Monday 30 April 2012


Today is the birthday of Gertrude Stein's companion Alice B. Toklas (born 1877), who has come down to posterity as the creator of an interesting form of fudge (barely eatable as I recall, but worth the effort). On the Radio 4 series Great Lives recently, someone was trying to make the case for her as a major figure who has been unjustly neglected, largely as a result of Gertrude Stein's relentless self-promotion and domineering personality. Well maybe - and Alice was no doubt a nicer person than Gertrude - but probably, like Edith Sitwell, the pair of them belong more to the history of showbusiness than of art. Great collectors though... Unfortunately, ever since Jonathan Law drew it to my attention, I've been unable to disentangle the real Alice B. Toklas from the portrayal of her in the deranged Swedish film Adventures Of Picasso by that notorious deprecator of New Zealand cathedrals Wilfrid Brambell. Perhaps there's a certain truth in Brambell's performance... Here's a taste of it.

Titians' First Masterpiece?

I nipped in to the National Gallery yesterday to take a look at the little exhibition there showcasing 'Titian's First Masterpiece'. That's it, above, in an image that does the original no kind of justice but gives a vague idea - The Flight into Egypt. Painted in 1510, when TItian was barely out of his teens, it's certainly a wonderful piece of work - and it's been newly restored - and this is the first time it's been seen outside Russia since 1768. Part of its charm, I think, is that it's not quite a masterpiece, more a display of the young artist's astonishing ability in various genres, most of them very new and barely formed at the time, and the range of his influences. The frieze-like composition of the Holy Family doesn't really fit into the landscape, but it's so beautifully painted it hardly matters. Likewise the brilliantly drawn animals, birds and figure in (but not quite of) the landscape. That landscape, though, is bravura stuff - from the precisely drawn wild flowers in the foreground to the distant blue hills, by way of some fine, free tree painting that looks way ahead of its time. The Flight into Egypt is a great landscape painting with some great figure painting included, so not quite an integrated masterpiece (unlike the slightly later Noli Me Tangere that is hung with it), but a picture that's a rare joy to linger over, allowing the eye to roam at leisure over those glorious landscapes. It's at the Nat Gall till 19th August, so plenty of time to see it. The Flight is in the Sunley Room, and in Room 1, to show what the mature Titian could achieve by way of figures in landscape, there's the recently acquired Diana and Callisto, hanging in splendid - truly splendid - isolation.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Chris Ethridge

I've only just learnt of the death of the bass guitarist Chris Ethridge, at the sadly early age of 65 (the big jam session in the sky seems to be on a recruiting drive, taking Levon Helm and Bert Weedon too in recent days). Ethridge co-founded with Gram Parsons the short-lived International Submarine Band and then the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers. After the Burritos folded, he went on to play in the amazing band that backed Gram and Emmylou, with Byron Berline, Clarence and Roland White, Gene Parsons and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Chris was also briefly in the refounded Burritos, before leaving to concentrate on session work, and backing Willie Nelson, which he did for eight years. Ethridge's greatest legacy is the classic Burritos album Gilded Palace of Sin, on which he played bass and piano, and co-wrote (with Gram) two of its greatest songs - Hot Burrito 1 and Hot Burrito 2. If he had done nothing else, this would have been enough. Here is Hot Burrito 1 in a live recording - ragged compared to the album, but glorious. Note the polite smatter of applause at the end. They did not know what they were hearing...

