Thursday 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en Hill

Hallowe'en seems to have cast its dark shadow before it this year: the last three charity-shop books I've bought were Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (a novella inspired by the Pendle Witch Trials) and Henry James's The Jolly Corner, in a handsome edition with suitably eerie etchings by Peter Milton (Terra Nova Editions, 1979).
 I've just read The Woman in Black, which is commendably short and very readable. A first-person narrative, it's essentially a pastiche of a golden age ghost story - the period is vague but the feel is  Edwardian/Twenties - and it's very expertly done, as you'd expect with Susan Hill, the location and atmosphere skilfully and convincingly evoked. The narrative is cleverly paced, but it's a mostly predictable and well worn storyline that promises more than it delivers in terms of chills and thrills. More overtly Gothic in style than M.R. James's stories, it has none of the genuinely creepy and unsettling effects that James achieves - but then, very few ghost stories come anywhere near his. But The Woman in Black is a rattling good read and, if I wasn't chilled, at least I was entertained and kept turning the pages. I've never been able to resist a story that starts, as this does, with a train journey (steam of course) to a remote and mysterious location.
 And now I'm reading The Daylight Gate, which is a very different kettle of fish...

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Ms Munt's Warning

Life goes on, I see, in all its radiant absurdity - and what could be more radiantly absurd than an obscure Lib-Dem MP getting her name in the headlines by warning of  'the end of the British breakfast as we know it'? What has prompted this rallying cry to the plain people of Britain? Why, the government's iniquitous proposal to cut the minimum (note, minimum) sugar content of jams and marmalades. Yes, there's a real risk that honest, breakfast-loving British folk might be exposed to jams and marmalades that actually taste of fruit. At present, as Ms Munt notes, 'we know exactly what to expect' when we buy jam or marmalade. Indeed we do - a mighty sugar hit with little evidence of fruit - which is why many of us buy lower-sugar, higher-fruit continental preserves instead. Funny old world.

Tuesday 29 October 2013


Apologies for the blog hiatus; normal service will, I am sure, be resumed very soon.
My hitherto indestructible mother finally succumbed, in the early hours of this morning, to her 92 years. It was a calm and peaceful death - a good death, ending a good life, one that, until very recently, had been rich, active, happy and fulfilled. She was (as she frequently professed) more than ready to go; she had had her life and was impatient with the tedious coda. Requiem aeternam...

Friday 25 October 2013

Bitters: Fashion catches up with Nige and HM

Once again, it seems, the world scampers along in the trend-setting footsteps of this blog - not to mention those of HM the Queen. A characteristically encyclopaedic item on the BBC News website informs us that all the bright young things nowadays are turning their backs on the sweet stuff and knocking back the bitters. I was at it myself in Venice recently, enjoying many an Aperol spritz and Campari, but I've always been up for any bitters going, from Dubonnet to Suze and anything I can get my hands on that delivers that bitter medicinal hit. A few years ago, as the BBC News piece reminds us (to save you the effort, it's right near the bottom), the Queen's taste for Dubonnet seemed outlandish. Not now - it's bitters all round. Cheers! Mine's a Cynar with a Fernet chaser...

Thursday 24 October 2013

Marianne North: 'A very wild bird'

