Tuesday 31 December 2013

Happy New Year

Here's wishing a very happy and prosperous new year to all who browse here.
In the fine, sonorous words of Alfred Lord Tennyson -
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light.
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

2013: Looking Back...

After last year's dismal Washout Summer came the year of the Great Butterfly Summer - those glorious sunny months, preceded by a long hard winter and a cold wet spring, culminating in a Mast Year and followed by a wet and stormy early winter. I didn't get out among all that beautiful butterfly abundance as often as I'd hoped, but revelled in it whenever I could. My two most memorable butterfly encounters were with Small Blues in Dieppe and something utterly bizarre - a Monarch - in Carshalton.
 On the literary front, I discovered the short stories of Peter Taylor, read David Lack's The Life of the Robin, Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday, and continued to delight in the works of Willa Cather and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Memorable re-reads included Keats and Embarrassment, Machine Dreams and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight - all at least as good as I remembered them.
  I didn't do nearly as much gallery-going as I'd have liked, but caught an illuminating little Frederic Church exhibition and the breath-taking Barocci. Much more art and beauty came my way on an all too brief autumn visit to Venice,while a Norman jaunt also gifted me a memorable butterfly experience.
  The real high points of my year were of course the birth of our granddaughter Summer and the February visit of our daughter and grandson Frankly Adorable Sam - but this is not a Family blog. What is seems to be becoming lately is something more like a Poetry blog. I've posted many more poems this year than ever before. This wasn't really planned, but I hope they have contributed to the great work of sharing some of life's pleasures, which is what this blog will always be about, if it's about anything.

Sunday 29 December 2013

'The first and most direct thing in our experience'

'Something unknown is doing we don't know what.'
That succinct expression of how little we know was yesterday's epigraph on Frank Wilson's invaluable Books Inq. blog. It's a quotation from the eminent scientist and populariser of science Sir Arthur Eddington, born on yesterday's date in 1882. What's immediately striking about it - and about much else that Eddington said and wrote - is how unrecognisably different it sounds from anything that today's popularisers of science would utter.
 Eddington became convinced - for reasons derived entirely from science - that 'the stuff of the world is mind-stuff'. What he called mind-stuff  'is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it.... It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness.... Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature.... It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.'
This is in The Nature of the Physical World, published in 1928. Eddington was writing in the light of the shattering implications of quantum mechanics, which, it seemed to him, had not only made a nonsense of the materialist metaphysic that underlies science, but also of the dualistic distinction between a materialist and an idealist account of what reality is. He went further, arguing that whatever we observe must ultimately be the content of our own consciousness, therefore by definition non-material. He didn't go so far as to deny the objective reality of anything beyond our minds, but argued that the same 'stuff' is in our minds and the physical world and is what makes the connection of the two possible.
As I said, that's not the kind of talk you hear from the likes of Prof Brian Cox. But in his day Eddington was by no means alone among scientists in thinking in this sort of way. Another, equally famous scientist and populariser, Sir James Jeans - of whom I've written elsewhere - saw the universe (in the light of the findings of quantum mechanics) as coming to seem more like 'a great thought' than a great machine. Could it be that scientists of Eddington's and Jeans' generation, in whose time the new science of quantum physics burst forth, realised its implications more sharply and fully than those who came after, and internalised it in a way that seems somehow to have been lost since? Certainly the popular science of today seems to regard 'mind' as no more than a product of brain activity (the subject of that current popularisers' favourite, neuroscience) - rather than, as Jeans suggested it might be, 'the creator and governor of the realm of matter'. This seems a shame, but what do I know? (See answer above.)

Friday 27 December 2013

A Late Starter

The actor Sydney Greenstreet was born on this day in 1879 - and if that seems a surprisingly long time ago, that's perhaps because of Greenstreet's unusual career path. He set out originally to be a tea planter in Ceylon, leaving home at 18 and setting up in business, only to lose it all in a drought. Returning to England, he took up managing a brewery, but found it such tedious work that he took up acting to alleviate the boredom. He swiftly became an extremely successful stage actor, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the natural course of things he was frequently offered film parts - but he turned them all down until, already in his 60s, he said yes to one: The Maltese Falcon. As 'the Fat Man', Greenstreet made an instant, unforgettable impact, and his scenes with Peter Lorre were simply electric. (Incidentally, the 'Fat Man' atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was named after Greenstreet.)
  Sydney Greenstreet was only in movies for eight years, yet in the first four of those he made (in addition to The Maltese Falcon) They Died With Their Boots On, Across the Pacific, Casablanca, Background to Danger, Passage to Marseille, Between Two Worlds, The Mask of Dimitrios, The Conspirators - and Hollywood Canteen. This last was a wartime morale-booster featuring cameo performances by just about every star in Hollywood. Including the great double act of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Enjoy them in action here, rescuing Patty Andrews (of the Andrews Sisters) from the clutches of an over-exuberant Marine. Watch and wonder...

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Happy Christmas

I fear today is going to be rather busy, so I'll take this opportunity to wish all who browse here a very merry Christmas.
 This two-tier Nativity is by Tintoretto and hangs in the upper room of the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, a Supreme Work of the Human Spirit which I had the pleasure of revisiting in the autumn. Apart from its unusual structure, the Nativity is notable for the presence of a (rather dowdy) peacock among the animals - symbolic, of course - and for the gesture with which Mary unveils the baby Jesus, a gesture that hints both at the uncovering of the consecrated wine during Mass, and at the winding sheet that will wrap His body in due course. The fate of Jesus is also suggested clearly enough by the cross-shaped beams of the broken roof above him. But the painting is essentially 'about' the light - the glorious transforming light - that floods in on the familiar scene, the homely and astonishing miracle.

Monday 23 December 2013

Talking of Half Man, Half Biscuit...

... as we were - and, indeed, of Ted Hughes - I was delighted to find that Sylia Plath gets a mention in a song by the splendidly named band Half Man Half Biscuit. She is mentioned, what's more, in the unlikely context of Matlock Bath, creating a typically resourceful HMHB rhyme. The song is The Light at the End of the Tunnel (tunnel nicely rhymed with runnel), and the line is 'And when you're in Matlock Bath you don't need Sylvia Plath'. True enough. Matlock Bath, I should explain for those unfamiliar with the Peak District's attractions, occupies a beautiful location in the Derwent valley, but today more closely resembles a downmarket seaside resort than the genteel spa town - and magnet to romantically inclined artists and writers - that it once was. It is extremely popular with motorcyclists, reeks of petrol fumes and chip fat, boasts a theme park called Gulliver's Kingdom and is generally noisy and crowded, while the pubs and cafes seem to be permanently full of very large people eating prodigious quantities of food. It's a good thing Ruskin - who used to rhapsodise about the place - isn't alive to see it now. (Also mentioned in the song is Eyam, the famous Derbyshire 'plague village', which heroically isolated itself during an outbreak of plague.)
  Half Man Half Biscuit (strangers to commercial success) have been described as 'England's greatest folk band' and a 'national treasure'. Their song titles are certainly cherishable - Joy Division Oven Gloves, Hedley Verityesque, The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman, I Hate Nerys Hughes, Rod Hull Is Alive - Why?, I Love You Because (You Look Like Jim Reeves), On Passing Lilac Urine... Yes, not exactly the stuff of hit-parade glory.
  Should you care to, you can listen to The Light at the End of the Tunnel here. Enjoy...