Friday 27 April 2012

The Voyage of the Narwhal

Recently a friend strongly recommended that I read Andrea Barrett, an American with a scientific background who writes novels and short stories, mostly historical. I did what I usually do: made a note of the name, forgot all about it, found the note again, remembered, and bought the cheapest title available on Amazon Marketplace. This was a pretty fat, handsomely produced volume, a novel called The Voyage of the Narwhal, and I have just finished reading it. For me, it was a novel of two halves - strictly speaking of three parts, two of which I found gripping and impressive and the third and last sadly uninvolving. The Voyage... tells the story of an Arctic expedition in the 1850s, one occasioned by the mania to find out what became of Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition. The main characters - especially the recklessly ambitious expedition leader Zeke and the thoughtful naturalist Erasmus, whose life seems stalled and failed - are well drawn, and Barrett's immersion in her period and subject are so complete and convincing that at times she almost rivals Penelope Fitzgerald, though she is nothing like so concise (who is?). As the expedition gets under way - and the sense of impending disaster gradually grows - Barrett evokes the sights and sounds of the icy landscape brilliantly: the eerie strangeness of it, the terrifying power of the weather, the unstoppable force of the ice... Themes are apparent - the dawning of Darwinian ideas, the arrogance of 'discovery', the contradictory stories that can be made out of the same events, the plight of the women who wait, cannibalism (real and figurative), exploitation - but they do not obtrude; they are part of the whole. For the entirety of the expedition - the first two parts of the book - I was hooked... But then came the long aftermath, and everything changed. It felt now as if the author's imaginative energy was seeping away, like air from a punctured balloon. Her characters began to lose their independent life, working now to illustrate her themes and fulfil their fictional destiny. I lost interest even in the lovable Erasmus, and by the time the novel laboured to a close, I was reading more from self-imposed duty than for pleasure. I felt as if I'd said goodbye to the characters - and to the real heart of the novel - back there on the Arctic ice. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else who has read The Voyage... or any other of Andrea Barrett's fictions. I have the feeling that she is potentially a very good, and very interesting writer. Perhaps she is at her best over a shorter distance?

Thursday 26 April 2012

And Met men say there's more to come...

'Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droght of Marche hath perced to the roote...' Well, shoures soote are one thing, but what we've been having this April is another matter altogether - day after day of rain, with torrential, wind-lashed downpours dumping a month's-worth of the stuff in hours. It's been relentless Haggard weather, and there's no end in sight. What's worse, we in the Thames Water area know that even when it does eventually end, the drocht of Marche has been thoroughly perced and we can put our ark-building projects on hold, we will still be 'in drought' and banned from using our hosepipes, thanks to Thames's insistence on losing a full 25 per cent of its water in leaks (while exhorting us to save water by not running the tap while brushing our teeth, etc.). The spring butterflies will be suffering terribly - I can't imagine there have been many Pearl-Bordered Fritillaires flying down in the storm-lashed West Country these past few weeks. And it all started so well, with the wonderfully warm sunny March weather. By All Fools Day, I had already seen Red Admirals, Brimstones, Small Whites, Peacocks, Holly Blues, Orange Tips and Speckled Woods. Since then, nothing new, apart from the Green Hairstreak that flew into my dream last night and perched in full view on a pathside shrub. This lifted the sodden spirits no end - as did the sight, from the train yesterday evening, of a glorious double rainbow over Clapham. But I wasn't quite as excited as this fellow...

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Six Wives and Oliver Wendell Holmes

Restaurant decor - the creation of a class of persons who style themselves as interior designers - is often bad, often merely bland, and often has an element of the random or downright bizarre. The other day I was eating in an Italian - or rather Italianate - restaurant, one of a small chain. Here the decor was generally bland to the point of being unnoticeable - a kind of creamy beige prevailed - but the graphics introduced that mystifying random note. Much of one wall - where you might reasonably expect something vaguely Italian or Mediterranean - was given over to stylised representations of all six wives of Henry VIII (no, this was nowhere near Hampton Court) with their names writ large in 'Gothic' script. Stranger still, another wall was embellished with a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes. The quotation itself was fair enough - 'The true essentials of a feast are only fun and feed' - but Oliver Wendell Holmes, for heaven's sake! There's a name that must mean little or nothing to today's readers - a giant of 19th-century American letters who is today probably even more forgotten than his fellow giants Longfellow, J.R. Lowell and Whittier. His most popular works were the Breakfast Table series of conversational essays, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, The Poet of the Breakfast Table and The Professor at the Breakfast Table - and these were popular indeed, selling in such numbers even on this side of the Atlantic that they are still a frequent sight on the shelves of charity shops (I suspect second-hand bookshops have given up even trying to sell them). I must admit I have never knowingly read anything of Holmes's - is he worth looking into? Perhaps one of my American readers will know... Certainly his work (or at least one of his titles) was so familiar to English audiences that when Chivers launched its thick-cut Olde English marmalade in 1907, it commended it as 'the aristocrat of the breakfast table'. The label on the jar still bore that legend when I was a boy - which caused me some confusion when I first became aware that there was a book of more or less the same name. But I managed to live with it - just one more bewildering feature of a bewildering world...

