Thursday 29 October 2015

In Platonic England

Well, I am back from my latest jaunt into Derbyshire - and, this time, Nottinghamshire. The highlights included a walk in glorious autumn sunlight in Chee Dale - a dale I'd never even heard of, but a ravishingly beautiful one - and another good haul from the never-failing Wirksworth Bookshop: Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them, J.G. Farrell's A Girl in the Head (which I've never read) and Pevsner's Nottinghamshire. It's the first edition (1951, price three shillings and sixpence) of what was only the second in the Buildings of England series, and hence it is comfortably small enough to slip into the pocket. It was to come in very handy as we made our way towards Southwell Minster...
 My cousin was keen to take a look at Maplebeck, a village she had visited before years ago, and the Pevsner listing of a nearby, even smaller village, Winkburn, was intriguing enough to make us stop there and investigate. Winkburn has a manor house and church right next to each other - the house briefly visible from the road some way outside the village, but not the church; and when we arrived both had disappeared amid the trees. What was there was a large yard full of gleaming heavy machinery and the offices of some kind of contracting firm. Deep rural quiet, a cloudy Midland sky, and not a soul in sight, until a man in a white van drew up to ask us to move the car. From him we learnt that there was a path through the trees that would, despite appearances, lead to the church and the house.
 The trees were a mix of tall deciduous standards, all in their autumn colours, and dense plantings of laurel and holly and holm oak, and between them they did a very effective job of keeping house and church well hidden. Until suddenly, there was Winkburn Hall - a solid, elegant but unpretentious house of the early18th century - and, after a while, the church of St John of Jerusalem, Winkburn, also came into view, right by the house but more deeply hidden among the greenery. 'Platonic England, house of solitudes,/ rests in its laurels and its injured stone,/ replete with complex fortunes that are gone,/ beset by dynasties of moods and clouds...' (as Geoffrey Hill put it). 

The church is small, unspoilt, essentially Norman, its tiny sunless graveyard almost overgrown, moss-greened baroque headstones just topping the lush grass. John Piper would have loved it. A plain, dark interior that feels as if little has changed since the family - the Burnells - inhabited (for nine generations) the big house. Their 'complex fortunes that are gone' are memorialised in a sober Jacobean monument (William Burnell, kneeling in conventional prayer) and a very much more flamboyant memorial to the last of the line, D'Arcy Burnell, who died in 1774. On either side the pedestal of a large urn stand Death, in the guise of a rather beautiful, underdressed young man holding an inverted torch, and Fame, in female form, holding a portrait profile of D'Arcy Burnell, Esquire. His long epitaph ends with a couplet from Pope's Essay on Man: 'A wit's a feather, and a chief a rod:/ An honest man's the noblest work of God.'
 I'm tempted to say 'Only in England', but of course there are similarly well hidden, richly atmospheric and rewarding house-and-church ensembles to be found embedded among the byways of Normandy, and far beyond. Yet there is something peculiarly English about the atmosphere of a place - almost a non-place but for these two survivors - like Winkburn. And we, uniquely, have Pevsner to guide us toward them.
 On a grander, more glorious scale, Southwell Minster did not disappoint. I hadn't been there for a good many years and had forgotten just how beautiful and astonishing the carved stonework of the chapter house - Pevsner's Leaves of Southwell (King Penguin, 1945) - and the screen/pulpitum is. The very ideal of Gothic craftsmanship - exquisitely wrought but spirited and mischievous, naturalistic, richly human and individual.
 Then, on the final day, to Haddon Hall, my favourite Derbyshire house, 'the English castle par excellence', as Pevsner puts it, 'the unreasonable dream castle of those who think of the Middle Ages as a time of chivalry and valour and noble feelings'. Here all was as I remembered it, apart from a bizarre object plonked in the middle of one of the rooms. Clad in a grubby, hideously coloured textile (a kind of Seventies mustard yellow) and resembling a disassembled delta-wing aircraft, this was, I learnt, a sofa designed by Zaha Habib. How anyone would contrive to sit on it I have no idea; why anyone would buy it and put it on display, still less.
 As for butterflies, the visit began with three Tortoiseshells and ended with two Speckled Woods, just as the sun came out, at Haddon Hall.
 [The curious image at the top is a photograph of a sconce in Winkburn church, with a patch of baroque wall painting behind.]