Born on this day in 1830 was the brilliant flower painter and tireless traveller Marianne North, who, even by the standards of intrepid, globetrotting Victorian spinsters, was pretty extraordinary. In an age before jet travel and motorways (or indeed motor transport), she travelled and lived in Jamaica, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Ceylon, India, Borneo, Java, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile - all in the space of a decade and a half. And wherever she went, she painted her astonishing, botanically accurate, vividly coloured oil paintings of the exotic plant life she found. What's more, she painted these plants not as specimens in isolation but as organisms in an ecosystem, creating pictures that are beautifully composed and richly detailed as well as precisely descriptive.
  Born into a wealthy and well connected family, Marianne shared her father's passion for travel and botany and, when she found herself alone and free following his death (in 1869), she decided to indulge them both, along with her new-found love of oil painting - which she described as 'a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one'. She abhorred marriage - 'a terrible experiment', in her view, that turned women into 'a sort of upper servant' - and disliked company, so most of the time she lived, travelled and painted alone. 'I am a very wild bird,' she declared, 'and like liberty.'
  She became a reluctant celebrity in her own lifetime and the crowds flocked to an exhibition of her work in London in 1879 - a success from which she shrank, but which gave her an idea:  to give all her paintings as a gift to the Royal Botanical Society at Kew, and to build a gallery at her own expense to display them to the public. The gift was rather reluctantly accepted, and the gallery - a temple-like building in a corner of the Gardens - is still there. It was recently restored, and is quite unlike anything of its kind - indeed Kew claims it is the only gallery devoted to a single female artist, with full public access, anywhere in the UK.
 The effect of Miss North's paintings en masse is somewhat concussing - those colours! Her palette was certainly well adapted to the tropics. But then, if she hadn't painted in vivid oils, but in the more usual delicate watercolours, little or nothing of her work would have survived. You can view the gallery online here...

Wednesday 23 October 2013


My deathday post for (Pearl) Zane Grey is on the Dabbler today...

Tuesday 22 October 2013


In yesterday's Dabbler, Brit was recalling the grim experience of walking through the first 20th Century British gallery in the Tate. I too was making my flinching, wincing way through that gallery on Sunday, immediately after enjoying the little connecting room that contains Georgiana's Dead Bird - not to mention a fine Ruskin drawing of a corner of the facade of San Marco, and Arthur Melville's stunning The Blue Night, Venice.
What is it with British art of the past century or so that it is so fixated with the grotesque, the repulsive, the ugly and horrific? Surely no other culture has ever put such high value (and sky-high prices) on art that no sane person could bear to live with - fancy a Bacon on the wall, anyone? A Lucian Freud nude? How about some nice Chapman Brothers mutilations or Gilbert and George coprophilia? Call me old-fashioned and simplistic, but surely art should be (or attempt to be) beautiful and give pleasure. But maybe this kind of grotesquerie does give pleasure of a sort - something akin to what the French call nostalgie de la boue, a yearning for degradation. There is a very strong strain in our culture that regards the ugly and brutal as essentially more 'authentic' than the beautiful and pleasing - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most of us live lives of such comfort, peace and ease as past generations could only dream of. It's akin to the curious predilection for violence, dark secrets, corruption and conspiracies in TV drama (British and Scandinavian - i.e. the least violent and corrupt societies on Earth, more or less). This is the spurious glamour and cost-free thrill of  'authenticity', a kind of inverse sentimentality. In the world of the visual arts, our preoccupation with the dark side might come to seem as baffling to future generations as the overt sentimentality of the Victorians, and ugliness might again be recognised for what it is. Ugly. 

Monday 21 October 2013

Dead Bird

Mooching around in the Tate ('Tate Britain', that is) yesterday afternoon, I spotted a picture I'd never noticed before - a small, jewel-like watercolour of a Dead Bird. It's identified as the work of Georgiana MacDonald (1840-1920) and dated to 1857, so it's the work of a very young artist - one who clearly had real talent, especially with colour. Who was she? Labelling at the Tate is far too concerned with airy platitudes about periods and schools to give us such useful information, so I looked up this Georgiana MacDonald when I get home - and then the penny dropped. Far from being a talented youngster who disappeared without trace, this Georgiana was the 'Georgy' who, at the age of 19, married Edward ('Ned') Burne-Jones.
She was one of 'the MacDonald sisters', four Birmingham siblings who all made remarkable marriages - Alice marrying John Lockwood Kipling and giving birth to Rudyard, Agnes marrying the PRA Edward Poynter, Louisa marrying Alfred Baldwin and giving birth to PM-to-be Stanley, and Georgiana marrying Edward B-J, bearing him an extensive family, and enduring the public scandal of Ned's passionate affair with a Greek model (who at one point tried to drown herself in the Regent's Canal).
With all that to cope with, Georgiana - who had shown such early promise, and in her teens had mingled on equal terms with the Pre-Raphaelites and the William Morris circle - was obliged to give up her own artistic endeavours and devote herself to caring for the growing family. Looking back years later, she wrote, poignantly and honestly: 'I remember the feeling of exile with which I now heard through [the studio's] closed door the well-known voices of friends, together with Edward's familiar laugh, while I sat with my little son on my knee and dropped selfish tears on him as "separator of companions and the terminator of delights".' In terms of her artistic career, then, Georgiana was pretty much a talented youngster who disappeared without trace - but at least there's that enamel-bright Dead Bird hanging in the Tate.