Sunday 22 April 2012

Corydalis: Crested Lark to Clouded Apollo

Late last year I planted out several Corydalis plants - blue and white - cultivated forms of the pretty weed Yellow Corydalis or Yellow Fumitory (a lovely sleepy word, that - Fumitory...). Now my Corydalis are flowering happily and livening up the spring garden. Why the name, I wondered - where does that come from? From the Greek for the Crested Lark, Korydalis - very apt for the little crested flowers. Corydalis, I was delighted to learn, is also the food plant of the gloriously named butterfly Parnassius Mnemosyne, the Clouded Apollo. Nabokov's original title for his memoir Speak, Memory was Speak, Mnemosyne (the Greek personification of Memory and mother of the Muses. His publisher persuaded him to think again). I wonder if the Clouded Apollo was also flying about somewhere in Nabokov's mind when he came up with his intended title...

Those Intercalated Games

With the shadow of the London Olympics darkening the land, let's take a look back to the Intercalated Games that began in Athens on this day in 1906. No longer recognised as an official Olympiad, these games were part of a determined effort by Greece to hold on to the Olympics on a permanent basis, and they introduced several features that are all too recognisable in the modern games. Not the torch relay - that was a Nazi innovation - but, among others, the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Olympic Village (at the Zappeion). Ominously, the athletes for the first time paraded with their national flags, which were also hoisted to mark victories - and there was trouble. Having won Gold in the hop, step and jump and Silver in the long jump, Irishman Peter O'Connor protested against his inclusion in the British team by scaling the flagpole and substituting the Irish tricolor for the Union flag, while his Irish and American supporters kept guard. However, the 1906 Games still had some of the charming features of the earlier Olympiads, with the standing jump a major event (the American Ray Ewry successfully defended his titles in the Standing High Jump and Standing Long Jump - high time these were revived) and the Stone Throw continuing alongside the newly introduced Javelin Throw. The Marathon was won unexpectedly by the Canadian Billy Shering, who had wisely spent two months acclimatising before the race. As Shering triumphantly entered the Panathinaiko stadium, Prince George leapt from his seat and joined him, in full fig, on the final lap. Somehow one can't envisage that kind of thing happening in 2012.

Thursday 19 April 2012

A Library in a Church

Here's another unexpected Quebec find. We stumbled on this church, sensitively converted into a public library - two of my favourite things in one, churches and libraries! - while looking for the Protestant Graveyard (which turned out to be closed). Once serving as the church of St Matthew, it is now the St Jean-Baptiste public library, but the original building and its furnishings still seem to be quite intact - which is a good thing, as this church was inspired by St Oswald's in Liverpool, an important early creation of Pugin's, of which nothing now remains save the tower. The craftsmanship on display inside St Matthew's/St Jean Baptiste is very impressive, from the beautifully carved wooden rood screen to the elegant arcade and the fine metalwork of the lamps and the splendid font cover suspended from the baldachin that can be seen in the picture. I wish there were more images of this fine Gothic church, but sadly I can't find any...