Sunday 25 October 2015

A Sunday Ramble

Ever since seeing the Sickert in Dieppe exhibition in Chichester, I've been dipping into the accompanying book by its curator Katy Norris. It's a handsome volume, but better to look at than to read, the text being rather heavy on sociological-historical-political 'context' and critical jargon, and none too elegantly written. It is also, like so many books these days, peppered with solecisms and misprints. One that I've just come across is positively surreal:
 'As Robert Upstone has noted, Sickert's painting of fisher-girls in Venice seem to fit this template [don't ask]. Similar to his exploration of Costa girls in London, for Sickert these women exemplified an outmoded working-class existence that had survived in spite of the upheavals in urban living...'
Leaving aside the illiterate use of 'similar to', what, you may ask, are 'Costa girls'? Surely the coffee-house chain had made no inroads into London in Sickert's time? I stared at the phrase for some while before the penny dropped - of course: coster girls! As portrayed above in a painting by William Rothenstein.
 The young Rothenstein appears in person in Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames, the first of the stories in Seven Men. The artist lands in Oxford from Paris like a meteorite, with a commission to draw 24 lithograph portraits: 'Dignified and doddering old men, who had never consented to sit to anyone, could not withstand this dynamic little stranger. He did not sue: he invited; he did not invite: he commanded. He was twenty-one years old. He wore spectacles that flashed more than any other pair ever seen. He was a wit. He was brimful of ideas. He knew Whistler. He knew Edmond de Goncourt. He knew everyone in Paris. He knew them all by heart. He was Paris in Oxford...' And among the subjects of his portraits is Max himself, who introduces Rothenstein to Enoch Soames,  an obscure poet with a burning, wholly unfounded conviction that posterity will judge him the greatest of his age.
 This conviction leads him to make a pact with the Devil, no less, that will grant him a visit to the Reading Room of the British Museum exactly 100 years hence, to examine the shelves and catalogues and determine the full extent of his posthumous fame. The date of his visit would be the 3rd of June, 1997, the time 2.10pm.
 In November 1997, the Atlantic Monthly published 'A Memory of the Nineteen-Nineties (Being a faithful account of the events of the designated day when the man who had disappeared was expected briefly to return)' - an article by the illusionist 'Teller', of Penn and Teller fame. It's a great read - follow the link...
 Which has taken us rather a long way from Costa girls and coster girls but, hey, it's Sunday. And tomorrow, DV, I'm off to Derbyshire for a few days.

Saturday 24 October 2015

An (Almost) Invisible Poet

No Fool Like an Old Fool

From the shaving mirror peers a half truth:
Broken veins, pouches below the eyes, false teeth,
Grey stubble fringing the wet mouth.

When I tweak neck skin between finger and thumb,
It uncreases slowly. Hairs clog my comb.
I die in bits, yet stay the same.

My wife has had her own bedroom for years.
She used to say, taking guests' coats, 'He snores.'
The act died slowly. Now who cares?

She couldn't be bothered with children. She plays bridge.
These days even our minds rarely engage.
Other men's wives revive the itch.

I salivate for typists of seventeen.
A child trips: my knee registers his pain.
Behold a (quotes) dirty old man.

I weaken with wanting twenty times a day.
My loves, my executioners, turn away.
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Who wrote this cheery little number - Larkin perhaps? No, not Larkin but a now forgotten poet he much admired, Jonathan Price. He wrote it, incidentally, in his early thirties, so it's not autobiographical (which is a mercy).
 I had never heard of Price until I read a short informal obituary of him in P.J. Kavanagh's collection, People and Places. Kavanagh and Price were contemporaries at Oxford in the early 50s, where Price co-edited several collections of new Oxford verse, including some of Geoffrey Hill's first published poems. Price was already getting his own work published in national magazines, and was clearly one of the most accomplished of his generation, admired by his contemporaries for his  sure craftsmanship. 'His poems were small in scale and few in number,' writes Kavanagh, 'but the accuracy of their making gave them a force which shamed us in our windier attempts, or should have.'
 Unlike many in the poetry world, Price projected almost nothing in the way of 'personality', seeming determined, as Kavanagh puts it, to be the Most Forgettable character you ever met. In drab postwar England, 'he wore the time's drabness like a cloak, a cloak of invisibility almost'. He spoke little, but something about his eyes - full of intelligence, laughter, even wisdom - showed that there was plenty going unsaid.
That 'curious and attractive laughter' in his eyes remained with him through life - as did his reluctance to project his personality or in any way push himself forward, with the result that he never really built, or attempted to build, a literary career. The poems remained small in scale and few in number, appearing at intervals in literary magazines and others that in those days published poetry. A few were anthologised, including this one, which turned up, rather improbably, in the Oxford Book of Love Poetry...