Friday 18 October 2013

A Good Egg: Thomas Love Peacock

The list of classic writers who seem to have been thoroughly decent good people, and who we sense would be enjoyable company, is not long. Keats and Chekhov for sure, Charles Lamb, probably Jane Austen... One who can be added to the list was born on this day in 1785 - Thomas Love Peacock.
  Peacock - friend of Shelley (and defender of his maligned first wife) and, for a while, father-in-law of George Meredith - worked, like Lamb, for the East India Company. He outlined a day's work there thus:

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven;
From eleven to noon, think you've come too soon;
From twelve to one, think what's to be done;
From one to two, find nothing to do;
From two to three, think it will be
A very great bore to stay till four.

But in fact Peacock worked hard and well, succeeding James Mill as Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence (and being succeeded by John Stuart Mill). He appeared often before parliamentary committees, and is even credited with designing the first armoured steamboats used by the Royal Navy.
  His novels - from Headlong Hall to Gryll Grange - are like nothing else in English literature. Hardly bothering with plot or character, he simply gathers together a group of people - often representative of particular ways of thinking - and lets them talk, with occasional interludes of often farcical action, and frequent songs and lyrics, mostly celebrating the pleasures of food and drink. One of his novels (Melincourt) features an orang-utan, Sir Auron Haut-Ton, who stands for Parliament; another (Nightmare Abbey) contains a humorous portrait of Shelley as Scythrop Glowry, author of Philosophical Gas; or, A Project for a General Illumination of the Human Mind. Written by a less deft hand, with the satire laid on more heavily, these novels would surely have sunk without trace, but they survive and are still - once you get used to Peacock's way of doing things - great fun to read. 
  The genial comic spirit that suffuses the novels seems to have come naturally to the man. His granddaughter remembered Peacock in old age as 'ever a welcome guest, his genial manner, hearty appreciation of wit and humour in others, and the amusing way in which he told stories made him a very delightful acquaintance; he was always so agreeable and so very witty that he was called by his most intimate friends the "Laughing Philosopher", and it seems to me that the term "Epicurean Philosopher", which I have often heard applied to him, describes him accurately and briefly. In public business my grandfather was upright and honourable; but as he advanced in years his detestation of anything disagreeable made him simply avoid whatever fretted him, laughing off all sorts of ordinary calls upon his leisure time.' [A sound policy for later life.]
  He's described elsewhere as 'a rare instance of a man improved by prosperity' and 'a kind-hearted, genial, friendly man, who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him, and self-indulgent without being selfish.' It would surely have been pleasant indeed to know Mr Peacock.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Anthology 14

To break the 13, here is a poem - a poem called Poem - by the quietly brilliant American poet Donald Justice. It's not often you come across a poem that begins by telling you what it's not about - 'You', as it happens - that declares 'You neither can nor should understand what it means', that urges you to 'close your eyes. Yawn. It will be over soon' - a poem that is, it seems, all about what it is not about, that boasts only 'the spurious glamour of certain voids'. Only Justice, perhaps, could pull it off - a poem 'most beautiful in its erasures'. But beautiful, for all that - for all that absence - it is...


This poem is not addressed to you.
You may come into it briefly,
But no one will find you here, no one.
You will have changed before the poem will.