The Camberwell Beauty...

is also the name of one of V.S. Pritchett's best-known (and best) short stories. And it was short stories I was reading on my Canadian jaunt - not Pritchett's but those of the Canadian writer Alice Munro.
For some reason, it has taken me all this time to finally get round to reading Alice Munro - perhaps I was put off by the sheer volume of praise for her 'practically perfect' work, or by the fact that she won the 2009 International Man Booker Prize (for which, if I remember rightly, the rest of the shortlist consisted of writers I don't much care for). But she had been recommended to me more than once by people whose judgment I generally trust, so it's odd that I've only just read my first Munro.
It was a volume of short stories called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - and all I can say is that Yes, she fully deserves all that praise. I found these stories of small-town life in Ontario almost as richly rewarding as Pritchett's, or even Chekhov's - they're that good. And they're good in unexpected ways, taking you into unexpected places by unpredictable routes. A lot of the time, in a typical Munro story, you really don't know where it's going, what will happen next, what manner of story it is. Her characters are walk-off-the-page vivid, and her plots are constructed with masterly ingenuity under an surface of easy artlessness. Most of the stories in Hateship, Friendship are told in the first person, or through a first-person proxy, and Munro is unusual in extending her clear-eyed vision to her fictional 'self', who is often far from the conventional 'nice', sensitive narrator of most writers' short stories. Though she paints on a small canvas, Munro is wonderfully free of the emotional correctness that drains the life out of so much contemporary fiction. But what is most striking about her stories is their richness and density. With the best of them, you get the feeling that two or three novels could be made out of the leftovers. Worlds of fictional possibility open up, only to close again as the story incorporates them and moves on. For example, in the title story of the collection I read (which is told more entirely from 'outside' than any of the others), there's a short scene in a dress shop which not only fills out the picture of the main character, Johanna (who is buying her first-ever smart dress as she believes she is soon to be married to a man who in fact barely knows her), but also takes us into another life, that of the woman who owns the dress shop, who initially comes over as haughty and unsympathetic...

'I'm here all day,' she said. 'And sometimes I just wonder what I think I'm doing. I ask myself, What do you think you're doing here? I put up my new display in the window and I do this and that to entice people in, but there are days - there are days - when I do not see one soul come in that door. I know - people think these clothes are too expensive - but they're good. They're good clothes. If you want the quality you have to pay the price.'
'They must come in when they want something like those,' said Johanna, looking towards the evening dresses. 'Where else could they go?'
'That's just it. They don't. They go to the city - that's where they go. They'll drive fifty miles, a hundred miles, never mind the gas, and tell themselves that way they get something better than I've got here. And they haven't. Not better quality, not better selection. Nothing. Just that they'd be ashamed to say they bought their wedding outfits in town. Or they'll come in and try something on and say they have to think about it. I'll be back, they say. And I think, Oh yes, I know what that means. It means they'll try to find the same thing cheaper in London [Ontario] or Kitchener, and even if it isn't cheaper, they'll buy it once they've driven all that way and got sick of looking.
'I don't know,' she said. 'Maybe if I was a local person it would make a difference. It's very clique-y here, I find. You're not local, are you?'
Johanna said, 'No.'
'Don't you find it clique-y?'
'Hard for an outsider to break in, is what I mean.'
'I'm used to being on my own,' Johanna said.
'But you found somebody. You won't be on your on your own anymore and isn't that lovely? Some days I think how grand it would be, to be married and stay at home. Of course, I used to be married, and I worked anyway. Ah, well. Maybe the man in the moon will walk in here and fall in love with me and then I'll be all set!'

In one page of outwardly ordinary dialogue, a whole sad thwarted life opens up before us. And that is the last we see or hear of the dress shop owner. Writing like that is indeed, I reckon, 'practically perfect'.

