Monday 29 June 2015


Well, we can't let the birthday of Slim Pickens (1919) go unmarked. Born Louis Burton Lindley Jr, Slim adopted his stage name when he was a teenage rodeo rider - an activity of which his father strongly disapproved. When the manager of a rodeo told young Louis that there would be 'slim pickings' for him that day, he entered the competition as 'Slim Pickens' (and won himself $400). He was a rodeo rider for 20 years before his film career began, and he immediately became a ubiquitous support actor in westerns - one who could do his own horse-riding stunts. As the archetypal cowboy sidekick (with a Texan-Oklahoman drawl that belied his Californian origins), he appeared in countless horse operas and oaters - but he is chiefly remembered for two comic roles: in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, as Major T.J. 'King' Kong, riding a falling atom bomb, whooping and waving his hat rodeo-style - and in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, literally breaking the fourth wall in this classic scene.  On close examination some might detect an element of political incorrectness in Brooks' portrayal of the French Mistake dance troupe and its director (the great Dom DeLuise)...

Sunday 28 June 2015

Looking Up

After a promising start, my butterfly year (and I don't think I'm alone in this, at least in the Southeast) turned seriously disappointing through the late spring and early summer months. I've never known a June with fewer butterflies - even Whites - on the wing, except when skies have been grey and rain siling down. No such weather this year - rather the Southeast has been unusually dry, with plenty of sunshine. However, there have been cold winds blowing stubbornly from the Northwest or Northeast for much of the time, so that it has seldom really warmed up. I guess then - I hope - that the low temperatures are sufficient explanation for the low numbers of butterflies around.
 However things finally seem to be looking up now, with winds from the warm South and a heatwave promised. After a glorious day yesterday, it was cloudy but fairly warm this morning when I took my regular stroll around our little local nature reserve - and was delighted to find the grassy places alive with freshly-emerged Ringlets, those sable beauties that (along with Meadow Browns - also present) are among the few butterflies happy to fly - or rather, in the Ringlets' case, dance - under cloudy skies. And that was not all: as I paused by the lake, a Painted Lady in all its glory flew down and settled on a reed, close enough to touch. I remember, across six decades, my father pointing out to me the extraordinary lapidary beauty of a perching Painted Lady's underwings... A little later, back in the present, it started to rain.

Friday 26 June 2015

Sentence of the Day

[From Samuel Beckett's The Calmative, one of three nouvelles written around the same time as the Trilogy. A startled stranger asks our narrator, understandably, what is the matter with him...]

'I tried to look like one with whom that only is the matter which is native to him.'

Thursday 25 June 2015

Max's Savonarola

I've been rereading Max Beerbohm's Seven Men and Two Others. It's a book I've quite often dipped into for a spot of elegantly written good cheer - the adjective 'delightful' could almost have been invented for Max, a great delighter in life and a great passer-on of delight. Seven Men being a collection of short stories, mostly about (imaginary) marginal literary figures of the 1890s, it's a natural for dipping into - but this time I read it right through. I'd forgotten just how funny the last story - 'Savonarola' Brown - is.
 Brown (whose actual Christian name was Ladbroke, taken from Ladbroke Crescent, where his parents lived) devoted his entire creative life (such as it was) to writing a verse drama about Savonarola - a subject chosen entirely for the metrical music of the name. Brown's research on Savonarola was limited to reading an encyclopaedia article on the Florentine firebrand - and far too many other verse dramas - and he kept his poetical labours very much to himself, making slow progress and offering only cryptic clues to what the finished work would be.
 At last Brown achieves four acts, but has no idea how his hero is to die. This rather takes Max (who is present in all these tales) aback. Surely, he insists, 'in a tragedy the catastrophe must be led up to, step by step. My dear Brown, the end of the hero must be logical and rational.'
 'I don't see that,' he said as we crossed Piccadilly Circus. 'In actual life it isn't so. What is there to prevent a motor-omnibus from knocking me over and killing me at this moment?'
 At that moment, by what has always seemed to me the strangest of coincidences, and just the sort of thing that playwrights ought to avoid...'
 Well, you can guess what happened next.
 And so Max inherits the manuscript of Savonarola, and decides to present it to the world in all its unfinished four-act glory, putting as generous a gloss on Brown's efforts as he can.
 It turns out to be a hilarious, quite mad melodrama revolving around the tempestuous relationship between the eponymous fire-breathing monk and the seductive Lucrezia Borgia. It's written in a scrupulously correct iambic pentameter that carries on, never missing a beat, through thick and thin, from exposition