Even while you sit there, unmovable,
You have begun to vanish. And it does not matter.
The poem will go on without you.
It has the spurious glamor of certain voids.

It is not sad, really, only empty.
Once perhaps it was sad, no one knows why.
It prefers to remember nothing.
Nostalgias were peeled from it long ago.

Your type of beauty has no place here.
Night is the sky over this poem.
It is too black for stars.
And do not look for any illumination.

You neither can nor should understand what it means.
Listen, it comes without guitar,
Neither in rags nor any purple fashion.
And there is nothing in it to comfort you.

Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.
You will forget the poem, but not before
It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.
It has been most beautiful in its erasures.

O bleached mirrors! Oceans of the drowned!
Nor is one silence equal to another.
And it does not matter what you think.
This poem is not addressed to you.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Rio, Here We Come!

Good news! The heroic Roy Hodgson - cultivated polymath and Carshalton Athletic alumnus - has managed to prevent the England squad from losing any matches and last night successfully steered them through to the World Cup Finals in Brazil. Bravo Roy! This calls for a song and dance to start the day...

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Two Cultures?

Both P.G. Wodehouse, comic novelist supreme, and C.P. Snow, chemist, public man and anything-but-comic novelist, were born on this date - PG in 1881, CP in 1905 (not to mention 1844's birthday boy Friedrich Nietzsche - 'fundamentally unsound' according to Jeeves).
  It hardly needs pointing out that the works of the 'performing flea' of English literature have lasted rather better than those of the 'serious and important' Snow, 'chronicler of our times', etc. But CP originated the useful phrase 'corridors of power' - and he is still remembered for having ignited the Two Cultures debate. Snow deplored the undervaluing of technical/scientific education (which is fair enough) and what he discerned as a breakdown of communication between the 'two cultures' of the sciences and arts. He writes:

'A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.'

  Hmmm. This argument is fine, I suppose, in terms of 'general knowledge' and the 'well furnished mind' - but is it really fair to equate two such different forms of knowledge? Science (except at a very exalted level) is a matter of facts, information and techniques, whereas knowledge of the arts equates with experience of them - the arts are lived rather than merely known, and are at bottom open to all; they do not in themselves have to be 'learnt', whereas science does. They are enjoyed for their own sake, whereas science is essentially a means to an end.
  The application of scientific knowledge has certainly been dazzlingly effective in the world - it works - but do we all really need to know it, any more than we need to know motor mechanics to enjoy a drive, or TV engineering to watch television? Scientific knowledge is by its very nature contingent and provisional. Homer and Aeschylus still speak to us, but the scientific ideas of their times are of purely historic interest - indeed 'science' as presently understood didn't even exist until long after; it is of historically very recent growth.
  Are we really supposed to believe that the person who can't recite the Second Law of Thermodynamics or define Mass is as deprived or deficient as the person who has never experienced the impact of Shakespeare, Bach or Rembrandt?  Of course, knowing a bit of science can come in handy in a pub quiz - but I don't think that's quite what Snow had in mind...

Monday 14 October 2013

For Everyone?

I see Julian Fellowes has been getting a spanking for making the obvious - but now heterodox and 'elitist' - point that Shakespeare's language is not immediately accessible to an unprimed modern audience. You might need to know a bit, to have a bit of literary/academic background, to appreciate what is arguably the greatest poetry ever written. It has to be acknowledged that Shakespeare's language, though often crystal clear, is at other times dense and difficult, employing a phenomenally large vocabulary, much of which is no longer in general (or any) use. Shakespeare is indeed 'for everyone' - that is part of his greatness - but to pretend that his language in all its richness can be readily understood at first hearing is just silly. If it was that easy, annotated editions would be a lot thinner, and the academic Shakespeare industry a shadow of its present self. Of course it would help greatly if actors (a) understood what they are saying and (b) followed the rhythms of Shakespeare's lines - but you certainly can't rely on that.

Over on The Dabbler...

... I'm Naming Names. Well, I'm not, but this Tollemache chap - anyway...