A Considered Reply to a Child

'I love you', you said between two mouthfuls of pudding.
But not funny; I didn't want to laugh at all.
Rolling three years' experience in a ball,
You nudged it friendlily across the table.

A stranger, almost, I was flattered - no kidding.
It's not every day I hear a thing like that;
And when I do my answer's never pat.
I'm about nine times your age, ten times less able

To say - what you said; incapable of unloading
Plonk at someone's feet, like a box of bricks,
A declaration. When I try, it sticks
Like fish-bones in my throat; my eyes tingle.

What's called 'passion', you'll learn, may become 'overriding'.
But not in me it doesn't: I'm that smart,
I can give everything and keep my heart.
Kisses are kisses. No need for souls to mingle.

Bed's bed, what's more, and you'd say it's meant for sleeping;
And, believe me, you'd be absolutely right.
With luck you'll never lie awake all night,
Someone beside you (rather like 'crying') weeping.

Price held down a succession of unglamorous editing jobs in publishing, and generally passed unnoticed through the world, except by those admirers who looked out for his poems and pounced on them as and when they turned up. Eventually, his old Oxford friend Anthony Thwaite persuaded him to collect together some of his poems for book publication and got Secker and Warburg to publish them.  The resulting slim volume, Everything Must Go, was published in 1985 and attracted little notice, though a grateful Larkin wrote that 'this book will enable us to throw away the tattered cuttings we have kept so long'.
 Here are a couple of poems from Everything Must Go (which can still be bought online for under a tenner)...

A Forked Radish

Small men make love on stilts, and hold their poise
A step or two; then tumble heavily.
Others dream up frail ladders to the stars:
They teeter at the end in empty sky.

Who strains the laces of his boots will fly
Sprawling to earth, lace broken, balance gone.
All fool themselves who wink at gravity,
And later hit the ground they should have won.

Wise to a body's pull, a few have done
Nothing but stand still, both feet on the ground.
These lovers grew together in the sun,
While a dark root a dark root gripped and bound.


Swift paused before a dying tree one day,
Whose rotten top told where his death would start.
There was no means of checking the decay.

The patient seldom sees his fever-chart
(A thoughtful doctor hides the thing away),
But guesses much from what he knows in part.

Knowledge of madness suffers a delay:
When the mind rots, no introspective art
Gives it a check upon its own decay.

When once the patient finds it in his heart,
It does not matter what the doctors say.
He guesses all from what he knows in part.
There is no means of checking the decay.

Looking back to Oxford days, Kavanagh writes 'Whereas our poems were carpentered from hope, bluff, half-understood emotion, his were those of a cabinet-maker who knew how to get the best from his materials; we put ours together with nails and glue and his were dowelled and mortised, his ideas slid in and out noiselessly, and hung true on their hinges.' And so it remained throughout his writing life - the more closely you examine Price's poems, the more impressive is the inconspicuous craftsmanship. They are spare, laconic and precise (note those punchy Larkinesque monosyllables), always formal in construction, but there is something more - an understated but strong personal voice - and it is easy to see why that voice, and that formalism, appealed to Larkin.
 Sadly, Price died soon after Everything Must Go was published. This last poem is, alas, autobiographical...

Night Thoughts

Things past include a boy dangling a string,
Baited with meat scraps, into a dark pool.
Harmless and unharmed, small crabs sidle round
The bottom of a can. The wind turns cool,
The crabs are counted and tipped back where found,
The boy runs home for tea. A timeless thing.

Things change in time: it's the crab's turn tonight.
It gorges now on liver, will move on
From that to who knows what, and won't be caught.
I launch pills down to stun it. It has gone.
It has not gone. I wonder if I ought
To turn us both off like a bedside light.  