Sunday 22 December 2013


It's good to know that the Shortest Day is already behind us; it was yesterday, the 21st of December, and from now on, imperceptibly at first, the days will be getting longer - a cheering thought.
For many centuries, the Shortest Day was thought to be St Lucy's Day, the 13th of December, a feast still rather beautifully celebrated in Baltic countries. John Donne in his famous Nocturnal took St Lucy's Day to be 'the year's midnight' and, as ever, enlisted Nature in the grand project of expressing John Donne's state of mind. Note how, by the end of the extraordinarily beautiful first stanza, he has wrestled the subject round to Himself, and that's where he keeps it for the rest of the poem. It's magnificent stuff, quite brilliantly done - but reading it again reminds me why I seldom return to Donne for pleasure. So much even of his best poetry (especially before he discovered God) is given over to his endless, often florid, self-starring psychodrama. Or am I being unfair? Probably. Here, anyway, is his Nocturnal Upon St Lucy's Day (as an epitaph, it makes an interesting contrast with this one)...

Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
         Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

Friday 20 December 2013

Talent and Genius

Time for a painting, or two. The one above, Courtyard of a House in Delft, is by Pieter de Hooch, who was born on this day in 1629. His life seems to have been pretty unhappy, at least after the death of his young wife in 1667, and he ended his days in a madhouse - but his paintings are typically sweet and charming, depicting happy, or at least peaceful, domestic scenes. The Courtyard is in the National Gallery, where it's always a pleasure to come across it. The eye can wander happily over the details and enjoy the contrasts of light and dark, and it's a pleasingly calm, balanced and relaxing picture. At a glance, it might be mistaken for a Vermeer (he was a close contemporary of De Hooch and they certainly knew each other's work) - until, that is, you look at a Vermeer. The painting below, known as The Little Street, could almost be a front view of the house in the De Hooch - but it could never be by the same hand, being infinitely more subtle, delicate and skilful in execution and bolder in conception. To compare the two is to see the difference between talent and genius clearly illustrated. Or, if you like, prettiness and beauty.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Ted Hughes: Half Man, Half Biscuit

Not for the first time (for the second, actually, in a worryingly short period of time), the sound has gone on the television, so we are reduced to watching it with subtitles - very amusing during the news, when the subtitling is largely gibberish. But last night there was a rather wonderful (and well subtitled) programme on BBC4 devoted to what the title called The Great British Biscuit (though somehow the Oreo snuck in there). It was one of Nigel Slater's journeys back to the foodstuffs of his childhood and he was just the man for the job (he did the same thing with sweets last year, and his book Toast is just full of the delights and comforts of the things we first eat and drink in childhood). Slater remembers and understands the impact and deep meanings of food (especially sweet things) to the growing child, and the intense emotional involvement with particular kinds of sweets and biscuits. My own idea of the very pinnacle of biscuit perfection was Huntley and Palmer's Milk and Honey biscuit - a decorated oval cream sandwich with an oval cutout filled with some kind of ultra-delicious honey mixture. It's been described as a 'custard cream on steroids', but that does no justice to its formal elegance and sheer effortless class. It's no longer available, of course - and anyway I rarely eat biscuits now. They've gone from being an essential staple, a comfort and a delight to having virtually no place in my life.
  Among many other brands (I never met a biscuit I didn't like - unless it was those little pink wafers, about which Slater was, I thought, over-generous), I was partial to the Tunnock's Caramel Wafer (though the Tunnock's Tea Cake was no competition for the magnificent Munchmallow). Tunnock's is a Scottish firm, and at the University of St Andrews some bright sparks set up, in 1981, a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society - a typical piece of laboured undergraduate wackiness. Amazingly, it is still going strong, and duly featured in Slater's programme. In its early days, the society used to send out Caramel Wafers to the great and good, inviting them to autograph and return the wrappers. Among those who did - three times, on three wrappers - was the craggy Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes, who not only signed his name but scrawled a few lines of verse. Here they are - the Ted Hughes Tunnock's Trilogy:

1. To have swallowed a Crocodile
    Would make anybody smile.
    But to swallow a Caramel Wafer
    Is safer.

2. St Columbus [?Columba] ate a heifer
    then wrote a psalm on the hide
    Good News!
    So I ate a Caramel Wafer
    and rhymed on the wrapper's inside.

3.Where the Devil can't get
   He sends the Old Woman.

Perhaps that last couplet strayed from somewhere else...

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Research news

Researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand have been conducting a 'trial' in which a group of husbands had to agree with their wives' every statement and request, regardless of whether it was, in their eyes, right or wrong. The impact on the men's 'happiness' was so calamitous that the 'experiment' had to be abandoned, leaving the women only very slightly 'happier' and the men quivering wrecks (as we scientists put it). Conclusion: 'The results of the trial show that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end.' Who'd have thought? Needless to say, 'more research is needed', the obvious next step being to swap the sexes round and see how it goes. Meanwhile, we are left to wonder what any of this tells us, what possible use such 'findings' could have - and how this stuff ended up in the BMJ.
 For myself, I'm all for further research. Since agreeing with everything has such dire effects, it surely follows that disagreeing with everything the Mrs says is the way to optimal happiness. I'll let you know how I get on...

Tuesday 17 December 2013


Born on this day in 1807 was the Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier - hugely popular in his day (though the critics weren't uniformly kind) and today all but forgotten, except as the writer of the beautiful hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. This was not written as a hymn, but is taken from a much longer poem, The Brewing of Soma, about the dangerous practices of Vedic priests. What's more, Hubert Parry's great melody Repton, to which the hymn is sung in Britain - and which fits it so perfectly - was not written for Whittier's words but as an aria in his oratorio Judith. It was adapted to Whittier's verse by the director of music at Repton - hence the name.
  For myself, I also remember Whittier for the stirring narrative poem Barbara Frietchie, a favourite of my father's and a regular feature of his impromptu morning recitations. I even remember fragments of it:

'Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand,
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.'

Into this Edenic scene rides Stonewall Jackson's cavalry...

'Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her four score years and ten'

and defiantly she raises the Union flag in her attic window.

'"Halt!" - the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
"Fire!" - out blazed the rifle-blast.'

But Barbara Frietchie isn't done yet.

'"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.'

Jackson is shamed, his conscience stirred.

'"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.'

How's that for caesura? You can read the whole poem here...

