Wednesday 31 July 2013

The Private of the Buffs

I've mentioned before that boyhood exposure to my father's morning recitations of stirring narrative verse has laid down some curious vintages in the cobwebbed cellars of my memory. Thus it was that, as soon as I heard this story on the news this morning, the opening lines of Sir Francis Hastings Doyle's The Private of the Buffs sprang unbidden into my head. Here it is in its entirety:

LAST night, among his fellow roughs,
  He jested, quaff’d, and swore:
A drunken private of the Buffs,
  Who never look’d before.
To-day, beneath the foeman’s frown,
  He stands in Elgin’s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s crown,
  And type of all her race.
Poor, reckless, rude, lowborn, untaught,
  Bewilder’d, and alone,
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
  He yet can call his own.
Ay, tear his body limb from limb,
  Bring cord, or axe, or flame:
He only knows, that not through him
  Shall England come to shame.
Far Kentish hop-fields round him seem’d,
  Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry-blossom gleam’d,
  One sheet of living snow;
The smoke, above his father’s door,
  In gray soft eddyings hung:
Must he then watch it rise no more,
  Doom’d by himself, so young?
Yes, honor calls!—with strength like steel
  He put the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
  An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
  With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink,
  To his red grave he went.
Vain, mightiest fleets, of iron fram’d;
  Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untam’d,
  The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through Europe ring—
  A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s king,
  Because his soul was great.

Phew. The point being, I suppose, that the very qualities that make the off-duty soldier a troublesome presence - a drunken rough - are those that on the battlefield make him a steadfast fighter and potential hero. Kipling hammers home much the same point in his poem Tommy, contrasting civilians' contempt for the soldier in peacetime with their sentimental, hypocritical fawning on him when his services are needed.
There is a lot in Johnson's saying that 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.'

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Moore Music

The great accompanist Gerald Moore - born on this day in 1899 - had a slow and tortuous start in music. In boyhood, his mother had to drag him to the piano, 'an unwilling, snivelling child - I did not absorb music into my being until my middle twenties'. At one time, while living with his family in Toronto, he found himself working as a cinema organist, accompanying silent films. He characterised the cinema organ as 'an instrument of torture, sharing pride of place for sheer horror with the saxophone, the harmonica and the concertina'. No bagpipes? Perhaps they don't qualify as a musical instrument - no reason why they should... As for the harmonica, I'm inclined to agree, but this morning I had a listen to Vaughan Williams's Romance for Harmonica, Strings and Piano - and it's really rather good, using the harmonica's strange sound qualities to produce some very pleasing textures. Here's a link...
As for the concertina - here's a concertina band playing Vaughan Williams.
But back to Moore - here he is with Fischer-Dieskau and Schubert. At his farewell concert in 1967, Moore ended, solo, with a piano arrangement of An Die Musik. What better swansong?

Monday 29 July 2013

Enter the Escalator

Ever since the BBC News website's exhaustive treatment of the cardboard box  ('We've all been there...') set the gold standard for spinning a lengthy feature article out of the thinnest filament of substance, I've been on the look-out for something that might bear comparison with it. Today I think I've found it, in the attenuated shape of this piece on Escalator Etiquette.
Moments to cherish, as you scroll wearily down (much like a footsore commuter on the down escalator), include the factoid finding that in Shanghai only 2.4 per cent walk on an escalator, and there is no preferred side to walk on.  In Australia, the preferred side is the right, rather than the left (has the world gone mad?). Good to know too that the state of Wyoming has only two escalators, both of them in a bank.
The views of both walkers and standers are given more than ample space, as are the possible origins of the preference for a left-side standing rule. Questions of safety are explored with similar thoroughness, culminating in this eloquent paragraph:
'A spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission said he could not recall any escalator accidents in Toronto.'
Yes indeed. And cutting her way through all these Escalator Etiquette dilemmas with a single image is 'San Francisco artist Helen Tseng'. It is a picture that repays - nay, demands - close attention. The Don'ts appear to include Sapphic affection, wearing a beard - not to mention face mask and glove - and taking a dump on the escalator (who'd have guessed). Among the Do's are, apparently, going up on the down escalator and going down facing backwards.
Ah well, we've all been there. On an escalator.

Sunday 28 July 2013

George Bernard Shaw's Exploding Shed

This from my local freesheet:
'Disaster was narrowly averted after 21 firefighters managed to stop a blaze from an exploding she spreading to neighbouring houses.
  The drama unfolded on Monday afternoon, when George Bernard Shaw discovered smoke coming from his garden shed.
  When he tried to douse the flames with water, the entire structure exploded in his face and proceeded to spread to the garden.
  Firefighters arrived in the nick of time before the flames could spread to a gas heater at the other end of the garden.
  Mr Shaw described how he and his mother were in the house at about 4.30pm when he smelt burning, initially thinking it was his daughter's hair straighteners.
  'I went to put it out with a bowl of water and as soon as I did this there was an almighty bang.
  Then the grass was on fire, causing my slippers to light up.
  By then I was panicking. The fire was several feet high at this point.
  Next thing I know, my neighbour is trying to put out the fire with his hose.'
  A fire spokesman said: 'We believe it was the aerosol cans that started it, with the amount of heat we have had.'
  Mr Shaw, however, insisted that there were no aerosols in the shed, which he said contained some alcohol, garden furniture and paint.'