 'Savonarola love-sick? Ha, ha, ha!
  Love-sick? He, love-sick? 'Tis a goodly jest!
  The confirm'd misogyn a ladies' man!
  Thou must have eaten of some strange red herb
  That takes the reason captive. I will swear
  Savonarola never yet hath seen
  A woman but he spurned her. Hist! He comes...'

to would-be emotional outpourings

 '..... Spurn'd am I? I am I.
 There was a time, Sir,  look to't! O damnation!
 What is't? Anon then! These my toys, my gauds,
 That in the cradle - aye, 't my mother's breast -
 I puled and lisp'd at, - 'Tis impossible,
 Tho', faith, 'tis not so, forasmuch as 'tis.
 And I a daughter of the Borgias! -
 Or so they told me. Liars! Flatterers!
 Currying lick-spoons! Where's the Hell of 't then?'

and walk-on appearances by the likes of Dante, Leonardo and Francis of Assisi

 '..... Hush, Sir! 'Tis my little sister
 The poisoner, right well-belov'd by all
 Whom she as yet hath spared. Hither she came
 Mounted upon another little sister of mine -
 A mare, caparison'd in goodly wise.
 She - I refer now to Lucrezia -
 Desireth to have word of thee anent
 Some matter that befrets her...'

The only character excused pentameter is the Fool, who talks in incomprehensible prose when not breaking into hey-nonny-nonny song - until he is fired and turns up again as a Gaoler:

 'Unfortunately I have been discharg'd
  For my betrayal of Lucrezia,
  So that I have to speak like other men -
  Decasyllabically, and with sense.'

'Remember, please, before you formulate your impressions,' pleads Max at the end, 'that saying of Brown's: "The thing must be judged as a whole."' In the absence of Brown's fifth act, Max attempts to provide one himself - one that will make sense of the previous four and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Oddly, he fails.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Derbyshire in Three Drinks: If Johnson were a beer...

Returning from a few days in Derbyshire, I find my piece on a monument in Ashbourne church reprinted on today's Dabbler.
 Ashbourne was not on the itinerary this time, and we were based in Derby, a potentially very fine city hideously marred by Seventies-style ring road-based 'planning'. The skyline is dominated not by the cathedral tower but by skyscraper hotels and office blocks, and vast, curiously blank and opaque boxes of various shapes and colours occupy far too much of the understorey. Many of these no doubt looked wonderful on the drawing-board and duly won awards, but they sit in the Georgian-medieval-Victorian townscape like alien obtrusions. Happily, however, Derby has its river - the wondrous and lovely Derwent, a 'world heritage site' in itself - and enough of the city has survived the planners' attentions to afford some enjoyable urban rambling. But enough of Derby...

 Farther along the Derwent, in Belper, I came across a thoroughly delicious bottle of Falanghina in an Italian restaurant. This distinctive Italian was a few years ago expected to become the discerning budget drinker's alternative to Pinot Grigio and the all-conquering Sauvignon Blanc - but somehow it never happened, and that crown went rather to Picpoul de Pinet. Which was no bad thing, but if you come across a bottle of Falanghina do try it - you might well be in for a pleasant surprise.