Monday 16 December 2013

Ravilious, Cricket, Canary

A very welcome birthday present last weekend was a handsome volume of Eric Ravilious Wood Engravings, beautifully produced by the Mainstone Press. The versatile and prolific Ravilious was as naturally gifted a wood engraver as he was a watercolorist, a true heir of the great Thomas Bewick. And one of his most successful pieces of work was the wood engraving of old-fahioned, tall-hatted gentlemen cricketers that has graced the dust-wrapper of every edition of Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack since 1938 - though now in sadly reduced format.
  Ravilious loved cricket and was an occasional player. In 1935 he turned out for the Double Crown Club - essentially a dining club for book publishers, designers and illustrators - at the beautiful ground on the hill above Castle Hedingham (where Ravilious lived at the time, with his wife Tirzah). He reported that he was 'not out, hit four balls and made 1, also bowled a few overs  and in consequence feel as stiff as a poker' (every occasional cricketer knows that feeling...). Playing another game at the same ground only weeks before the outbreak of the war, he tonked three sixes over the boundary - 'one of the pleasures of life,' he recalled afterwards, 'hitting a six.'
 Ravilious took up wood engraving young - before he had discovered his abilities in watercolour and lithography. Tirzah recalled seeing him at work at his parents' house in Eastbourne. The family's pet canary 'was very fond of him and would sit on his head or flutter on his fingers and peck at the chips from his woodblock while he engraved. Eric was very good at whistling and, by curling up the tip of his tongue and then straightening it in his mouth, he could produce a double note. The bird loved his whistling and would sing so loudly that we were unable to hear ourselves speak and he would have to be removed  to another room...'
 Eric Ravilious was appointed an official war artist in 1940. In September 1942, he flew with an RAF air-sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland which never returned to base. He was just 39.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Talking of enjambment...

That's exactly what I'm doing, over on The Dabbler.

Thursday 12 December 2013

'Their babies are maggots'

I caught this arresting insight into the life cycle of the fly on the radio this morning. Some chap was talking about a pretty damning report into conditions in GPs' surgeries, one of which had been found to have maggots crawling about on the floor. What had happened, this chap explained, was that some rubbish bags, which should have been outside, had attracted flies. And the thing about flies, you see, is that 'their babies are maggots'. What a sweet image that conjures up - Mummy and Daddy Fly doting on their little wriggling offspring: 'Look at the dear little things' coos Daddy Fly, laying a protective wing on Mummy Fly's thorax. 'Didn't we do well?'  I bet the Chap is (was?) the kind of GP who talks about 'tummies' and 'collywobbles' and 'Mums' and asks 'How are we?'
 Still, we needn't worry about this report. Another chap popped up to assure us that 'the point is around rectifying problems'. A deft deployment of that fine weasel word 'around' - a sure sign that someone has fouled up.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

'His just fame waking, though his loved dust sleep'

I came across this beautiful epitaph while browsing in an anthology the other day. It was written by Lady Catherine Dyer for her husband, Sir William, who died in 1641, and can be seen in the church of St Denis at Colmworth in Bedfordshire.
The epitaph looks like a sonnet, but  its 14 lines are made up simply of seven rhymed couplets, some of them elegantly enjambed. It is in fact the second half of a two-part epitaph, the first part of which (16 lines long) is rather more formal and lacks the intimacy and direct emotional power of the grief-stricken continuation. 'His just fame waking, though his loved dust sleep' is a beautiful line though. Both parts can be read here, with a little background information.
This (the second part) is surely one of the great English epitaphs...

My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Anthology 17

The workstorm rages. Time for a poem... Here's one by Emily Dickinson, born on this day in 1830 - a poet with a voice so entirely, sharply distinctive and original that it still startles.

A Bird, came down the Walk - 
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass -
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass -
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad -
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. - 
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home -
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Monday 9 December 2013

Pot, Kettle?

I awoke this morning to news that the likes of Google are protesting vigorously over state surveillance of online communications. Fair enough - but hang on a minute, I thought. I'm a Googlemail user, and every time I open my inbox (why does that phrase always sound faintly indecent - or is it just me?) I am confronted with ample evidence of Google's relentless surveillance of my supposedly private correspondence. Not that I particulary mind, but those ads that keep popping up all over the page are clearly triggered by supposed clues gleaned from my emails. Sometimes they're vaguely appropriate (though there's never yet been one I've picked up on), sometimes they're comically wide of the mark. Today's clutch has included  familiar 'are you owed money?' messages from banks, Are You Writing A Book? (go away), Mezzanine Flooring (where did that come from?), Shipping to Malaysia (??) and Grit Bins. Hmm. To raise the tone, I sent a mail to myself asking where I could buy a Lamborghini (not that I would, even if I drove). Straight away I got an exclusive invitation to the Armani private sale (not that I would...). Clearly Google are using much the same kind of surveillance technology as the State; the difference is that they can't claim they're doing it to keep us safe - they're doing it to flog us stuff.

Friday 6 December 2013

The Big O

It was on this day in 1988 that Roy Orbison died, at the early age of 52. I remember it well as I heard the news the next day, on my birthday. Much has been said and written about Orbison's beautiful, broken-hearted voice, which Elvis regarded as the greatest he had ever heard. Dwight Yoakam described it as being like 'the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window'. Well yes, it's all true...
I was interested to find a link to this, his last substantial interview - in which he talks of, among other things, his faith - on the invaluable Books Inq blog yesterday.
But here is Roy duetting with Emmylou Harris - two great voices for the price of one. Enjoy (or weep, or both)...

Thursday 5 December 2013

Anthology 16

Here's something to counteract the chill of a blowy December day - John Clare observing a sultry high summer noon. As usual with Clare, he doesn't bother with punctuation, but this is a correct and regular English sonnet. As usual too, the poet is absent. Clare is a seeing eye and a hearing ear, his verse a rapt notation of the natural world around him. He describes it tenderly, with a clear eye and scrupulous care.

The midday hour of twelve the clock counts oer
A sultry stillness lulls the air asleep
The very buzz of flye is heard no more
Nor faintest wrinkles oer the waters creep
Like one large sheet of glass the waters shine
Reflecting on their face the burnt sunbeam
The very fish their sturting play decline
Seeking the willow shadows side the stream
And where the hawthorn branches oer the pool
The little bird forsaking song and nest
Flutters on dripping twigs his limbs to cool
And splashes in the stream his burning breast
O free from thunder for a sudden shower
To cherish nature in this noon-day hour.

['sturting' means contending]

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Magimiks Bilong Yesus (and other useful terms)

I happened upon this little wordlist yesterday and it made me laugh, so I pass it on in the interest of spreading good cheer. It also shows remarkable creative ingenuity in making a handful of words express a wide range of meanings, sometimes achieving a kind of poetry. This particular form of pidgin English is called Tok Pisin and is widely spoken in Papua New Guinea. In Tok Pisin, Prince Philip is known as 'oldfella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin'. On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the Prince is revered as the errant son of a local mountain god, he is known more respectfully as 'number one bigfella him bilong Misis Queen'.

liklik box you pull him he cry you push him he cry – an accordion
bigfella iron walking stick him go bang along topside – a rifle
skru bilong han (screw belong arm) – elbow
gras bilong het (grass belong head) – hair
maus gras (mouth grass) – moustache
gras bilong fes (grass belong face) – beard
bel hevi (belly heavy) – the heavy sinking feeling that often accompanies extreme sadness
magimiks bilong Yesus (Magimix belong Jesus) – helicopter
pen bilong maus (pen belong mouth) – lipstick
bun nating (bone nothing) – a very thin person
tit i gat windua bilong em (teeth have window belong him) – a broken-off tooth
sikispela lek (six legs) – man with two wives
susok man (shoe sock man) – urbanite
frok-bel (frog belly) – obese person
pato-lek (duck legs) – waddling person
emti tin (empty tin) – person who speaks nonsense
flat taia (flat tire) – exhausted person
smok balus (smoke bird) – jet airplane
poket bruk (pocket broken) – out of money
bagarap (bugger up) – broken, to break down
haus moni (house money) – bank
haus sik (house sick) – hospital
belhat (belly hot) – angry

Tuesday 3 December 2013

R.S. Thomas again

Over on The Dabbler, I look at R.S. Thomas as a great comic figure. But, lest we forget, he was also a great poet (or something very like it), and a tender, true and complicated heart beat beneath that  rebarbative surface. It speaks here in this beautiful  late poem that attests to the enduring love in his strange and difficult relationship with his wife Mildred (Elsi), to whom he was married for 51 years. It's a delicate and subtle piece of work, its artistry concealed by its deftly managed, seemingly natural flow. And it was written by the glowering man in the Dabbler photograph...