Friday 26 July 2013

Our Native Church

I'm rather enjoying this story - not, I hasten to add, for the embarrassment (he rates it 8 on a scale of 1 to 10) caused  to Welby, who is patently a decent man, whether one agrees with his Evangelical theology or not. No, what I relish - and find reassuring - is (a) that the Church of England should have come up with a really rather bold and brilliant practical idea, and (b) that it should so promptly have dissolved into a fuzzy mess of embarrassment and ethical compromise. This is what we expect of our dear old national church, and we wouldn't have it any other way, would we? Imagine if the  C of E was a thrusting, dynamic, efficient engine of social change - imagine if it was, Lord help us, popular, or fashionable... No, it wouldn't do. What we value - well, what I value - is 'the sweet mediocrity of our native church', the way it embodies something deep in the national psyche, a kind of good-natured, well-meaning, quiet decency, often more bumbling than efficient, liable to go wrong but somehow muddling through, distrustful of big ideas and aims, and all the time, at a mundane everyday level, doing good 'in minute particulars'. I fancy - or rather hope - that these apparently non-adaptive, anachronistic strains are in fact signs of deep strength, not weakness, and that they will endure.

Thursday 25 July 2013

The Peacock's Tail Explained

So that's sorted then - the scientists have explained why the peacock's tail is the way it is. They've come up with this explanation after tracking the eye movements of peahens and finding them easily distracted. Hmm... Have they tried that on other female birds, I wonder? Like most of us in London, I've spent many years involuntarily observing the indefatigable mating behaviour of our 'flying rats', the pigeons - and the females seem so easily distracted that they rarely pay any attention at all to the males. Yet all it takes is a little work with the chest feathers ('In the spring a livelier iris glistens on the burnished dove'), a bit of tail-fanning and bowing and scraping and - wham bam thankyou ma'am. And, by the way, why is it so important for the peahens to keep an eye out for predators but not for the peacocks, even though they'd have to get away while lugging their mighty tails after them.
  Anyway, talking of peacocks, the amazing (if late-starting) butterfly summer continues. The patch of parched flower meadow by Kensington Palace now has burnet moths in residence, meadow browns (as well as whites) visiting, and small skippers nectaring happily. Nearer to home, gatekeepers are everywhere, and this morning I counted five small skippers on the long grass beside the railway track - they seem to be having a bumper year. Heaven know what else I might find if I make it out to serious butterfly country this weekend, as I'm hoping to do...

Wednesday 24 July 2013

John Newton: Amazing Life

Today is the 188th birthday of John Newton, a man whose life, even in outline, reads like fiction. Born into a family of merchants, he went to sea with his father at the age of 11, was later press-ganged into the Royal Navy, attempted to desert and was punished by a flogging of eight dozen lashes, after which he understandably contemplated killing the captain and then himself. But, amazingly, he recovered. Later he transferred to a slaving ship, on which he made such a nuisance of himself that he was dumped in West Africa in the care of a slave dealer. The dealer duly sold him into the service of an African princess, who mistreated her slaves on an equal-opportunities basis. Eventually rescued by a friend of his father's, he returned home, experiencing a spiritual conversion en route, married his childhood sweetheart and became an Evangelical Christian, while continuing for some years to be profitably active in the slave trade - though he later became a fervent abolitionist.
  While serving as curate at Olney in Buckinghamshire, his path crossed that of the troubled poet William Cowper, with whom he wrote the Olney Hymns, among which are Newton's Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and, best of all, the great hymn for which he is best remembered today - Amazing Grace. Opinions differ as to whether the encounter with Newton's passionate Evangelicalism improved or worsened Cowper's fragile mental health, but it was certainly for some time a warm and sustaining friendship. Newton had a generous approach to his ministry, his mission being, as he saw it, 'to break a hard heart and heal a broken heart'. His door was open to all and he was popular figure, ever ready to help where he could. 'I see in this world,' he said, 'two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as I go home, a child has dropped a half-penny, and if by giving it another I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this'. That sounds to me like a pretty good mission statement for a priest - or anyone.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Prince X - Chanks!

When his grandparents - Charles the Cheerless and Diana the Divine - were wed, I was painting the kitchen of our first house, sustained by Fuller's Royal Wedding ale. When his father, William the Welcome, was born, it was during the first night in our second house. When news came through of the birth of Prince X, the Third in Line, yesterday evening, I was sitting in the garden enjoying the aerial manoeuvres of the Swifts - very numerous and very lively. This was before the rains came...
  Now there is the question of the Royal Naming. No doubt, as a committed Villan, William will have been keen to give the baby the names of the current Aston Villa squad, but royal protocol will have to prevail in this matter (though Villa's management has already sent Prince X a replica kit, with the letters HRH and the number 1 on the back). For similar reasons, Prince Nige is probably ruled out, alas. It seems more likely to be George - especially as this has been predicted by no less a sage than Piers Morgan.
 Earlier in the evening, as I turned to leave the off licence, I paused on the threshold, torn between 'Cheers!' and 'Thanks!' and came out with a word hitherto unknown to the English language - 'Chanks!' I hope it catches on. Meanwhile, here's to the new Prince -'Chanks!'