In a pub near the vast man-made Carsington Water, I was delighted to spot a beer pump with the unmistakable features of Samuel Johnson (from the Reynolds portrait) on the handle. This was Dr Johnson bitter, brewed by the Leatherbritches brewery - not, alas, of Lichfield (or Ashbourne), but of Smisby in Leicestershire. I had never seen this beer before and had to have a pint - followed by another. I can report that, if Johnson were a beer, this is the beer he would be. It is described as 'a rich juicy malty beer with a nutty taste, a little fizziness on the tongue, with bitterness and a fresh clean taste'. We raised a glass to the Great Englishman.

The Barley Mow in Kirk Ireton, part of a fine 17th-century house, is one of the least 'improved' pubs I've ever set foot in - essentially a front parlour and a couple of rooms off, one of them upstairs, all sparsely furnished and looking virtually unchanged since the house was built. The 'bar' is a counter behind which are ranged four barrels of guest ales, the till is a wooden drawer, ale is drawn in jugs, and there are absolutely none of the trappings of a modern pub. Three of the tables are topped with sections of the slate bed of a billiards table. But the place is positively modernistic and go-ahead compared to what it was under the previous landlady, who refused even to take decimal money. The present landlady and her husband bought the house and pub nearly 40 years ago. The husband was a very distinguished local architect - but happily he was not responsible for any of Derby's architectural eyesores.

Friday 19 June 2015

Flatt Day

I missed the centenary last year, so today let's mark the 101st birthday of the great bluegrass guitarist, mandolin player and rich-voiced vocalist Lester Flatt (d. 1979). Here he is in action on the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs TV show. Bluegrass doesn't get much better than this -  enjoy...

Thursday 18 June 2015

Ekphrastic Porter

A Portrait by Giulio Romano
by Peter Porter

Dear long-dead lady,
what was it like in the world
of Aretine's postures?
The highlights of your beauty
are a blond tombeau
but you are in a cage.

Your white skin and your red
velvet dress - the uniform of love!
They have shaken out boxes
before your eyes, they have formed
letters on your lips, and held
your legs apart for the state.

We are wrecked on red dreams.
Eloquence is quickness,
the flying to extremes -
your pose and prettiness
are to keep off endings,
the highmindedness of hell.

The portrait of Dona Isabel de Requesens, vicereine of Naples, was formerly attributed to Raphael, who did indeed have a hand in it. It's a portrait rich is sensuous textures and colours, and the pose is extraordinarily provocative, not least in the placing of the hands and the fact that the knees are parted and the gaze unflinchingly fixed on the spectator. Yet it has an air of intense melancholy, a sense of a doomed situation in which the beautiful sitter is imprisoned. Porter's fine short poem, I think, captures all that and more.
['Aretine' is Pietro Aretino, pioneer of literary pornography.]

Wednesday 17 June 2015

A Fossil Butterfly

Yesterday to the Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse's vast Germanic cathedral of Nature, presided over by the God-like figure of Charles Darwin enthroned atop the grand stairs that rise from the vast nave. Number One Grandson, who is very nearly three, was awed by the grand building (which he describes as a 'palace') and by the giant Brontosaurus (or whatever they're calling it now) and the Blue Whale; but the big successes of the visit were outside the museum itself: the beautifully designed garden of English wild flowers and trees, with ponds and curving paths, at the western corner of the grounds - and the butterfly house. Called Sensational Butterflies, this is a large, steamy heated marquee (complete with jungle sounds) where a dazzling array of spectacular tropical butterflies are flying free and feasting on nectar and a picnic of rather worse-for-wear oranges and bananas. Number One Grandson was entranced by it all - it looks as if there could be another butterfly fancier in the family. His great-grandfather - my father, who was the first - would be delighted...
 I also learnt about - but, alas, didn't see - the astonishing fossil butterfly, Lithopsyche antiqua, discovered on the Isle of Wight in the 1880s. Read about it here - and enjoy the magical image of a creature of the utmost delicacy somehow preserved by fossilisation. Most fossils leave me cold - they seem like alien roadkill - but the thought of this butterfly, still so clearly recognisable, fluttering around on what is now the Isle of Wight some 34 million years ago sends a tingle down my spine.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Picture of the Day

This fine fellow is Henry Cyril 'Toppy' Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, in costume for one of his notorious theatrical productions. Born on this day 140 years ago, the 'Dancing Marquess' is notable for having run through one of the largest fortunes in England, speeding from immense wealth to bankruptcy in the course of a short, decidedly flamboyant life. You can read the sorry saga, in outline, here. It's good to know that he was popular with the people of Bangor.