My luminary,
my morning and evening
star. My light at noon
when there is no sun
and the sky lowers. My balance
of joy in a world
that has gone off joy's
standard. Yours the face
that young I recognised
as though I had known you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint.
Before a green altar
with the thrush for priest
I took those gossamer
vows that neither the Church
could stale nor the Machine
tarnish, that with the years
have grown hard as flint,
lighter than platinum
on our ringless fingers. 

Monday 2 December 2013

From Piccadilly Weepers to the Great Hippocampus Question, via Dundreary and Lincoln

'Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library...'
  So begins The Tractate Middoth, a ghost story by M.R. James (of which a TV adaptation is promised this Christmas). 'Piccadilly weepers', eh? I vaguely knew they were some kind of face whiskers, but what I didn't know was that they are the same style as the (slightly) better known Dundrearies, extravagant sidewhiskers that were strangely popular among Victorian gents. 
 Why Dundrearies? They were named for Lord Dundreary, a stage character who sported them in the popular play Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor. Dundreary was the very epitome of the brainless but good-natured English aristo (a kind of precursor of the great Bertie Wooster). Originally conceived as a minor character, Dundreary grew to monstrous proportions thanks to the actor Edward Askew Sothern, who gradually expanded the role with a profusion of ad-libs and stage business until Lord Dundreary became the main attraction of the play. Dundreary's mangling of English proverbs - often conflating two, as in 'Birds of a feather gather no moss' - started a brief but intense fashion for such 'Dundrearyisams', which were thought howlingly funny at the time. 
 The most famous performance of Our American Cousin was of course at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, on April 14, 1865 - in the course of which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His killer John Wilkes Booth timed his shot for a moment when the uproarious laughter of the audience would mask the sound. Booth fired after this sure-fire comic gem, which always (as it were) slayed them: 'Don't know the manners of good society, eh?' [says Asa Trenchard to Mrs Mountchessington] 'Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out - you sockdologising old man-trap!' Cue gales of helpless laughter.
 Such was the fame of Lord Dundreary that Charles Kingsley wrote a speech for him - on the Great Hippocampus Question - as a parody of the kind of debates then raging around evolutionary theory. You can actually see and hear this speech (somewhat unsettlingly) on YouTube. The reader does a great job but doesn't sound much like an English aristo. Quite mad.

Friday 29 November 2013

Anthology 15

Enough of the madness - it's time for a poem (and there might well be more to come - the pre-Christmas workstorm looms). This one is by Mark Doty, whose prose works I've mentioned once of twice before. It's a beautifully simple, lucid poem, which really needs no exposition...


The children have brought their wood turtle
into the dining hall
because they want us to feel

the power they have
when they hold a house
in their own hands, want us to feel

alien lacquer and the little thrill
that he might, like God, show his face.
He’s the color of ruined wallpaper,

of cognac, and he’s closed,
pulled in as though he’ll never come out;
nothing shows but the plummy leather

of the legs, his claws resembling clusters
of diminutive raspberries.
They know he makes night

anytime he wants, so perhaps
he feels at the center of everything,
as they do. His age,

greater than that of anyone
around the table, in a room
from which they are excluded,

though they don’t mind,
since they can carry this perfect
building anywhere. They love

that he he might poke out
his old, old face, but doesn’t.
I think the children smell unopened,

like unlit candles, as they heft him
around the table, praise his secrecy,
holding to each adult face

his prayer,
the single word of the shell,
which is no.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Smoking, NICE...

Talking of madness... Reports of 'Number Ten' being about to U-turn into going full steam ahead towards plain packaging for cigarettes reminded me of this once-popular brand - attractively priced, I seem to remember, for the schoolboy pocket. Apparently, obliterating most of today's cigarette packets with the words 'Smoking Kills' and lurid pictures of diseased lungs is seen in some quarters as being as good as saying 'Come on, kids - you're never too young to smoke!' So plain packaging it must be.
  This 'news' coincided with more pressure from the amusingly named NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) to ban patients and staff alike from smoking (or indeed facilitating smoking) anywhere in the vicinity of an NHS hospital - and, if staff insist on smoking, they must change out of their uniforms. Happily NHS staff - especially nurses, many of whom subsist largely on fags, tea and chocs - will never stand for this, but I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to foist a total smoking ban on patients. As if they weren't suffering enough, and as if it would make the slightest bit of difference to their health. If NICE genuinely cared about patients, they would never contemplate such a thing - and if they're worried about patients' health and wellbeing they should focus their attention on the notoriously uneatable and unhealthy food doled out (and mostly left uneaten) in NHS hospitals. Meanwhile, the anti-smoking wowsers inch ever closer to what they really want - a total ban on smoking, by anyone, anywhere.

Wednesday 27 November 2013


That the world has gone mad we need not doubt; each day's 'news' brings further proof of it. However, even I - hardened as I am to all this - was mildly stunned by Monday's news that tickets for the first Monty Python reunion show had sold out in 43.5 seconds. Yes, 43.5 seconds. Clearly there are millions of people out there who have been waiting for this moment - the chance to see five smug old men totter and mug their way through 40-year-old comedy routines that the audience already know by heart (and that don't even adapt well to the stage).
  Let us recapitulate. Monty Python's Flying Circus was a TV comedy show that ran from 1969 to 1974 (by which time it was some way past its best). At the time it had us all in thrall - yes, myself included - because of its genuine and extraordinary formal innovations: television comedy had never
looked like this before, with sketches flowing into and out of each other (and through the 'fourth wall'), interspersed with surreally styled animations. It felt fresh and new - it was. But the trouble with originality is that it so soon becomes commonplace convention, especially in a fast-moving medium like TV. Nothing dates faster than le dernier cri, and Monty Python dated very fast. By the time the first repeats came around, I was already beginning to wonder quite what I'd seen in it - and now to watch it again makes for painful viewing. Yes, there were funny sketches, but the shows were very patchy indeed, the comedy was often laboured, and the prevailing tone - of cleverclogs undergraduate comedy, with nasty undertones of social snobbery and misogyny - seems pretty repellent now.
  It's notable that when John Cleese later moved on to make the traditionally structured sitcom Fawlty Towers - panned at the time as hopelessly old-fashioned - he and Connie Booth created a classic. Coming across episodes of that again, for the nth time, I always find it impossible not to laugh; it is perhaps the most expertly precision-crafted comedy that's ever made made for British television. By contrast, to watch Python again is to pay an embarrassing revisit to one's impressionable youth - unless of course you are one of the millions who, it seems, are firmly convinced that it remains what is seemed all those years ago: comedy genius.