Joad Alert

Over on The Dabbler, I recall the appalling C.E.M. Joad.

Monday 22 July 2013

Keats and Embarrassment

Despite the heat having knocked out most of the thinking parts of my brain, I've been reading (technically re-reading, as I read it when it came out just shy of 40 - 40! - years ago) Christopher Ricks's Keats and Embarrassment. It presents the poet's acute sensitivity to embarrassment as an index of his extraordinary moral intelligence and imagination. And golly it's good. Surely no one reads a text as closely and sensitively as Ricks. Here he is in full flow, exploring a single line from The Eve of St Agnes:
'...Who but Keats would have ventured upon the hazards of sea-weed? 'Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed'. Yet the sea-weed to me epitomises the central strength and sanity of Keats's erotic poetry: its creation of a double sense, both within and without the eroticism, so that we both are and are not one of the lovers themselves. The point about a word like sea-weed, and about the thing itself, is that it arouses strong mixed feelings; it is both fascinating in its tactile pungent oddity and yet faintly repellent. It would need a Gaston Bachelard to do justice to the psycho-analysis of sea-weed [!], which is a really suggestive and strange thing to contemplate; children can unmisgivingly delight in sea-weed, but adults would be reluctant to admit the compound of sensations it can elicit. Why this matters is that in Keats's line it is 'sea-weed' which precipitates the double sense, fascinatingly attractive to the lover (and so to us in so far as we are he) and at the same time odd, faintly repellent and faintly ludicrous. It is the incorporation, within the large apprehension, of this faintly embarrassing possibility of response that makes Keats's poetry at once truthful and generous. Truthful, because we cannot, even in imagination, become the lovers whom we see and sympathise with; generous, because it becomes neither aloof nor embittered by its recognition of the possibility of embarrassment or distaste in a full imagination of the physicality of others' love. It is not hard to be undisconcerted, unenvious, unprurient in the face of others' physicality in love, if your sympathetic imagination simply lets no full sense of physicality in; and on the other hand it is not hard to have a full sense of such physicality while letting its embarrassment dominate your response and turn it to distaste or monkishness. But what is hard, and what gives the sense of warm spaciousness to Keats's imagination, is to let the inevitable sense of a possibility of the distasteful or the ludicrous be accommodated within a full magnanimity. It is not only the damaged men in Zola who feel pain when they contemplate the loving happiness of lovers embracing; the freedom from envy and prurience is not simply and easily available provided that we refuse to be 'anti-life' or warped, and the saying 'It is so, let it be so, with a generous heart' is a hard saying. Until quite recently, the young were discouraged from holding hands in public because it gave the middle-aged such pains in the stomach; this was not good, but nor would it be good to make out that only those who are in a bad way would ever feel any such thing. Keats's poetry is animated by a very real sense of the threats to calm and to benignity which can spring from any active imagining of and noticing of other people's intimacies and pleasures; his respect for fantasy is a concomitant of his being so simply realistic in his hopes and expectations about human goodness.'
  Phew. This is Lit Crit on a pretty exalted level - do they still write it like this? I rather doubt it. Ricks's amplitude and openness of mind and heart is quite extraordinary, and in combination with his attentive sensitivity to nuance and pin-sharp judgment (he's quite clear about when Keats is writing poorly and falsely), this study makes for bracing reading. Ricks has no fear of getting too close to his subject; indeed it's clear that he loves Keats, both as man and writer (who could read the letters and not love him?). He is not afraid, either, to stay silent when there's nothing more to say. He quotes in full Keats's heart-breaking last letter, and writes:
'How staunch and imaginative it is of Keats that, at the moment when he is indeed taking leave, he can so perfectly accommodate his undisguisedly tragic suffering to a rich and simple solicitude for the embarrassment of others. 'I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!' It must be the least awkward bow ever made, and this for the saddest, fearful final blow. There is no more to say of it than that it brings tears to the eyes.'
  Indeed - 'staunch and imaginative'. The best thing of all about Ricks's book is that it sends you back to the poems, and to those incomparable letters, with new eyes and a widened appreciation of Keats's greatness, his 'unchariest Muse' and his 'widest heart'.

Friday 19 July 2013

'New and similar to Stoner'

On this day in 1803, Coleridge, walking in the Lake District, writes:
'Intensely hot day - left off waistcoat.'
One knows the feeling, as the great English heatwave continues, sparking the usual national panic, warnings of death and destruction - and an unfortunately timed jeremiad from David Attenborough yesterday about the plight of our butterflies, those beauties which are now flying around happily in numbers not seen in years. It only takes a good long spell of sustained sunny weather and everything changes. This weekend's Big Butterfly Count - which, to be fair to him, Sir David was promoting - should show huge increases on last year's soggy non-event.
Meanwhile, from that mysterious parallel universe of Amazon reader recommendations comes an email listing books that are 'New and similar to Stoner'. Hmm. One of the titles is an ebook by Nigel Williams, his latest suburban black comedy, Unfaithfully Yours, which is in epistolary form. I know what you're thinking - sounds just like Stoner...
I've read (Nigel) Williams's best-known work in this line, The Wimbledon Poisoner, a slick production that certainly had its moments but, I seem to remember, got out of control as it went along. I even read, back when it came out, his debut novel, which won the Somerset Maugham Award. I remember nothing at all about it except the rather fine title, My Life Closed Twice. As Emily Dickinson puts it,
'My life closed twice before its close— 
It yet remains to see 
If Immortality unveil 
A third event to me 

So huge, so hopeless to conceive 
As these that twice befell. 
Parting is all we know of heaven, 
And all we need of hell.'