The Grand Surprise

My week in Canada was wonderful in all manner of ways, but the most completely unexpected wonder was my first encounter with the butterfly we in Britain know as the Camberwell Beauty (the name that won out over its splendid alternative naming, The Grand Surprise). In North America, the Beauty goes by the name of the Mourning Cloak, at once poetic and descriptive.
We were walking, all six of us, on a morning of intermittent sunshine but not much warmth, on Mount Royal, the great hill (or mountain, as they call it) that dominates the city, and provides a welcome retreat from the city streets. Laid out as a 'wild park' by the great Frederick William Olmsted, creator of New York's Central Park, Mount Royal beautifully embodies his ideal of creating a park that is the nearest possible thing to a natural environment. Mostly we followed Chemin Olmsted, the easiest ascent to the summit, rising gently through grand steep woods, but at one point - near the manmade lake (not part of Olmsted's plan, but it works) - we turned off on a narrower path through scattered woods. My son and I were enjoying the antics of a small woodpecker (very much like our own Lesser-Spotted or Barred Woodpecker) and a tiny nuthatch-lke bird, when there was an excited call from the group ahead, urging us to hurry to where they were. And there, on the bare dry earth, was a Camberwell Beauty, its wings fully spread, as if basking, though there was no sun.
This was a breathtaking moment - the Camberwell Beauty is of course a great rarity in Britain, and I never expected to see one. Least of all on a far from balmy April day in the city of Montreal, when there were still patches of unmelted snow on the ground (and great grey heaps of it in odd places where it had been piled high). This glorious specimen showed little inclination to move and I was able to admire it very close up. It did not disappoint; it is a Beauty indeed, with its velvety chocolate/black/deepest red wings fringed by blue eyelets and a creamy skirt, in places just a little tattered. I almost succeeded in getting her to climb onto my finger - four legs were on before she had second thoughts, flew off surprisingly strongly into the trees, and was gone.
Of course, over the coming days, I discovered that the Mourning Cloak is - at least in this part of Canada - roughly the equivalent of our Red Admiral, the butterfly you're most likely to see, almost anywhere, on those early spring days when little or nothing else is flying. I spotted half a dozen more, in Montreal and Quebec cities, before the week was out, but all were in strong flight, and nothing could ever top that first magical close-up encounter.
There's a poem by May Swenson, Unconscious Came A Beauty, that evokes an even closer encounter. Like George Herbert's Easter Wings, it's a 'pattern poem' in winged form. Follow the link here to enjoy it. Surely it's a Mourning Cloak she's writing about, rather than a Red Spotted Purple. 'Tomb-stained' is beautifully descriptive of the Camberwell Beauty's underwings.

Monday 9 April 2012


Tomorrow I am flying off to Canada to spend a week in Mount Royal (or Montreal as they call it these days) and Quebec with my beloved daughter, who is big with Number One Grandson. This is a delightful prospect, but it will mean a hiatus in the blog. I might slip another post in before I go, but it looks as if the busyness and complications are set to continue to the end. I shall be glad to be in the air, flying away... Normal service will resume around the middle of next week.

Sunday 8 April 2012


Happy Easter to all who browse here!
The past days have been ridiculously busy and complicated, but on Good Friday - sunny here - I went with Mrs Nige to admire a very fine bluebell wood near Box Hill. It was not quite at its peak of perfection, and the sunshine (which made it such a dazzling spectacle last year) was intermittent by now, but it was a beautiful sight, especially as this particular wood was also spangled with my favourite Wood Anemones, and the odd unexpected Cuckoo Flower standing among the Bluebells. A bluebell wood at this time of the year is famously one of the picturesque glories of England, subject of countless twee and sentimental paintings - in fact it seems to be a subject that cannot be painted without that twee sentimentality creeping in. It's a subject that's at once too easy and too hard - easy to make it look good, hard to make a real painting of it. Has anyone ever made a really good, let alone great, painting of a bluebell wood? I can't think of one... It's one of those subjects, I think, that's better fitted for the camera than the painter's brush.
As we descended towards the Denbies vineyard, we were hailed by a cheery fellow who was marking Good Friday by walking around with a 6ft cross over his shoulder (plywood by the look of it, cleverly perforated to reduce its weight). He was accompanied by a young boy who wished us a Happy Easter and proffered a basket full of Cadbury's caramel mini eggs. Hmm... As I remarked to Mrs N, 'What would Jesus do?'