'Now, about that overdraft...'

Born on this day in 1920 was Henry Merryfield. A big strapping 9lb baby, he was immediately nicknamed Buster by his granddad, and Buster he remained, to the point where scarcely anyone knew his real name. As Buster Merryfield, he achieved fame late in life, playing the seafaring Uncle Albert (catchphrase 'During the war...') in the massively successful sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
 Something of a fitness fiend, Buster had been a boxing champion in his day, and was a PT and jungle warfare instructor 'during the war' - at which time he also got his first taste of the biz we call show, serving as an entertainment officer. However, when hostilities ceased, he was already married and about to become a father, so he elected to take the safe option - returning to the then National Westminster Bank, where he has been employed before the war.
  The amazing thing is that he stayed there until his retirement. While spending much of his spare time in amateur theatricals, Buster Merryfield didn't turn professional until after he had retired from what was by then NatWest. He had clocked up 40 years of service, man and boy, and risen to be manager of the Thames Ditton branch in Surrey. Surely this was the most unlikely bank manager ever - and surely the only bank manager ever to make the switch to much-loved sitcom stalwart. He must also have been alone among bank managers in having his face framed by such a mighty beard - what would Captain Mainwaring say?

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Good News for Pigs

Pannage is one of those lovely, half-gone words - like curtilage and messuage - that link us to our medieval past. Pannage is the ancient practice of releasing domestic pigs into woodland to feed on acorns, beech mast, nuts and whatever else they might fancy. It has largely passed out of use in Britain (despite the fact that the acorns give the pigs' meat a highly prized distinctive flavour), but it is still practised in the New Forest, where the pannage right of Forest commoners comes under the title Common of Mast.
  As I've mentioned before, 2013 has been a prodigious Mast Year - and this is great news for the acorn-loving pigs of the New Forest, if bad news for the ponies and cattle, to whom acorns are poisonous. Sadly, unusually large numbers of these have succumbed to acorn poisoning this year, so the New Forest Verderers (another fine word) have decided to extend the pannage season beyond the usual 60 days, allowing the pigs to hoover up more of the toxic nuts.With large numbers of pigs - intelligent, inquisitive, usually placid but ever unpredictable - at large in the Forest, there have been a few Incidents. In one, a group of a dozen pigs gave chase to a policeman and his dog ('They just rounded on me,' he explained). Now there's a scene that would have delighted Wodehouse...

Monday 25 November 2013

Axing The Master

I haven't been to see the newly refurbished Tate Britain yet. Nor have I visited the current exhibition there, titled Art Under Attack - a display of pieces that have been deliberately damaged over the years by iconoclasts of one kind and another. Reading about the exhibition, I was startled to discover that John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of Henry James - a 70th birthday gift to the Master and (of course) a superb picture - was among the works attacked.
  It happened on a May afternoon in 1914 when the portrait was hanging in Room III of the Royal Academy.  Among the gallery goers was a sweet-seeming silver-haired old lady, clad in a voluminous purple overcloak - from the folds of which she produced a large meat chopper and set about the blameless portrait, gashing the canvas in three separate places with three strong and methodical blows, before she was overcome by bystanders. The police were promptly on the scene and hustled her away, out of the reach of an outraged public, who in her absence set about a man who had appeared to be defending her, and drove him from the building, breaking his spectacles over his nose (he later claimed for a new pair).
 The axewoman, who was discovered to be a suffragist called Mrs Mary Wood, had little to say for herself in court, beyond observing at one point that if the painting had been by a woman, the valuation (£700) would have been much lower. Earlier she had remarked that 'If they only gave women the vote, this would never have happened' - a line of argument that sounds all too familiar as a justification for later, infinitely darker acts of terrorism.
  Heaven knows why Mrs Wood should have targeted perhaps the two public figures of their time least representative of an oppressive patriarchy - James and Sargent. The damage to the painting was of course repaired, and the attack on it surely did nothing to advance the cause of women's suffrage. In a letter to a meeting of the Women's Social and Political Union, Mrs W declared that 'I have tried to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor their art treasures until women are given political freedom.' Suffragists, Lady Isabel Margresson added, had no wish to damage works of art, but were 'driven to these straits'. Well, quite.

Friday 22 November 2013

Ekphrastic Gunn

I only recently came across the word Ekphrasis (adj. ekphrastic), but I've been enjoying Ekphrasis, all unknowing, for many years. It describes a work of art (or part of one) whose subject is another work of art - from Homer on the shield of Achilles to Keats on that Grecian urn, Walter Pater on the Mona Lisa... and, by way of a more recent example, Thom Gunn on a painting by Edouard Vuillard (which I'm pretty sure must be the one above). Ekphrasis lends itself very well to the blog form - painting and poem together in one place. I shall probably be posting more such ekphrastic pairings as I come across them...
  Gunn's poem - strongly formal and controlled, neatly divided into two unequal parts, 8:12 - begins with his remembered love of the painting and what he saw portrayed there; then, after the break, contrasts it with his own experience of growing older. Age, Gunn finds, is not as it seemed in the picture, 'not simpler' - but at least it is not 'less enjoyable'. Looking about him on the steps of the National Gallery (in Washington, DC, where a Vuillard exhibition was held in 2003, the year before Gunn's death), he finds the world still vividly present, 'pungent and startling'. The painting, which he 'loved' (past tense), has actually told him nothing about growing old - why should it?- but it has gifted him an image, and the seed of an ekphrastic poem.

Painting by Vuillard

Two dumpy women with buns were drinking coffee
In a narrow kitchen—at least I think a kitchen
And I think it was whitewashed, in spite of all the shade.
They were flat brown, they were as brown as coffee.
Wearing brown muslin? I really could not tell.
How I loved this painting, they had grown so old
That everything had got less complicated,
Brown clothes and shade in a sunken whitewashed kitchen.

But it’s not like that for me: age is not simpler
Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed.
The people sitting on the marble steps
Of the national gallery, people in the sunlight,
A party of handsome children eating lunch
And drinking chocolate milk, and a young woman
Whose t-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER,
And wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras
Are vivid, they are not browned, not in the least,
But if they do not look like coffee they look
As pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes,
Possibly mixed with chicory. And no cream.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Science News

Still limping along behind Nature, science - in this case the science of waterproof surfaces - shifts its focus from the water-repellent Lotus leaf to the still more water-repellent Nasturtium leaf and the beautiful wings of the Morpho butterfly. The result has been 'the most super-hydrophobic surfaces yet' - yet made by the hand of man, that is. Why is it that biotechnology never seems to get beyond such minor improvements on what we already have? Where are the suspension bridges we were promised, made of synthetic spider silk? I was looking forward to those...
  Also on the science front, I was delighted - as an inveterate nut-eater - to read the latest on the indubitable benefits my favourite snack. By my calculations, if I eat five handfuls a day I'll never die.