Sunday 13 October 2013

A New World

It must have been nearly 40 years since I last visited Ca' Rezzonico, the museum of 18th-century Venetian life, and saw the frescoes by Domenico Tiepolo, teeming with Pulcinella figures, some riotous, some melancholy. Though they might appear at a glance frivolous, these frescoes seem to me now powerful and astonishing works, perhaps the last great Venetian paintings, suffused with the wistful sadness and weary gaiety of a dying world. (Above is Tiepolo's vision of The New World - a fairground puppet show we cannot see, an interested crowd with its back turned, a blank distant ocean). These frescoes are the perfect visual analogue of Browning's A Toccata of Galuppi's -

Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy mind!

Here you come with your old music, and here's all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark's is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?

Ay, because the sea's the street there; and 'tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock's bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England—it's as if I saw it all.

Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?

Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red,—
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O'er the breast's superb abundance where a man might base his head?

Well, and it was graceful of them—they'd break talk off and afford
—She, to bite her mask's black velvet—he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions—"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths—"Life might last! we can but try!

"Were you happy?" —"Yes."—"And are you still as happy?"—"Yes. And you?"
—"Then, more kisses!"—"Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?"
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to!

So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
"Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
"I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!"

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.

But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o'er a secret wrung from nature's close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve.

Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
"Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
"The soul, doubtless, is immortal—where a soul can be discerned.

"Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
"Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
"Butterflies may dread extinction,—you'll not die, it cannot be!

"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too—what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

You can read more about the frescoes here...

Venice Notes

Dusk by the old customs house that stands at the tip of the Dorsoduro, beyond the Salute. To the left, across the waters of St Mark's Basin, the south face of the Doges' Palace and the campanile of San Marco; ahead, Palladio's island church of San Giorgio Maggiore with its own slender campanile; out to the right, across the wide Giudecca Canal, Palladio's other Venetian masterpiece, the church of Il Redentore...
What to say? A gasp will have to do. A gasp followed by long, rapt contemplation.

In Restauro
As ever, a good deal of restoration is under way. Much of the roofline of San Marco itself covered by screens, and most of the western range of the Piazza similarly concealed, and dominated by a gigantic advertising poster (for a luxury watch). In the Frari, Titian's Madonna di Ca' Pesaro is absent - 'In Restauro' (though the Titian Assumption and the Bellini Madonna and Saints are present, as radiantly beautiful as ever).

The People Problem
The shop-lined streets around the Piazza are as hideously congested as ever, and Venice's unceasing efforts to drain visitors of their money as tiresome as ever. Happily, though, it is still easy to escape the tourist throng and enter the quieter Venice in a matter of minutes.
Afternoon in the Campo San Zanipolo and the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. The throng here is of young children, released from school, charging about the open space, chasing each other, kicking footballs, playing games. The air is full of their cries. Venice is a city of human sounds - and silences. This is what city life used to be like, before the motor car remade our towns and our lives.

The Art Problem
A Biennale year, alas, with 'Art' liable to pop up everywhere. The lower room of Tintoretto's Scuola di San Rocco - a supreme work of the human spirit if ever there was one - is disfigured by violent purple-and-black 'paintings' that appear to have been produced by a very angry man cleaning his brush.
And what should appear overnight in front of the stunning facade of San Giorgio Maggiore? A gigantic, pale lilac-coloured inflatable version of Marc Quinn's 'sculpture' Alison Lapper Pregnant, as seen on the empty plinth of Trafalgar Square. Offences against art (as against Art) don't come much more horrific than this (though I suppose it's quite armless...).
On the other hand. Inside San Giorgio (an interior that makes St Paul's look like prentice work), under the cupola, is an extraordinary piece by John Pawson, aptly called Perspectives. A large convex lens on a base of mirrored steel offers breath-taking inverted vistas of arches and vaults (see picture above).

The Cruise Ship Problem
Closely related to the People Problem, but I hadn't realised its scale until one evening when a massive structure appeared beside the Salute - so massive that it reached almost to the top of that mighty dome. It was a cruise ship - or rather a floating hotel - of at least 12 decks. How much longer will Venice be able to cope with the hordes disgorged from these monstrous vessels?
But who can blame them for coming?