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Langham's Orwell

Remember Chris Langham? A prodigious comic talent, he wrote and starred in superior sitcoms Kiss Me Kate and Help and the brilliant mockumentary series People Like Us, was the sole British writer on The Muppet Show and the original star of The Thick Of It. In 2005, when he was at the height of his fame and winning all the awards going, he was arrested in connection with an investigation into internet child pornography; in 2007 he was found guilty of possessing indecent images; he served a prison sentence - and, since then, he has been a non-person. Don't expect to see anything with Langham in it (even as a voice only, as in People Like Us) repeated anywhere on the BBC, ever. It is as if Langham never existed.
This is terribly sad, and - while one can understand the BBC's reluctance to court the inevitable hysterical reaction - it's a shame that such an important figure in TV comedy has been effectively wiped from history. Happily there are fragments on YouTube, including parts of one of his most remarkable performances - not in a comedy but in a highly original documentary, George Orwell: A Life in Pictures, which blended archive material seamlessly with dramatised passages to create a warm and intimate portrait of the man. Langham's performance, with its edge of vulnerability, has something clownish about it which is unexpectedly effective, and affecting. Here's a taster (there's more on YouTube)...
Surprisingly, given his fame, there is no known sound recording of George Orwell's voice - which was surely a good deal more clipped than Langham's, but never mind.

Tuesday 3 April 2012


Born on this day in 1593 was the great religious poet and all but saintly priest George Herbert. With Easter coming, here is/are his Easter Wings, a fine example of 'pattern poetry' or shaped verse, in which the lines assume a form that illustrates and expresses the meaning of the poem. Here each stanza shortens its lines towards a terse bisyllabic centre, from which they then expand outwards again to complete the pair of wings, an image of the potential (God-assisted) human state, of the wings of angels, perhaps of the contracting and expanding of the human heart. The word 'imp' in the last lines, by the way, means to graft...

Easter Wings

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Rather wonderfully, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was - or believed himself to be - a distant descendant of his namesake George.

Monday 2 April 2012

Larkin About

Over on The Dabbler, I pass on a little Philip Larkin...

Butterflies, Schubert

Yesterday may have been All Fools Day, but it was also a good butterfly day for me. Without straying at all far from home and garden, I encountered by first Holly Blue of the year (basking briefly on ivy beside a railway bridge) and my first Orange Tip (a fine fresh male, cruising the garden, pausing for a brief sunbathe on a Periwinkle leaf - then returning on the same route half an hour later, but skipping the sunbathe). With another Holly Blue in the garden, and an Orange Tip quartering the lawn in front of a block of flats - plus a couple of Small White sightings - this was a fine April 1st, the culmination of an unusually butterfly-rich early spring. It's all been down to the unseasonally warm dry weather of course - and that, if the Met Office is to be believed (a big if, admittedly), is about to come to an end, with dramatic temperature plunges and some pretty vile weather. Well, we'll see...
The weekend also included the culmination of Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert season - I fell asleep late on Saturday night to the great String Quintet. What has been most striking about this feast of Schubert has been the emotional warmth of listeners' - and, often, presenters' - responses to it. For many it has clearly been quite a journey, in the course of which many have, in effect, fallen in love with this uniquely loveable composer. To know his music is to know him, and to know him (to quote Phil Spector) is to love him - or that's what it feels like. Loveable geniuses are few and far between - in literature, Keats is the obvious example, and in a different way Chekhov. It's hard to think of many more of the greats who have quite this particular quality - any suggestions?