Today is the centenary of the birth of the Boulting brothers - identical twins Roy and John - who between them made a string of classic British films, from the Forties (Brighton Rock, 1947) through the Fifties and Sixties - Seven Days to Noon, Private's Progress, Lucky Jim, I'm All Right Jack, Heavens Above!, The Family Way... In the process, they assembled a repertory company of great comedy and character actors, from Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price to John le Mesurier, Irene Handl and Miles Malleson - not to mention Peter Sellers, whose brilliant performance as shop steward Fred Kite ('Aah Russia - all them corn fields and ballet in the evening') in I'm All Right Jack propelled him to stardom.
I saw many of these films - in the grand, smoke-filled, family-filled, laughter-filled cinemas of my boyhood - when they came out, and they gave me some of my happiest movie-going experiences. There's a clip of Sellers as Fred Kite (among others - Terry-Thomas, Sam Kydd, Cardew Robinson!) here... That is genius-level comedy acting by Sellers - a shame he so seldom achieved such heights again after he became an international star.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

'It is hard to hear the north wind again...'

A grim November day, with a bitter wind. Time for Wallace Stevens -

The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Oddly, Philip Larkin, at the other end of the year, also sees the trees 'saying, saying', or almost saying...

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Larkin's home town of Hull was today named as UK City of Culture for 2017. Somehow I doubt the poet (or his pen pal Kingsley) would have been very impressed.

Talking Mongoose, Expiring Frog

Over on The Dabbler, I tell the tale of Gef (pronounced Jeff) the Talking Mongoose - but my thoughts today are with Darwin's Frog. This curious species - named after the great naturalist and notable for the male's habit of rearing his tadpole young in his vocal sacs, then coughing them out at full term - seems to have demonstrated the evolutionary necessity of extinction by, er, becoming extinct. Mrs Leo Hunter's Ode to an Expiring Frog (as featured in the Pickwick Papers, and in the Dickens section of Harold Bloom's Genius) comes to mind:

'Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log,
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!'

Tuesday 19 November 2013

A Little Beauty

For some reason, my alarm clock didn't go off this morning - but in the event this malfunction gifted me a walk through the park (to catch a later train at a different station). A glorious late autumn morning it was too, with blue skies and dazzling sun - and there, in the bend of the river, close by the path, a snow-white Little Egret. I've written before about my encounters with egrets (egrets, I've had a few...), but usually this elegant bird is keeping its distance, standing apart from the other birds, ready to take flight at any moment. This one, however, was consorting happily with a bunch of park mallards and showed not the slightest anxiety as I walked past, within a few yards. It seems that, like the heron before it, the egret is turning domestic, adapting to a suburbia where there is nothing to fear from us humans - except perhaps getting hit on the head by a stray piece of bread. Well, each one of these fine birds is a welcome splash of heart-lifting beauty.


Talking of rotund fellows, last night on the television I caught one 'Lord Harris of Haringey' deploring the limited 'legacy' effect of the London Olympics. Without batting an eyelid, he spoke, from the depths of his many chins, of the growing 'obesity epidemic'. Rather than post a picture of this fine figure of a man (and exemplary public figure), I shall simply refer you to his Wikipedia entry. Enough said.

Monday 18 November 2013

Flowers of Indulgence

We Brits have, I'm sorry to say, been deriving a lot of guilty enjoyment from the antics of  that rampaging id Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto - the latest Ford news is here, combined with handy links to previous jaw-droppers. I was particularly amused, I must say, by Ford's 'defence' that on the occasion he was filmed hitting the crack cocaine big-time, he was already in a drunken stupor (so that was all right then). Surely the people of  the apparently very civilised city of Toronto have done nothing to deserve having a guy like this in charge, though presumably they voted him in at some stage...
  But what about us Brits - do we have a figure to compete with Rob Ford? Surely not, I thought - until yesterday's news of Methodist minister Paul Flowers, who until recently was Chairman of the squeaky-clean 'ethical' Co-Op Bank. This pillar of the community has been caught on camera (shortly after appearing before a parliamentary committee looking into a black hole in the Co-Op's finances), shelling out folding money for recreational drugs, and boasting about 'stocking up on Charlie, ket and crystal', his plan being 'to get wasted'. Nice work, if not quite in the Rob Ford league.
 What's striking about both these men is their rotund build (suggesting an appetite for food as vigorous as their appetite for other pleasures). 'Let me have men about me that are fat,' said Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Seems he might have been wrong. 

Friday 15 November 2013

The Meaning of Existence

Who could resist a poem with that title? Not me, for sure - especially as it's so pleasingly compact. Indeed it's from a 2002 collection called Poems the Size of Photographs, by Australia's GLP (greatest living poet) Les Murray, who normally tends more towards poems very much larger, denser, more highly coloured and freely worked.
Here is his lucid miniature, which surely speaks for itself:

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Writer Brings Down Government!

Born on this day in 1907 was the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, whose wonderful creations Pippi Longstocking and the Bullerby Children have surely secured her immortality, as long as children read books. She also has the rare distinction among authors - especially children's authors - of having brought down a government.
  Well, that's a slight exaggeration, but in 1976 Lindgren made the startling discovery that she was paying tax at a marginal rate of 102 per cent. Even by social democratic standards, that's steep - a rate of taxation that actually makes people give the state more money than they have earned. The situation came about because Sweden's Social Democrat government had taken to charging the self-employed not only punitive income tax but also employer's fees.
  Lindgren was moved to write a satirical squib, Pomperipossa in the World of Money, which was published in a tabloid newspaper and sparked a stormy debate about the Swedish tax system. This issue was widely thought to have been decisive in the defeat of the Social Democrat government - for the first time in four decades - in the general election later that year.
  Lindgren, however, remained a Social Democrat supporter all her life.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Full Yeats

I was in Kensington Gardens just now, admiring the autumn beauty of the tulip trees, when a small flock of swans flew over, low and loud... How often does that happen - the full Yeats: Autumn beauty and clamorous bell-beat?

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings   
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?

Tavener: Does Not Compute

The death of Sir John Tavener has received a surprising amount (for a classical composer) of media attention, perhaps because of his 'rock star' status, his signing by the Beatles' Apple label, and his undeniable popularity - a rare thing in the classical world these days. But there's been a degree of awkwardness in the tributes, I think because of the uncomfortable (to some) fact that Tavener was overwhelmingly a religious, specifically a Christian, composer, a devout Orthodox believer who once said that 'My way towards God has been to write music.'
  This, it seems, does not compute in the minds of our cultural elite - modernism and religion surely don't sit together; we live in a secular age where religion is marginal, an individual quirk. It was interesting to hear Michael Berkeley and Roger Wright talking to fellow panjandrum Jim Naughtie on the radio this morning. Wright was especially keen to wrest our attention from what he called the 'holy minimalism' of Tavener's later work and back to his more conventionally avant-garde beginnings, while Naughtie dismissively referred to overt spirituality in music as a 'fashion' of the Eighties and Nineties(!)
  The trouble is that the likes of Naughtie and Wright take it for granted that we live in a secular age - and there is much, at least in the public sphere, to suggest that secularism does indeed prevail. The default position of the 'educated' classes is now an unexamined agnosticism or, increasingly, atheism, and there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who doesn't share this world view is at best outside the mainstream, at worst plain bonkers.
 However, when it comes to the highest forms of expression - music in particular, but also poetry - you could argue that Christian spirituality is the mainstream, even the mainstream of modernism. Tavener was hardly a lone voice in a musical landscape that includes the likes of Arvo Part, Knut Nystedt, John Rutter, Peteris Vasks and James MacMillan. A bit further back are the towering figures of two great Christian agnostics, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Messiaen and (the later) Poulenc. Similarly, in English poetry the two dominant modernists were the Anglo-Catholic Eliot and the Roman Catholic Auden, who between them wrote some of the greatest religious verse of any age  (to say nothing of the polymorphous spirituality of Yeats).
 News of the death of God seems to have been remarkably slow in reaching many of our greatest poets and composers.