Thursday 18 July 2013


It's World Listening Day today (and why not?). Have a listen to this - birds in a spinney in Suffolk - and if you zoom out from the map, you can pick up other sounds from all over the Southeast. And indeed there are sounds from all over the world on the website here. It's all rather wonderful...

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Monarch Mystery Solved, and the Large White Somme

Since my startling encounter with a Monarch butterfly last week, I've discovered that there have been several sightings in the Home Counties. The explanation is that some enterprising company has started importing live Monarch to be released at weddings. Hmm. At least the sturdy Monarchs will stand a better chance than the frail Large Whites released en masse at the Rolling Stones' free concert in Hyde Park in 1969. I honestly can't remember if I was there or not (that's the Sixties for you). If I was, I was certainly mooching somewhere on the outer periphery, seeing nothing of the action and hearing only the distorted boom of distant rock. So I was spared that sorry business when Jagger read from Shelley's Adonais, in memory of the late Brian Jones - and the butterflies were released...
  The Stones - rock 'n' roll rebels that they were - were flouting Royal Park regulations, which insisted that any released butterflies should be sterilised (how?) and must on no account be of the species Pieris Brassica, the Large (or 'Cabbage') White. The Rolling Stones' people had acquired some 2,500 Large Whites, but by the time of the release all but a few hundred were dead from lack of air. The butterflies, noted Charlie Watts later, were 'a bit sad, there were casualties, it was like the Somme'. Most of those that managed to take to the air were soon flopping to the ground to die...
  These are the lines that Jagger read on that day:
'Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings. — We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!'
  In a rare moment of humility and sound judgment, Shelley wrote, after inviting the ailing Keats to stay with him at Pisa, 'I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.' Indeed.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Oh Ginger!

We can't let this day go past without marking the birthday of the great and lovely Ginger Rogers (born on this day in 1911). Here she is, letting herself go in a display of virtuoso tap - with and without Fred (the world's least convincing gum-chewing tar) - in Follow the Fleet. The middle one of the backing singers, by the way, is Betty Grable. Enjoy - and be warned, that tune will be bouncing around in your head for the rest of the day.

Monday 15 July 2013

This and that

I see I'm also on The Dabbler, writing of this and that...


Over on The Dish, Andrew Sullivan has had a huge (even by his standards) response to this post about the dying days of beloved dogs, the moral and emotional challenges they can pose. I'm no dog lover (in a general sense), but I know how strong the bond between human and dog can be, that it's not merely fanciful to call it Love, and that the grief of a dog's death can be very real and intense. And it is largely unrecognised as a serious phenomenon - after all, a dog is 'only a dog', to grieve for one is on the face of it absurd, and it's a subject that's hard to talk about without lapsing into sentimentality or being thought a bit mad. Hence, perhaps, the huge response to Sullivan's honest and open piece - there's a deep well of repressed grief out there.
Probably the best thing written on the subject is Mark Doty's Dog Years - a book to make a dog lover of anyone - which I read recently and was utterly beguiled by the two dogs and genuinely moved by their dying. Doty would surely agree with Sullivan that 'dogs know how to live better than we do. Why would they not know better how to die?'

Sunday 14 July 2013

Talking of Butterflies...

The heatwave continuing, I strolled down earlier today to the local Ecology Centre, that little corner of Paradise that I've mentioned before in passing. The change in the weather has had dramatic effects: the air was alive with Ringlets and Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and Skippers (Small) - to name only the most numerous - all flying in such profusion as I haven't seen in years. The miraculous effects of sunny summer weather - at last! If this keeps going, who knows what we might yet see? In the meanwhile, today's butterflies were losing no time, setting about creating the next generation while the sun shone (as were the electric-blue Damsel Flies)...
   Talking of butterflies, here's that great butterfly lover (and significant lepidopterist) Vladimir Nabokov talking - or rather, writing, for his contributions to 'interviews' were always written - about the inadequacy of literary language, even his, in describing them, and giving his own startling perspective on the matter:
'In itself, an aurelian's passion is not a particularly unusual sickness; but it stands outside the limits of a novelist's world, and I can prove this by the fact that whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how diligently I rework the stuff, it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express-- what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific terms of my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labeled pin and in its O. D. ("original description") in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the arty gush. However-- not to let your question go completely unanswered-- 1 must admit that in one sense the entomological satellite does impinge upon my novelistic globe. This is when certain place-names are mentioned. Thus if I hear or read the words "Alp Grum, Engadine" the normal observer within me may force me to imagine the belvedere of a tiny hotel on its 2000-meter-tall perch and mowers working along a path that winds down to a toy railway; but what I see first of all and above all is the Yellow-banded Ringlet settled with folded wings on the flower that those damned scythes are about to behead.'
(The Ringlet in the picture is our own Ringlet, not the Yellow-banded, a species of the high Alps.)

