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.