Monday 15 June 2015

Here's how it might have happened:
I was strolling along by the river in a local park* when I chanced upon a rather spectacular orchid of a kind I'd never seen before - similar to the common Spotted Orchid but more intensely coloured and with differently shaped and marked flowers. Reaching for my trusty Fitter, Fitter and Blamey, I was delighted to discover that it was a Southern Marsh Orchid...

Here's how it did happen:
Having heard that there was a colony of Southern Marsh Orchids in a local park*, I headed for what I thought must be the location, an area of damp ground near the river. I searched for some while with no luck, and was thinking of giving up when I noticed that a few small, apparently random patches of land were cordoned off with red-and-white tape attached to traffic cones. Surely they hadn't decided to draw attention to the orchids by fencing them off, as if to - er - draw attention to them? Reader, they had! And that was how I found my Southern Marsh Orchids, each clump fenced off like a crime scene. I wish it had happened the other way, but at least it gave me a great forehead-slapping moment - D'Oh!

* Note for Malty: Beddington Park.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Stanley Elkin Again: More Is More

I've been reading Stanley Elkin again - this time, The Franchiser, which had been in my sights for a while. Published in 1976, five years after The Dick Gibson Show and nine years before The Magic Kingdom, The Franchiser is the story of Ben Flesh, buyer of franchises - or rather The Franchiser is Ben Flesh, Ben Flesh's mighty edifice of words, his tumultuous, all-embracing, unstoppable spiel. His backstory gets told early on - by Flesh, of course, to a hitch-hiker: how his godfather, who was his tailor father's business partner, went on to become extremely wealthy after the partnership broke up and, feeling somehow responsible for Ben, left him on his death the precious gift of access to capital at prime rate, with the full co-operation of his benefactor's family of, ahem, 14 children, all multiple births (here Elkin's taste for grotesquerie finds ample expression - each of the 14 has his/her own bizarre and improbable medical condition. And there's more...).
 With this helpful start, Flesh devotes his life to buying franchises - the franchises that make (or made) America look like America, link Anytown to Everytown: Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson's, Dairy Queen and Mister Softee, McDonald's and Colonel Sanders', Fred Astaire Dance Studios, Cinema I and II... Flesh's life is spent entirely in hotels and in his car as he criss-crosses the country from one franchise to the next. And all the time he talks - the spiel goes on and on, projecting his dreams and visions, his ecstatic love of the teeming abundance and variety of life, of material things, of America, of the endless possibilities... Along the way he meets a range of Elkinesque characters - including a Colonel Sanders who isn't - and maintains his various relationships with his various 'godcousins'. And along the way he also finds himself suffering the onset of Multiple Sclerosis and a series of deaths - events that force him to face realities that even his inexhaustible spiel cannot for ever keep at bay... Or can it?
 As ever, Elkin treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy here, but he remains a defiantly, exuberantly, inexhaustibly comic writer - like Joyce (as classified in Hugh Kenner's The Stoical Comedians) a 'comedian of the Inventory', in The Franchiser quite literally so. He is a 'putter-in', not a 'taker-out'. As he recalls in his Paris Review interview: 'My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me: "Stanley, less is more."... I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess, because I don't believe that less is more. I believe that more is more.' Well, in his case it is. The Franchiser is an endlessly inventive, funny, touching and hugely readable novel by a writer who surely deserves to be remembered and read - and enjoyed.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Yeats, 150 Today