Friday 12 July 2013

Cricket: A Little Anthology

I hesitate to inflict it on the discerning souls who browse here, but - as the Ashes get under way (and what a start it's been!) - the English Cricket Board has unleashed something described as a 'poem'. Here it is:


History will soon be made,
Upon the board,
Their honours engraved.
Nerves on edge, muscles tighten.
Jaws are set, knuckles whiten.
A dot ball passes, atmosphere heightens.
Those left standing: gods among titans.
They’ll deliver the fight, session by session.
The nation’s pride their only obsession
For one. For all.
The bat. The ball.
Old scores. New clashes.
Together we’ll Rise
For The Urn.
The Ashes.
For those unfamiliar with the game, I should explain that a 'dot ball' is one from which no run is scored (and for those unfamiliar with poetry - like whoever wrote this thing - a few rhyming line endings do not make a poem).
There's a fairly honourable tradition of cricket poetry, including the very strange At Lord's, written by the unlikeliest of sporting poets Francis Thompson (the opium-addicted vagrant best known for The Hound of Heaven). At Lord's was inspired by an invitation to watch Lancashire play Middlesex at Lord's - but Thompson didn't make it to the ground, preferring to sit at home and write the poem:

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago !
It's Glo'ster coming North, the irresistible,
The Shire of the Graces, long ago!
It's Gloucestershire up North, the irresistible,
And new-risen Lancashire the foe!
A Shire so young that has scarce impressed its traces,
Ah, how shall it stand before all-resistless Graces ?
O, little red rose, their bats are as maces
To beat thee down, this summer long ago !
This day of seventy-eight they are come up north against thee
This day of seventy-eight long ago!
The champion of the centuries, he cometh up against thee,
With his brethren, every one a famous foe!
The long-whiskered Doctor, that laugheth the rules to scorn,
While the bowler, pitched against him, bans the day he was born;
And G.F. with his science makes the fairest length forlorn;
They are come from the West to work thee woe!
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago !

The great Australian poet Les Murray wrote an uncharacteristically dull poem called The Aboriginal Cricketer:
Good-looking young man
in your Crimean shirt
with your willow shield
up, as if to face spears,
you're inside their men's Law,
one church they do obey;
they'll remember you were here.
Keep fending off their casts.
Don't come out of character.
Like you they suspect
idiosyncrasy of witchcraft.
Above all, don't get out
too easily, and have to leave here
where all missiles are just leather
and come from one direction.
Keep it noble. Keep it light.

And then there's A.E. Housman. Who but he could have written these lines (from A Shropshire Lad)?
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

Well, there is a vein of melancholy, an elegiac as well as an idyllic strain, to cricket - something to do with nostalgia, the briefness of summer, of life. It's there, mingled with happiness, in the Duckworth Lewis Method's Mason on the Boundary... It is one of the many things lacking in the emptily triumphalist 2013 Ashes 'poem'.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Butterfly Mail

The Royal Mail has issued a set of stamps featuring British butterflies. Naturally I approve, especially as they are beautifully painted by Richard Lewington and they represent ten well chosen species, from the rare to the common, the spectacular to the inconspicuous.
The nation seems to have caught a bit of butterfly fever at the moment, with the indoor butterfly gardens at the Hampton Court Flower Show the latest attraction in that line (hothouses full of showy tropical beauties - my Monarch might well have escaped from Hampton Court). Even the BBC's Springwatch is getting in on the act, with a Springwatch Guide to Butterflies coming soon, promising an 'in-depth view' of Britain's butterflies and moths. It remains to be seen what Weird Chris, Gurning Michaela and Sniggering Martin will make of the subject - I look back fondly to the great double act of cool Kate Humble and ever more deranged Bill Oddie (truly dangerous TV) - but if they pack in plenty of tips on attracting butterflies to your garden etc, I guess it will do some good. It might even get a few people to find out more, and to go looking for these elusive beauties. Well, relatively elusive - on Monday morning, I looked out of my train window and was delighted to spot two Marbled Whites (see above) on a grassy bank beside the track. And at the weekend I saw my first Ringlet and Skippers (Large and Small) of the year, as well as the White Admirals. May this sun continue to shine...

V, V and V

Just to let you know you can find me on The Dabbler today, writing about an interesting group biography...

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Pioneers of Aerotowing, 1: Barbara Cartland