Sunday 6 October 2013

Scenes from a Norman Jaunt

Le Bec-Hellouin, in the lush-pastured, well wooded Risle valley, is now a pretty picture-postcard village (above). It's a quiet, sleepy place - so quiet that we weren't able even to get a coffee; the young man in charge of the single cafe was for some reason unable to provide us with any until the arrival of monsieur le patron, whom he awaited... Such is Le Bec-Hellouin now - but in the tenth and 11th centuries, the Abbey here (of which only a fine tower remains) was a major European centre of learning and faith, the Oxford and Cambridge of Normandy, whither the great Lanfranc came to escape his celebrity and spent three years in prayerful meditation before catching the eye of William of Normandy, who in due course appointed him the first Archbishop of Canterbury of Norman England. Lanfranc was succeeded as Abbot of Le Bec-Hellouin by another great churchman, St Anselm, who himself was to become an Archbishop of Canterbury. Le Bec also gave England other Bishops, including Gundulph (no relation to Gandalf), who was not only Bishop of Rochester but architect of Rochester Castle and the Tower of London.
 And now you can't even get a cup of coffee there...

It was while he was besieging the Duke of Burgundy at the nearby Brionne Castle that William spotted Lanfranc. Nothing remains of that castle but the battered keep, high above the town. We toiled up to it - and found the sunny flowery slope below the keep alive with butterflies. Clouded Yellows, Peacocks and Red Admirals galore, bright Small Coppers, a Painted Lady, various Blues too lively to settle and be identified (and an equally lively French brown I couldn't identify) were dancing and basking in the mellow autumn sunshine. A magical finale to the butterfly year.

As the ferry pulled out of Dieppe, nobody on the jetty was paying much attention as the huge boat passed alongside on its way to the open sea. This is usual nowadays - little or no waving. But then, just along the rail from me, a young girl (16 or so?) suddenly came alive, waving wildly with both hands and jumping up and down - she had spotted her family, and they her. Waving back with equal verve, her father sprinted towards the end of the jetty, followed by her mother and sister. All three arrived at the end in time to wave the girl off until she and they could no longer see each other as more than fast-fading specks of colour...
  As the ferry docked at Newhaven, an announcement came telling foot passengers (I was now travelling alone) where to muster. I made my way there and all seemed well, so I went to wash my hands - in the course of which there seemed to be another announcement saying much the same thing as the first. Returning to the mustering point and not getting the call for les pietons, I began to wonder if I was in the right place after all. No doubt you're ahead of me here: it was indeed not the right place. That was at the other end of the ship, my passage to which was now blocked by a mighty throng of motorists. I barged my way through them, then down into the bowels of the ship (seven decks) to find no evidence of a pedestrian exit, then back up the seven flights of stairs, barging my way back through the same appalled throng. Above decks I found a deserted ship - deserted by all but one other bewildered foot passenger. It was the waving girl, now wandering like me in search of a member of staff...
  It ended well enough and we were shown off the boat and into a waiting car, which took us to customs. And so home. And tomorrow I'm off to Venice for a few days.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

A Pebble from the Holstorm

Well, apart from that peaceful weekend in Derbyshire, my life seems to have segued from workstorm into homestorm - or holstorm? Anyway much kerfuffle and little chance to get to the keyboard and blog - and tomorrow the Normandy ferry. So let's have another poem...
  Here, in a still, small poem that is itself 'a perfect creature equal to itself', the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert contemplates a pebble. Herbert was fascinated by the reality of concrete things and by the presence of the past. He shunned abstract notions (he'd seen enough in his lifetime of the human damage ideologies could do). Writing, he declared, 'must teach men soberness... to be awake'. As the poet is awake to the pebble.


The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

--Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye.

(Herbert is a poet who seems to translate into English exceptionally well. This translation is by another great Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz. More Herbert poems here...)