Sunday 10 November 2013

November Admiral

Last night I dreamed two Peacock butterflies, basking in unseasonal warmth in a stubble field. There was talk of a Swift too (a November swift!), but I didn't see it.
  This morning - Remembrance Sunday, sunny but crisp and cool - I was on my way to the shops, walking along by the side of the former Town Hall (1935 - 'decidedly pretty,' says Pevsner) when, to my astonishment, a Red Admiral swooped down towards me. I felt a great surge of sudden happiness as it flew past very close, took a graceful circular flight, then returned and settled, wings fully open, on a sunny window transom. For some while it basked there - a fresh bright specimen in all its summer pomp - before taking off on another circuit, then back to the window for more November sun. Finally it flew away and was lost from view...
  Tomorrow is my mother's funeral.
  Of course this butterfly was not a messenger.
  Of course it was.

Friday 8 November 2013

Quietly Great

Time for a painting - and a memory of Venice. Above is a Crucifixion by Paolo Veronese which hangs in the church of San Sebastiano, where the artist painted extensively over the years, and where his tomb is. The Crucifixion is easily overlooked in such a lavishly painted interior but, once noticed,  is all the more powerful for its understated, almost stark simplicity.
 Veronese's art is, I think, somewhat underrated these days, overshadowed by the unarguable all-round genius of Titian and the fierce emotional intensity of Tintoretto. Veronese's greatness lies in his use of colour - if he was not the greatest colorist ever, it's hard to say who was - and in his effortless mastery of large, densely populated compositions. Perhaps it's the effortlessness (or rather its appearance) that is the problem - that and the fact that colour is easily undervalued by those who look to paintings for 'meaning'. His work quite blatantly give pleasure too, and that is always suspect to the more puritanically minded - Veronese simply doesn't seem 'serious' enough to be a true great.
 Well, even if we accept the need for 'seriousness' and more tangled emotions than pure pleasure, the San Sebastiano Crucifixion seemed to me when I last saw it (a few weeks ago - how long it seems...) to be entirely serious, and to pack the emotional and spiritual punch of a Tintoretto. The subdued and limited palette (the colour of that sullen sky is extraordinary), the simple but perfect composition, the grief expressed by every detail of the mourning women's posture - all suggest to me an artist more than capable of intense emotion and serious spirituality. It may be a 'minor' Veronese, but it seems to me a quietly great painting.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Tangling with a Flat-Earther

Today is the centenary of the death of the great biologist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace's star has been rising lately, thanks in part to the promotional efforts of scientist-comedian (they're becoming increasingly indistinguishable) Bill Bailey, who was again talking about Wallace on Radio 4 this morning. I thought there might even be a Google doodle, but no...
  In his time, Wallace, despite his brilliance, fell foul of many of his fellow scientists for taking a lively interest in spiritualism and survival after death. He was also strongly opposed to vaccination. However, on the question of the curvature of the Earth, he was entirely orthodox - so, when one John Hampden offered £500 to anyone who could prove convex curvature in a body of water, the always cash-strapped Wallace took up the wager.
  Hampden was a supporter of Samuel Rowbotham, founder of Zetetic Astronomy, a system that proposed a flat, disc-shaped Earth, centred on the North Pole and bounded by ice. Rowbotham's observational experiments on water had satisfied him and his followers that the Earth is indeed flat. But, as Wallace realised, Rowbotham and others had not allowed for refraction when making their observations. By setting up the sight line 13ft above the water, Wallace was able to demonstrate clearly that there is indeed a perceptible curvature in a large body of water, and he was declared winner of the wager.
 Unfortunately, this was not good enough for the pugnacious Hampden, who accused Wallace of cheating, refused to accept the result, and pursued him relentlessly through the courts, until he was himself imprisoned for libel and threatening to kill Wallace. Unfortunately, the court also ruled that Wallace must return the wager money as the bet was not valid.
 Here is one of Hampden's letters to Wallace's wife:

Mrs. Wallace,
Madam — If your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason. Do you tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed.
You must be a miserable wretch to be obliged to live with a convicted felon. Do not think or let him think I have done with him.
John Hampden

 Charming. Flat Earth Theory lives on, of course, and there is still a Flat Earth Society, based in Lancaster, California. One thinks of Masters of Atlantis and the Gnomon Society of America...

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Book Dominoes

This is fun, and gloriously pointless...

Jeffery Farnol: Not a Morning Person

The other night - or rather in the small hours of the other morning - I became dozily aware that a swashbuckling drama was being enacted on Radio 4 Extra. It was a corker too - a full-on melodramatic pirate adventure set on the Spanish Main, with lashings of romance and strife and smiting of villainous dogs. What on earth is this, I wondered, and listened on fascinated - after all, it's not often you come across such stuff on the radio these days. At the end I discovered that it was a dramatisation (dating, susprisingly, from a mere five years ago) of Martin Conisby's Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol. There's an amusing review of the novel (a sequel to Black Bartlemy's Treasure) here...
  Jeffery Farnol. There's a name that's a regular presence on the charity bookshop shelves (and nowhere much else) - The Broad Highway, The Money Moon, The Amateur Gentleman... Wikipedia describes Farnol as the co-founder, with Georgette Heyer, of the Regency romantic genre - which is odd, as Farnol (born 1878) was already an established bestselling author before Heyer had published anything. And now quite forgotten (unlike Georgette Heyer, who is still read and valued).
  This blog is in danger of becoming a refuge for forgotten authors - most of them deservedly forgotten - but it's always heartening to muse on how the perceived giants of one age can be headed for oblivion in the next. The portrait of Jeffery Farnol in Wikipedia is pretty dry, but he seems to have been - at least in his younger years - quite as rambunctious as his heroes. There's a vivid account of him by his younger brother Eward here. I particularly like this detail:
He who had always been a sunny tempered and happy fellow, became gloomy and quite beastly tempered before he had had his breakfast in the morning so that no one--not even Mother--could say a word to him without being swamped by his rage and nasty sayings. Alas this failing stayed with him through his life. After he had eaten and smoked his first pipe the gloom would pass away and he became his normal self again. Never once did I hear him offer any apology to anyone. He seemed to think it quite part of normal life. '
Clearly not a morning person, our Jeffery.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Cigars beneath the stars...

