adventure) is PLF's sweeping account of that lost world of pre-war central Europe. He is still living most of the year in his house in an olive grove on the Mani peninsula, and still active. In 2007, in a nod to 'progress', he took to using a typewriter, having previously written all those wonderful books in longhand. Here's hoping he makes his century.

Tuesday 8 February 2011


That ill wind has dropped at last - thanks be to the weather gods - and today London has blue skies and sunshine. And in Kensington Gardens the first blue (wood) anenomes are in flower - a sight to lift the heart. John Ruskin - born on this day in 1819 - would have been glad to see them, though of course he would prefer the good old English white windflowers, which come rather later. He loved anenomes all his life - there's something about his enthusisam here in a link from the wonderful little Ruskin museum in Sheffield.

Monday 7 February 2011

An Ill Wind

I don't know what it is with me and the West wind - and I'd very much like to hear from anyone else similarly afflicted - but whenever the wind's blowing seriously in that direction, I pretty much go to pieces. The West wind has been blowing hard and strong and unremittingly across the Southeast for days now, with no sign of dropping, and the result is that my brain's turned to mush, I feel weirdly dissociated, even tireder (and more irritable) than usual, and unable to perform the simplest task without a high chance of mucking it up and, as like as not, injuring myself in the process. A few days ago, I managed to slice deep into my right index finger tip with a pill cutter (don't ask), then on Saturday morning I stuck the end of a small but very sharp kitchen knife into the next finger along - while simultaneously burning my toast - then followed up by cutting my right nostril while shaving. This, believe me, is one of the worst places to cut yourself, as it bleeds and bleeds and it's an impossible place to stick a plaster... Yesterday, with that wind still blowing, I foolishly went for a walk on my beloved Ashtead common, which I surely know like the back of my hand - but no, I managed to get quite lost, not once but twice, with no idea where I was or what direction I was going in. Yes, that wind had undone me again. So far today, I've been all right, apart from very nearly taking an embarrassing fall on the stairs at the Underground station. But Zehpyrus is still gving his all and I await developments... Meanwhile, what I want to know is this - is it just me? There doesn't seem to be a recognised West Wind Syndrome, and I can think of no instances in literature - that overblown(!) ode of Shelley's is no help, and the wind that blows through Bleak House and puts Mr Jarndyce out of sorts is an East wind, and probably symbolic. So - any ideas?

Sunday 6 February 2011

Jacobson and Mabey

There was a double treat on the radio this morning, with Howard Jacobson - always good value - on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, immediately followed by the great 'nature writer' Richard Mabey on Radio 3's upmarket version of DID - Private Passions. The focus of PP is firmly on the music rather than the life, though Mabey did speak a little of his schooldays (Berkhamstead, unhappy, musical) and the bout of depression so eloquently described in Nature Cure. His choice of music was extremely wide-ranging and full of wonderful unexpected sounds, from a beautiful Dowland love song to full-throated Corsican male polyphony, Butterworth's heartbreaking Is My Team Ploughing? and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in full flow. But the most extraordinary sound of all was David Rothenberg, author of Why Birds Sings and a jazz clarinettist, improvising over the song of that jazziest of British birds, a Marsh Warbler. I haven't been able to find a (free) link to the piece itself - it's called Soo-Roo - but you can hear the Private Passions programme on the BBC iPlayer here. Mabey fans (I'm one) won't want to miss it.

Friday 4 February 2011

Over on the Dabbler...

The 1p Book Review is me on Malone Dies.

Wildwood Nostalgia

I am, as readers of this blog will have noticed, a lover of woodland - but I really can't see what this fuss is all about. The Forestry Commission is, after all, the body that for decades disfigured, denatured and closed off vast swathes of the British landscape with its huge conifer plantations (on which they are barely able to turn a profit). I suspect that, so long as there's some regulatory framework in place, almost any system of woodland ownership would be preferable to the Forestry Commission's dead hand. And yet this is sudddenly the cause du jour of well-meaning, theoretically country-loving Middle England, which is now seething with indignation as it envisages wholesale deforestation by ruthless, cigar-chomping capitalists. I fancy this is the latest manifestation of that strange English malaise, Wildwood Nostalgia, based in a myth of a lost woodland paradise, a sentimental notion that it's somehow an offence against nature to cut down a tree, historical myths (like the wholesale loss of woodland to build the Tudor, then the Georgian fleet) and a fundamental ignorance of how woodlands work. They work - and become the kind of woodland we want - by being exploited and managed, not by being left alone. Leave a wood alone and you soon discover what wildwood is like - not the kind of place you'd care to take a walk in, even if you could penetrate it. The things we value most about woodlands - the rides, the coppices, the coverts, the underbrush and standard trees, and all the wildlife that goes with them - are the products of the hand of man, not of unguided nature. Butterflies in particular have suffered steep decline in recent decades not because of more woodland management but because of less, resulting in loss of open space and sunlight at key stages in their development - a wildwood would have very few butterflies, if any. Our woodlands need to be managed - and exploited (they are the ultimate sustainable resource) - not treated as a division of the leisure industry, artifically preserved as a kind of sylvan Disneyland.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

A Great Librarian

A red letter day for librarians and ex-librarians, for on this day in 1600 the great pioneering librarian Gabriel Naude (I can't do accents on Blogger posts for some reason) was born. He established the first library in France to be open to all comers, with no references required - and of course he wrote the ground-breaking manual, Advice on Establishing a Library (1627). For a more recent work on a similar theme, I commend this one.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Big Questions Unsatisfactorily Answered

What are the Big Questions of life? (Actually, that in itself might just be one.)
They often present themselves as (1) Who Am I?, (2) Where Did I Come From?, (3) Where Am I Going To? and (4) What Is It All For?
Far be it from me to attempt to answer them - but hey, why not? Here's my stab at some kind of answers...

1. Who Am I? I am the I asking this question. If there's one thing that's certain, it is that I am I and no other.

2. Where Did I Come From? and 3. Where Am I Going To? Here's the Venerable Bede:

'The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another. Whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.'

In other words, out of darkness and mystery, back into darkness and mystery.

4. What Is It All For? Ah yes, the biggest of the big ones. Being dubious of any overarching plan and suspicious of any scheme of things that subjugates the human individual - a universe in itself, and full of unplumbed mysteries - to a larger purpose, I incline towards something like Keats's view of 'why we are here', as expressed in his great letter of February-May to his brother and sister, which begins with the poet getting a black eye the first time he takes a cricket bat in his hand, and goes on, through many wonders, to this:

'The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is 'a vale of tears' from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitary interposition of God and taken to Heaven-What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making". Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception-they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God-How then are Souls to be made? How then arc these sparks which are God to have identity given them-so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? I- low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because 'I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystiain religion -or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation-This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence-the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds expe rience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are-so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence-This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity-'

That, tentative and questing as it is, will do me. For now.

Art Project

I've been having a look at Google's lastest gizmo - the Art Project. It's fun (when it's working) and looks to be a handy way of taking a close-up gander at individual paintings (a useful adjunct to The Dabbler's National Treasures?), but the Explore the Museum feature is - like most virtual tours - rather disturbing, especially the up-down arrows that enable you to examine the floor and ceiling (you could simulate falling to the floor in a fit of Stendhal Syndrome). Of course it might be useful if you're planning a spectacular art gallery heist...