Had she not been cruelly plucked from us at the age of 98, Dame Barbara Cartland - socialite, celebrity, figure of fun, self-appointed expert on many things, tireless self-publicist and staggeringly prolific romantic novelist - would have been 112 today. She is still the third biggest-selling author ever, behind only Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. The upper estimate of her worldwide sales is one billion, and her published titles number 722 (23 of them in the annus mirabilis of 1983 alone). Apparently, as with Agatha Christie, her worldwide success owed a lot to the fact that her books - with their simple style and vocabulary and formulaic structures - are very effective tools for learning English, though heaven knows what idea of our national life students would gain from reading Cartland and Christie...
  Cartland's early work was avowedly inspired by the racy novels of Elinor Glyn (of It Girl fame) and she belongs in the tradition of Marie Corelli, Ouida, Ethel M. Dell, and indeed the fictional Angel - a tradition that surely died with Dame Barbara. She also seems at one time to have drawn rather heavily on Georgette Heyer (a very much better writer), who in 1950 threatened a plagiarism suit.
 To her credit, Dame Barbara did much good public work - especially during the war, when she served in the War Office in various charitable capacities, as well as being very active in the St John's Ambulance Brigade. Less well known is her contribution to aviation, as a pioneer of aerotowing (gliders towed by planes), a technique which was to play a part in winning the war.
  Her daughter Raine's social success exceeded even her own, as she married Earl Spencer and became stepmother to Diana, Princess of Wales. Barbara and Diana didn't get on, and the Princess did not invite her step-grandmother to her wedding, but the pair had apparently made up by the time of Diana's death. Cartland reportedly said of the Princess: 'The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren't awfully good for her.'
  I shall draw a veil over Dame Barbara's singing career - but, if you must, you can sample her warbling here...

Monday 8 July 2013

Men in Shorts

Despite the near-total news blackout on the subject (hem hem), word reaches me that Andy Murray has won the Wimbledon men's singles. In doing so, he becomes the first Briton to win the championship in shorts (Fred Perry having quite properly won in trousers). So ends the era of failure unleashed by the Wimbledon authorities' rash decision to permit gentlemen to play in shorts.
  They should have noted the fate of the first Englishman so to do at Wimbledon, one Brame Hillyard, who took to the court in 'shorts' in 1930, was soundly beaten and sank without trace to become a mere footnote in tennis history. The more famous Bunny Austin was rather more successful playing in shorts, but never won a final (he lost to Don Budge and, for his pains, received a £10 gift voucher redeemable at a high-street jeweller. Those were the days.) The New York Times summed up Bunny Austin's 'look' rather neatly: 'With his white linen hat and his flannel shorts, the little English player looked like an A.A. Milne production.' Quite.
  The craze for short trousers on men originated in the crackpot notions of a bunch of faddists and 'hygiene' fanatics who styled themselves the Men's Dress Reform Party (that's a bunch of them in the picture above, confirming that jacket-and-shorts is just about the worst wardrobe combo available to mankind). The Men's Dress Reform Party was an offshoot of the New Health Society and related to the nudist Sunlight League. We know their type, and they are frequently lampooned in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse - not least in the form of Roderick Spode's fascist organisation the Black Shorts. Rather than succumbing to the crazy notions of the Men's Dress Reform Society, the Wimbledon authorities would have done better to heed the words of an anonymous writer on the subject of  'dress reform' in the Tailor & Cutter:
'A loosening of the bonds will gradually impel mankind to sag and droop bodily and spiritually. If laces are unfastened, ties loosened and buttons banished, the whole structure of modern dress will come undone; it is not so wild as it sounds to say that society will also fall to pieces…Such restraints were not noxious: they were the foundation upon which civilisation rested and protected men from savagery and decadence.' And from looking very silly.

Sunday 7 July 2013

The Carshalton Wonder

Well, I said my butterfly year was looking up, but this is getting ridiculous...
There I was, yesterday afternoon, taking a stroll through the village in the hot afternoon sun. As I walked along the cycle path beside the purling Wandle, I spotted something ahead that looked very like a butterfly - but on a huge, tropical scale. What the...? As I drew near, the giant swooped down, settled on a Ragwort and began nectaring, quite undaunted by my near presence. I gasped, blinked, looked about me to see if it was some kind of hoax. I would have pinched myself but I knew perfectly well I wasn't dreaming as I gaped at the outlandish sight. Yes, as you'll have guessed from the picture, it was, of all the unlikeliest things, a Monarch (or Milkweed) butterfly, and it had no business at all being there.
The Monarch is of course famous for its epic American migrations (it is, I discover, the State Insect of Texas). It thrives in the Canaries and Azores, and in southern Spain - but is no more than a rare vagrant in England, never making it beyond the southern coastal counties on the years when it turns up at all. Where on earth had my Monarch come from? I can only assume it had escaped from one of the 'Butterfly World'-type attractions that are becoming increasingly popular - or perhaps someone had hatched out some pupae (it's quite a spectacle).
It was a bizarre, jaw-dropping sight - more astonishing than beautiful, to an eye tuned to the subtler beauties of our native butterflies ('this gaudy melon-flower!').
The last time I had a close encounter with a Monarch - or rather with dozens of them - was on a visit to Lisbon with my daughter a few years ago, when we spotted a sign to the Butterfly House in the (very beautiful) botanical gardens. In the Butterfly House, the air was alive with Monarchs, gliding, swooping - and landing at intervals on us.
Today I was with my son on Ashtead Common, where in the woods the beautiful White Admirals were flying - at times coming up very close, almost to the point of landing on us.
There are times when butterflies appear like visitations, like something sent to us.
The Greek word Psyche means both butterfly and soul.