We can't let this day, the sesquicentenary of W.B. Yeats's birth, go unmarked. It's caused quite a stir (as poetical anniversaries go) and has been all over the airwaves, with tributes and recitations galore (The Cloth of Heaven appears to be number one public favourite at the moment). For myself, I have no trouble with the notion of Yeats as a (sometimes) great poet, one with a highly individual voice and imagination and a genius for rhetoric and potent imagery. But I can see why others have reservations: he wrote too much, and too much of it flatulent blather, and he had a magnetic attraction to mystical-magical-mythical tosh, never meeting a crackpot philosophy he didn't like. He was, as Auden wrote in his great poem In Memoriam W.B. Yeats, 'silly like us' - yet he was capable of transmuting crackpot dross into poetical gold (the classic case being The Second Coming).
 Anyway, this day calls for a poem - and it's going to be Among School Children. Even those doubtful of Yeats's greatness tend to allow that this one is a great poem - see this piece in which Denis Donoghue recalls F.R. Leavis conceding that it is indeed 'a fully achieved thing' (and don't you just love his grudging summing-up of Yeats's poetry: 'there is no element of a man's experience in the twentieth century that, of its nature, it excludes' - cheers, F.R!). But I choose Among School Children also because of a personal memory from 1969, of sitting on the steps of Trieste station (with hours to wait for a train) learning it by heart. Alas, I only have parts of it now - but yes, this is surely a great poem, is it not?

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Thursday 11 June 2015

This and That

Well, this retirement lark is great fun, but the sheer busyness so far has been such that I've had remarkably little time to myself. With so much family in the vicinity for the summer, it's been one mad social whirl - but, since all this busyness is in the service of familial love and happy conviviality, it was been a joy, and the tiredness that follows in its wake is of a quite different quality from the tiredness of Work. I wish I had a little more time to attend to the blog, but there will be quieter days...
 Meanwhile, I note that the most predictable poll result since Stalin's last election has been announced - indeed I was watching at the time (it was on Springwatch Unsprung). The Robin is Britain's National Bird. Of course.
 And today comes news that the actor Christopher Lee has died, at the suitably grand age of 93. I saw him in the flesh around ten years ago and he cut a quite magnificent figure, like some scion of immemorial central European aristocracy. His first role for Hammer Films - with whom he was to become the definitive Count Dracula - was in The Curse of Frankenstein, playing the Creature. This was a role for which Carry On stalwart Bernard Bresslaw was also considered, he and Lee being the two tallest actors on Equity's books at the time (BB 6ft 7in, CL 6ft 5in). As it was, Lee walked into the part, and into a life-long friendship with Peter Cushing, who was playing Victor Frankenstein. The story is that Lee stormed into Cushing's dressing room complaining 'I've got no lines!' Cushing looked up benignly and remarked, 'You're lucky. I've read the script.'

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Icarus in the Bathroom

I decided to celebrate my retirement with a razor upgrade (these are big moments in a chap's life). This one, however, turned out to be a mistake. I'd swapped my trusty, basic Wilkinson Protector 3 for the fancier Hydro 3 with its vaunted lubrication system - and am regretting it already. My first two upgraded shaves have left my cheeks and chin spotted with blood and coated in a slimy substance that takes a lot of rinsing off. I'll give it a week and then return, a sadder and a wiser man, to the Protector 3, which I now realise is the ne plus ultra of efficient and reliable shaving. I have flown too close to the sun...
 Meanwhile, over on The Dabbler, I recall a vulgar brawl involving Ernest Hemingway and, of all people, Wallace Stevens.

Monday 8 June 2015

In the New Room

The estimable Dave Lull alerts me to a forthcoming new collection from the great Kay Ryan [see Nigeness, passim]. Erratic Facts will be published in October, and it seems to be full of wonderful stuff. Here's a sample - a lucid, exquisitely crafted little gem that says it all in the fewest possible words (and is perhaps especially apposite for one finding himself in the New Room of retirement)...

New Rooms

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes 
aren’t where 
the windows

Friday 5 June 2015

The Day Has Come...