'I LIKE cigars
Beneath the stars,
Upon the waters blue.
To laugh and float
While rocks the boat
Upon the waves,--Don't you?
To rest the oar
And float to shore,--
While soft the moonbeams shine,--
To laugh and joke,
And idly smoke,
I think is quite divine.'

Who wrote those lines? Some pleasure-loving chap, no doubt - though 'quite divine' strikes a less than manly note... In fact, this celebration of the pleasures of a lazy smoke was written by the once hugely popular poet of moral uplift, good cheer and positive thinking, Ella Wheeler Wilcox (born on this day in 1850).
  If Wilcox is remembered at all, it is for the much more characteristic lines (from Solitude)

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.

In her lifetime the popularity of her verse was immense, but the death of her baby son and her husband led Wilcox to take an increasing interest in the occult, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, spiritualism and the fashionable New Thought Movement. Her (prose) writings in this field proved almost as popular as her verse. Wilcox was very much a woman of her time - hence her enormous popularity then, hence her obscurity now. However, she is memorialised  in (of all places) Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco, by the City Lights bookstore, where a paving slab is inscribed with her words 'Love lights more fires than hate extinguishes.'

Monday 4 November 2013

William Denis Browne

I caught a very beautiful song setting on Radio 3 yesterday, by a composer I'd never heard of. You can listen to it here, sung by Ian Bostridge -  Richard Lovelace's Gratiana Dancing and Singing, set to music  by William Denis Browne.
  Browne, I have since learnt, was killed in action in the Gallipoli campaign, at the age of just 26, shortly after having buried his close friend from schooldays, Rupert Brooke (who refused to take up his commission unless Denis Browne was given one too). Browne, full of promise as a composer, pianist, organist, teacher and music critic, was briefly a favoured student of the great Busoni, until (in Wikipedia's words) 'excessive piano practice led him to injure his hand'.
  Denis Browne chose the site for Brooke's grave and was with him when he died of septicaemia. In Browne's wallet, which he passed on to a petty officer before dying of his wounds (his body was never found), was a note to his friend and mentor Edward Marsh, which began 'I’ve gone now too; not too badly I hope. I’m luckier than Rupert, because I’ve fought. But there’s no one to bury me as I buried him, so perhaps he’s best off in the long run...'
  Here are the words of Lovelace's poem:
See! with what constant motion
Even and glorious, as the sunne,
Gratiana steeres that noble frame,
Soft as her breast, sweet as her voyce,
That gave each winding law and poyze,
And swifter then the wings of Fame.
She beat the happy pavement
By such a starre-made firmament,
Which now no more the roofe envies;
But swells up high with Atlas ev'n,
Bearing the brighter, nobler Heav'n,
And in her, all the Dieties.
Each step trod out a lovers thought
And the ambitious hopes he brought,
Chain'd to her brave feet with such arts,
Such sweet command and gentle awe,
As when she ceas'd, we sighing saw
The floore lay pav'd with broken hearts.
So did she move: so did she sing:
Like the harmonious spheres that bring
Unto their rounds their musick's ayd;
Which she performed such a way,
As all th' inamour'd world will say:
The Graces daunced, and Apollo play'd.

Friday 1 November 2013

Hood: Chieftain of the Punning Clan

No sun--no moon!
No morn--no noon!
No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
No sky--no earthly view--
No distance looking blue--
No road--no street--no "t'other side this way"--
No end to any Row--
No indications where the Crescents go--
No top to any steeple--
No recognitions of familiar people--
No courtesies for showing 'em--
No knowing 'em!
No traveling at all--no locomotion--
No inkling of the way--no notion--
"No go" by land or ocean--
No mail--no post--
No news from any foreign coast--
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility--
No company--no nobility--
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds--

Well, let's hope November won't be quite that bad...
  The above is a poem by Thomas Hood that I remember reading and enjoying many years ago while I was still in short trousers and such poems were in schoolroom anthologies.
  Over on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick has been writing in defence of puns, with particular reference to Myles na gCopaleen's Keats and Chapman tales - and Charles Lamb, and indeed Keats. Now, Thomas Hood was the punster supreme - for much of his career, pun-heavy comic verse was his stock in trade, and very good he was at it.
  A hugely prolific author, Hood began his writing life among the Romantics and ended it as a very Victorian early Victorian, mixing whimsy with melodrama, punning humour with sentimental verse. His first effusions were Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825), co-written with John Hamilton Reynolds, his brother-in-law, who was the friend of John Keats and recipient of some of his finest letters. Hood persevered for some while with serious verse and dramatic romance before drifting into humour and becoming a successful comic writer, turning out annuals and magazines full of his own work year after year, despite the ill health that eventually forced him to take to his bed.
  However, Hood scored his biggest hit with the eminently serious poem, The Song of The Shirt, an impassioned protest against the wretched poverty in which seamstresses were obliged to live and work. This was a sensational international success, was dramatised and even printed on pocket handkerchiefs. His poem The Dream of Eugen Aram, about a murderer tormented by his guilt, was also extremely popular, becoming a favourite recitation of Henry Irving. And the sentimental I Remember, I Remember was long an anthology favourite  - and inspired the very different poem of the same name by Philip Larkin.  But back to puns - here's Hood in full flow, with Faithless Nelly Gray: A Pathetic Ballad. Enjoy -

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war's alarms;
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms.

Now, as they bore him off the field,
Said he, "Let others shoot;
For here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-second Foot!"

The army-surgeons made him limbs:
Said he, "They're only pegs;
But there's as wooden members quite
As represent my legs!"

Now, Ben he loved a pretty maid,
Her name was Nelly Gray;
So he went up to pay his devours,
When he devoured his pay!

But when he called on Nelly Gray,
She made him quite a scoff;
And when she saw his wooden legs,
Began to take them off!

"O, Nelly Gray! O, Nelly Gray!
Is this your love so warm?
The love that loves a scarlet coat
Should be more uniform!"

Said she, "I loved a soldier once
For he was blithe and brave;
But I will never have a man
With both legs in the grave!

"Before you had those timber toes,
Your love I did allow;
But then, you know, you stand upon
Another footing now!"

"O, Nelly Gray! O, Nelly Gray!
For all your jeering speeches,
At duty's call I left my legs
In Badajos's breaches !"

"Why then," said she, "you've lost the feet
Of legs in war's alarms,
And now you cannot wear your shoes
Upon your feats of arms!"

"O, false and fickle Nelly Gray!
I know why you refuse: --
Though I've no feet -- some other man
Is standing in my shoes!

"I wish I ne'er had seen your face;
But, now, a long farewell!
For you will be my death; -- alas
You will not be my Nell!"

Now, when he went from Nelly Gray,
His heart so heavy got,
And life was such a burden grown,
It made him take a knot!

So round his melancholy neck
A rope he did entwine,
And, for his second time in life,
Enlisted in the Line.

One end he tied around a beam,
And then removed his pegs,
And, as his legs were off -- of course
He soon was off his legs!

And there he hung, till he was dead
As any nail in town--
For, though distress had cut him up,
It could not cut him down!

A dozen men sat on his corpse,
To find out why he died--
And they buried Ben in four cross-roads
With a stake in his inside!