Friday 5 July 2013

Looking Up

I was in Kensington Gardens this sunny lunchtime, where a substantial patch of lawn near the Palace has been left to revert to flower meadow (or it might have had a helping hand, it's hard to tell). It's a beautiful sight just now, with tall grasses in flower, a rich ground cover of clover and bird's foot trefoil, and a spangling of dog daisies - on one of which, feeding, sat a Painted Lady, my first of the year! A fine fresh specimen it was too. Seeing it brought back memories of the prodigious  Painted Lady Summer of 2009... Suddenly my butterfly year is looking up.

Stoner Fever

Yes, it's the Greatest Novel You've Never Read - so great and unread that it even made it onto the Today programme this morning, where Ian McEwan attempted, with mixed success, to explain just what it is about John Williams's Stoner that makes it a masterpiece. He was not helped by his interviewer, the ineffable Sarah Montagu, suggesting that it didn't sound like much of a beach read (but there was an almost touching moment when McEwan reflected on how quickly a novelist's work can be forgotten - well quite...).
  The Stoner bandwagon was set rolling here by Bryan Appleyard's piece in the Sunday Times. Indeed it was he who had put Ian McEwan on to Stoner, just as I had put Bryan on to it, and I in my turn had been put on to it by Patrick Kurp and other luminaries of the American blogscape. That's how it works, and it's one of the things I most love about the blog world. When I look back over my five years or so of reading and writing blogs, I realise how many books there are that I have discovered this way, and would most probably never have found back in the pre-blog world. The novels of William Maxwell, Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Hazzard, Stanley Elkins' The Dick Gibson Show, Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis, Garret Keizer's Help, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, the poems of Kay Ryan, Stefan Zweig, Bruno Schulz - all of these, and many more, I might never have come across but for the wonders of the blogscape. Come to think, there are probably a few candidates for Greatest Novel You've Never Read in there - at least on this side of the Atlantic, where so many of the best American writers are strangely little read. John Williams was, of course, among them, and I hope those who now seek out Stoner move on to the utterly extraordinary Butcher's Crossing
  Meanwhile, if anyone has any more suggestions for Greatest Novel You've Never Read, I'll of course be glad to have them...

Thursday 4 July 2013

Shed Shed

Today I was going to offer my thoughts on the Egyptian crisis (or was I?), but then I received an email from Appleyard bringing me news of the winner of Shed of the Year 2013. As Bryan remarks, 'This is not a shed of which one could say shed shed and be satisfied'. It is indeed something of a masterpiece, made from an upturned onshore clinker, recycled caravan windows, wattle and daub and various parts of the owner's farmhouse home - oh, and a corrugated iron shed is in there somewhere. A worthy, a more than worthy winner (and thank heavens it wasn't the Tardis replica - a shed can only go so far before it ceases to be a shed. Or, in the case of the sorry edifice at the bottom of my garden, not far enough to claim the name.)
The winning shed's clever use of an upturned boat put me in mind of the Peggotty family home in David Copperfield, so lovingly - longingly - described by Dickens:

'Yon's our house, Mas'r Davy!'
I looked in all directions, as far as I could stare over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could I make out. There was a black barge, or some other kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of a habitation that was visible to me.
'That's not it?' said I. 'That ship-looking thing?'
'That's it, Mas'r Davy,' returned Ham.
If it had been Aladdin's palace, roc's egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.
It was beautifully clean inside, and as tidy as possible. There was a table, and a Dutch clock, and a chest of drawers, and on the chest of drawers there was a tea-tray with a painting on it of a lady with a parasol, taking a walk with a military-looking child who was trundling a hoop. The tray was kept from tumbling down, by a bible; and the tray, if it had tumbled down, would have smashed a quantity of cups and saucers and a teapot that were grouped around the book. On the walls there were some common coloured pictures, framed and glazed, of scripture subjects; such as I have never seen since in the hands of pedlars, without seeing the whole interior of Peggotty's brother's house again, at one view. Abraham in red going to sacrifice Isaac in blue, and Daniel in yellow cast into a den of green lions, were the most prominent of these. Over the little mantelshelf, was a picture of the 'Sarah Jane' lugger, built at Sunderland, with a real little wooden stern stuck on to it; a work of art, combining composition with carpentry, which I considered to be one of the most enviable possessions that the world could afford. There were some hooks in the beams of the ceiling, the use of which I did not divine then; and some lockers and boxes and conveniences of that sort, which served for seats and eked out the chairs.
All this I saw in the first glance after I crossed the threshold - child-like, according to my theory - and then Peggotty opened a little door and showed me my bedroom. It was the completest and most desirable bedroom ever seen - in the stern of the vessel; with a little window, where the rudder used to go through; a little looking-glass, just the right height for me, nailed against the wall, and framed with oyster-shells; a little bed, which there was just room enough to get into; and a nosegay of seaweed in a blue mug on the table. The walls were whitewashed as white as milk, and the patchwork counterpane made my eyes quite ache with its brightness.'
As a boy I was fascinated by this image of a house - a home - made from an upturned boat. Perhaps Alex Holland, aka DJ Badly, was also inspired by some childhood memory of David Copperfeld and that house on the beach...