Today, after 22 years of relentless toil, I retire from my post at NigeCorp. In keeping with these straitened times, celebrations at HQ will be on a relatively modest scale. The traditional workers' ceremonial marchpast through the gleaming turbine halls will take place without the usual musical accompaniment, the NigeCorp silver band having been stood down. Later, however, NigeCorp's newly formed period instrument ensemble will entertain us, joined by the massed choirs in a range of suitable celebratory odes. Sound the trumpet, strike the lyre, touch the lute, awake the harp, inspire the flute, and while you're about it, see what you can do with the sprightly hautboy... The NigeCorp Bard will don the chiton and bays and declaim a specially composed Pindaric ode, and the workers will respectfully seat themselves for the farewell banquet, limited on this occasion to six course and 12 toasts. After the last of these, I shall deliver my valedictory speech and make my way, with a select group of grateful workers, to the rooftop helipad, where a lone piper will play a fitting lament as I board the NigeCorp executive chopper one last time...
  Meanwhile, back in this universe, I am indeed retiring today from the job I've had for the past 22 years - but only from the job. Life itself will continue - or rather resume - and among the many things I intend to spend more time with is this blog.  

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Dufy's Electricity Fairy

When the Paris Electricity Company were looking for an artist to create a vast mural illustrating the wonders of Electricity for the concave wall of the Palace of Light and Electricity at the 1937 International Exhibition, their thoughts turned - amazingly - to Raoul Dufy (born on this day in 1877).
 Dufy, an artist best known for his charming, freely painted Riviera scenes, full of colour, life and gaiety - and for delightful flower paintings, such as the one above - was a painter whose works seemed to have no higher ambition than to give pleasure (and why not?). Indeed Gertrude Stein declared that 'Dufy is pleasure.' However, he rose to the challenge of the electricity company's serious and ambitious commission with relish, planning and executing The Electricity Fairy, a massive scheme inspired by Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and incorporating Olympian deities, 110 portraits of electrical scientists and engineers, a huge power plant and all manner of electricity-related technology, and an orchestra of the world's great cities, amid a range of Dufy's more familiar favourite subjects. It was all painted on 250 panels, using a specially formulated quick-drying transparent oil paint, and the whole thing - all  600 square metres of it, one of the largest paintings in the world - was completed in 10 months. It now resides in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris - and you can take a virtual tour of it here. 'Wow' is indeed the word.

Monday 1 June 2015

John Masefield's Wild Times

When I was a boy, the Poet Laureate was still John Masefield, as had been the case ever since he succeeded Robert Bridges back in 1930 (he held the post longer than anyone since Tennyson). Masefield (born on this day in 1878) was, I think, little read by the Fifties and Sixties (he died in 1967, a survivor from another age), but Sea Fever was in every poetry anthology, and I remember singing (to use the term loosely) with the school choir a setting of his equally popular Cargoes  - 'Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine...' If I ever gave Masefield a thought, I would have assumed that he led a life of more or less exemplary dullness - but this was, in fact, far from the case. His early years, at least, were remarkably eventful and adventurous.
 After an unhappy childhood -  both parents lost early, farmed out to an aunt, wretched schooldays - he was sent to the training ship HMS Conway, with the twin aim of equipping him for life at sea and breaking what his aunt saw as a dangerous addiction to reading. The effect was to spark young Masefield's love of the sea, nautical lore and storytelling - and to confirm him in his addiction to books, which he now had a great deal more time to indulge. Masefield's maiden sea voyage was to Chile, then after his return he took to the sea again, aboard a windjammer bound for New York - where he promptly jumped ship and lived for several months as a vagrant, taking odd jobs where he could find them. After returning to the city, he worked in a carpet factory in Yonkers, where, despite the long hours and hard toil, he fed his reading addiction with as many as 20 books a week.
 Soon after his return to England, he met his future wife, settled down and embarked on an extremely busy and prolific career as poet, novelist, propagandist, lecturer and indefatigable all-round writer, accumulating honours as he sailed on into old age. I don't suppose much will survive of him but those few anthology pieces - and perhaps his children's books The Midnight Folk and The Box Of Delights? Well, it is enough.


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down  to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.