Friday 23 October 2015

Eleanor Glanville: Butterfly Mad

Good to hear that the National Trust is buying more land on the Isle of Wight by way of encouraging the rare and beautiful Glanville Fritillary, a butterfly that occurs only on the extreme southern fringes of the British Isles - Wight and the Channel Islands. Actually that's not quite true: the Glanville has been reintroduced several times over the years in various parts of Southern England, with varying degrees of success, usually short-term. One reintroduction that seems to be working is, improbably, at a small nature reserve on the fringes of Croydon - I'll be heading there next summer to have a look...
 The Glanville Fritillary is almost the only British butterfly that is named after an individual (the other is Berger's Clouded Yellow, which hardly counts) - and what an individual! Eleanor Glanville, who died in 1709, was a pioneer lepidopterist, working at a time when very few men and no women were studying butterflies. Her collection and the extent of her knowledge astonished the men: she had, wrote William Vernon, 'the noblest collection of butterflies, all English, which has sham'd us'.
 Though she was generally referred to as Lady Glanville, Eleanor had no such title, but was 'of good family' (her parents, great horticulturalists, first cultivated the delicious Ribston Pippin apple). She seems to have developed her interest in butterflies in her middle age, after the breakdown of her second marriage, to Richard Glanville, a violent man who once held a loaded and cocked pistol to her breast and threatened to shoot her dead.
 She started corresponding with the small (all-male) band of butterfly collectors, and sending them specimens - one of which was to become the Glanville Fritillary, though it began life as the rather more prosaic Lincoln Fritillary, as Eleanor first caught it near that fine city. Eleanor Glanville was seriously interested in every stage of the butterfly - and moth - life cycle (and might have been the first person to refer to Geometrid larvae as 'loopers'). There's an incredulous eye-witness account of her larva-collecting methods: 'She and her two female apprentice girls would carry a sheet out under the hedges and bushes and with a long pole beat the said hedges and catch a parcel of worms.' Recently three original specimens from Eleanor Glanville's collection were rediscovered in the Sloane collection in the Natural History Museum.
 After the marital breakdown, Eleanor's husband was determined to get his hands on her money by hook or by crook, on one occasion kidnapping one of her sons in the hope of getting him to disclaim his inheritance and transfer it to him and his new mistress. This kind of thing led Eleanor to arrange to leave the disposal of her estate in the hands of trustees. However, on her death, the will was disputed by her eldest son, on the grounds that his mother had gone mad. One of the signs, sure enough, was her pursuit of butterflies. As well as beating bushes to knock worms out, she had been seen chasing around all over the locality, often 'without all necessary cloathes' and even dressed 'like a gypsey'. In the end, the will was indeed upset and the eldest son inherited. It was agreed by one and all that no one 'not deprived of their sense should go in pursuit of butterflyes'.

Wednesday 21 October 2015


Yesterday afternoon being warm and sunny, I was drawn magnetically to the Surrey Hills to enjoy the mellow sunshine and the glorious autumn hues, and to see what was flying. The sun did not disappoint, the trees and shrubs were in their autumn glory - maple and dogwood spectacular, beeches turning golden-bronze, abundant hips and haws, sloes, buckthorn and pink spindle berries - and the sun-raked views were breath-taking, but disappointingly little was flying. Apart, that is, from a number of red-bodied ichneumon wasps and tiresome swarms (I use the word advisedly) of ladybirds - the all-conquering Harlequin invaders, sadly. I had to knock dozens of the blighters off my clothes and hair. As for butterflies... well, none of the late fliers I might have expected (I was walking in prime butterfly country) - Brimstone, Red Admiral, Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Small Copper - not even a Speckled Wood. What I did see were two tired and faded Meadow Browns and - a real surprise, this - one remarkably fresh-looking Gatekeeper basking in the sun. A lovely sight, and extraordinarily late - I know Gatekeepers have been flying later in recent years, but October 20th, for heaven's sake? I wonder if anyone else has seen one recently...

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Cuyp Cows

Born on this day in 1620 was Aelbert Cuyp, one of the great landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age - and one of the most problematical for the experts. The biographical record is notably scant (and he seems to have given up painting, perhaps for religious reasons, while still at the height of his powers); he didn't date his pictures; and he was widely imitated, in his own time and long after. The scene above, bathed in a quite ravishing oblique golden light, shows him at his best. Only some cows standing by a river - but never so beautiful, so glorious...
Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogscape, I've written something about John Betjeman's Ghastly Good Taste.