Wednesday 3 July 2013

'Sanders, George, Caddishness of'

Born on this day in 1906 - in St Petersburg, whence his family wisely returned to England in 1917 - was the actor George Sanders. With his good looks and crisp, sonorous upper-crust voice, he became the man for playing debonair, louche, more or less depraved English aristo types - most memorably Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jack Favell in Rebecca and Addison deWitt in All About Eve. He was a commanding presence on screen, even if he was mostly doing little more than playing himself (though he can hardly be accused of that in his classic voicing of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book).
  The tenor of Sanders's personal life may be judged from the fact that he called his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad, and suggested the title A Dreadful Man for his biography (written by his friend Brian Aherne). He managed to marry not only the ineffable Zsa Zsa Gabor but also, some years later, her sister Magda -  a marriage that lasted just six weeks and drove Sanders even further into drink. His end was sad. Threatened by dementia and failing health, Sanders decided to give up the unequal struggle, finally killing himself with a massive overdose of Nembutal in a hotel room in a small coastal town near Barcelona. He left behind a message addressed to 'Dear World': 'I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good Luck.' He was 65 - the precise age at which, according to his pal David Niven, he predicted that he would kill himself.
  But what of the real George Sanders? As ever, we turn to the authoritative Me Cheeta, where the index entries are not promising, all listed under 'Sanders, George, caddishness of'. However, Cheeta's few encounters with Sanders seem to have left a reasonably favourable impression. The two were introduced at a notably starry private screening of Tarzan and His Mate (the one in which Maureen O'Sullivan takes a very saucy swim). 'Cheetah, my deah,' says George. 'If you're anything like me, you'll find it absolutely excruciating to watch yourself on screen. I should leave before those terrible monstahs turn against you and skin you alive. It's not going to shit on me, is it, Maureen?'
  Hmm. On a more exalted level, it's an intriguing thought that the boy Sanders would have been walking the streets of St Petersburg at the same time as the teenage Nabokov. I wonder if their paths ever crossed - either then or later, when both lived in Switzerland. Sanders might have made rather a good job of Clare Quilty in the Lolita film...

Tuesday 2 July 2013

The Big Question Answered

I'm sure there's one question, above all others, that we'd want to ask David Cameron if we had the opportunity - yes, that's the one: Which Harry Potter character would he most like to be? The PM is on his ground-breaking visit to Kazakhstan at present (Cultural Learnings of Kazakhstan for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Great Britain), and it fell to a Kazakh student to ask the question, to Cameron to make the only possible reply ('If you've got any sense, you want to be Harry Potter'), and to the media duly to report the 'story'.
Somehow I can't quite imagine Clement Attlee being asked which Greyfriars character he'd most like to be and, after due consideration, removing his pipe from his mouth and opting for Bob Cherry. But that was back when we were serious and adults left children's books to children...

Monday 1 July 2013

Ivy Again

'Is that fire smoking?' said Horace Lamb.
'Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.'
'I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.'
'Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,' said his cousin. 'But we seem to have no other.'

Yes, I've been reading the strangely addictive Ivy Compton-Burnett again - who else would open a novel with such an exchange (the first of many, as it turns out, on the state of the fire)? The novel is Manservant and Maidservant, the author's personal favourite, written in 1947 and set in the 1880s. The speakers are Horace Lamb, domestic tyrant and cruel paterfamilias, and Mortimer, his dependent cousin (and the cause of the smoking fire is a dead jackdaw in the chimney). Mortimer is in love with Horace's wife and hopes to take her and the cruelly tyrannised children away from Horace. 'Horace,' ICB explains, 'had married her for her money, hoping to serve his impoverished estate, and she had married him for love, hoping to fulfil herself. The love had gone and the money remained, so that the advantage lay with Horace, if he could have taken so hopeful a view of life.'
  There is a downstairs world also, to mirror, comment on and caricature the horrors of life upstairs, and there is even another household nearby, consisting of the young man who is tutor to the unhappy Lamb children, his ghastly mother who plumes herself on a resemblance to George Eliot, and his sister who will play a pivotal part in the plot - as will another subsidiary character,  the illiterate woman who runs a poste restante service for letters the locals don't want delivered to their houses. An intercepted letter is crucial to the plot - as is the gloriously improbable contrivance of a nearby ravine with a broken footbridge across it. The author seems to be fully aware of the absurdity of her plot - it is part of the novel's dark comedy - and, as ever with ICB, everything that happens, all the real action and substance of the work, is in the dialogue, dialogue such as was never spoken (one hopes) by any living being. This dialogue - heightened, stylised and artfully wrought - is so fraught with nuances, with ulterior meanings and coded insults, that it has to be read, and often reread, with care; it is a minefield. Above stairs it is used chiefly to insult, manipulate and humiliate; below stairs the butler and cook pursue similar aims in an orotund, biblically inflected style; while in the nursery the children talk like wholly disenchanted, precociously wise and aware (they have to be) miniature adults. 
  But the funny thing about Ivy Compton-Burnett is that she is really, really... funny. It's a dark and painful kind of comedy, but comedy it  undoubtedly is. Despite the invariable tendency of her fiction, ICB's imagination is essentially comic. She delivers, if you like, Beckett's risus purus - 'the laugh that laughs - silence please - at that which is unhappy'. And if one thing is certainly true of her work it is that there is nothing else in English fiction remotely like it. If you've never read her, brace yourself and take the plunge - Manservant and Maidservant would be a good place to start.