Monday 19 October 2015

En Retraite: Not Life Minus Work

So, Nige, they ask me, How are you finding this retirement lark? My immediate - and honest - response is, It's flippin' brilliant. What's not to like? No more hauling myself out of bed at an uncivilised hour, no more commuting, no more sitting for long hours glued to the tyrannical computer, no more 'management' nonsense and office politics, no more stupefying exhaustion, etc, etc - I'm sure you get the idea. But has retirement been what I expected it to be? Not entirely, no. For a start, what every recently retired person says is quite true: 'I'm so busy, I've no idea how I fitted the job in.' (Equally, I know I could never do the job again - all that ended within days of my retirement, falling away as if it had never been.)
 When I looked forward to retirement, I made the elementary mistake of simply subtracting work from my everyday life, thereby (I assumed) opening up vast expanses of time in which I'd be doing all the things work prevented me from doing. Of course it doesn't work like that; retirement isn't life minus work, but rather a new life. For a start, all those things you couldn't do turn out to include a lot of things you'd no particular desire to do (e.g. shopping, jobs around the house and garden) - and the whole configuration of your life changes as all manner of things large and small flow in to fill the space opened up by retirement. At the same time, Parkinson's Law comes into operation, as work (in the widest sense) expands to fill the time available; it is now possible to take longer over something that once would be dashed off in no time, if done at all.
 Another things is that life in retirement is still decidedly tiring - not in the bone-deep, spirit-sapping way that work tiredness is, but still tiring. Especially after a day spent with the adorable granddaughter, who, like all two-year-olds, is enchanting but exhausting company. And another unexpected development is that I no longer feel the urge to blog as often as I used to (though I still feel the urge, still enjoy blogging, and have no intention of giving it up). I realise now that much of my blogging was driven by the need to turn away from the tedium of work and engage my mind elsewhere - and now that imperative is no longer there. Which is great for me, but will probably mean that I'll be posting rather less often than I used to (if, perhaps, at greater length).
 Happily, for all the busyness, there are plenty of occasions when I can and do savour my newfound leisure and put it to good use, taking more walks, visiting more places, devoting more time to reading and writing. Sometimes I even have the pleasurable, hitherto unknown sensation of not having anything in particular to do: time to do nothing, a vital element in life, I think, and all too rare, at least while we have to work. What's more, I feel no puritanical guilt about it: I figure that I've earned a good 25 years of leisure. That will take me to my 90s, at which point I might review the situation. Meanwhile, yes, it's pretty flippin' brilliant.

Saturday 17 October 2015

In 3-D!

Yesterday I went to Tate Britain by way of Reading. This was not my intention. My intention had been to go to Oxford to see a new exhibition of Venetian drawings at the Ashmolean. However, at Reading station my train stopped, and stayed stopped, and stayed stopped, until eventually the announcement came: a 'points failure' at Didcot Parkway. After some while mooching about on Reading station - a depressing place at the best of times - while Oxford trains were announced, moved from platform to platform and eventually cancelled, I concluded that the best policy would be to cut my losses and get on a train back to London. I should have known: Reading station and I have history, none of it good...
 So, an hour and a bit later, there I was in Tate Britain - where I came across an extraordinary one-room exhibition called Poor Man's Picture Gallery. This chronicles the mid-Victorian craze for 'stereographs', three-dimensional photographs, inspired by popular paintings. The room was hung with a selection of such paintings, including Henry Wallis's Chatterton [above], Millais's The Order of Release, Frith's Derby Day and R.B. Martineau's The Last Day in the Old Home - and, next to them, original stereographs (pairs of small albumen prints, often hand-tinted, mounted on card). These are not very impressive in themselves, but happily there are two viewing cabinets containing facsimile stereocards that can be looked at through the kind of binocular device you might remember from childhood 3-D viewers. Get the focus right, the two images fuse into one and, bang, there you are - the death of Chatterton in 3-D!
 I was startled to learn that most of these (very rare) Victorian stereocards are from the collection of Brian May Esq, CBE, PhD, FRAS, a man of many parts, but still best known as the badger-loving, poodle-haired Queen guitarist. He's been collecting stereoscopic images for years and has co-authored a mighty tome to go with this exhibition.
 As well as being the best painting in the room, Henry Wallis's Chatterton (showing the suicide of the17-year-old proto-Romantic poet) is also the most impressive 3-D image, and the most faithful to the original picture - so faithful, in fact, that the photographer who created the stereograph was sued for breach of copyright. (He lost too, but oddly no further cases were brought against any stereographer.) Robinson himself posed for the stereo image, but Wallis's model was the flame-haired young poet George Meredith, who at the time was married to Mary Ellen Nicolls, a beautiful and spirited widow, daughter of Thomas Love Peacock. Not long after the picture was painted, Mary Ellen left Meredith for Henry Wallis - a painful break-up that inspired Meredith to write Modern Love, one of English poetry's greatest sonnet sequences.
 The Tate exhibition ends on November 1st, so don't delay if you want to see it.

Thursday 15 October 2015

In the Theological Rain Shelter

Giles Fraser, turbulent priest du jour, has written a piece in The Guardian proclaiming that the Church of England would be better off - indeed revived and refreshed and stronger than before - if all its historic churches were demolished. 'Theologically,' he declares, 'they are little more than rain shelters.' An interesting notion, that - theological rain shelters... Best not to be provoked by these things, better sigh (not for the first time) 'God save the Church of England from the true believers.'
 In these times, it seems to take a non-believer to see the true beauty and meaning of our native Church and its great, still numinous built legacy - a legacy that belongs to us all, not only to the true believers. A non-believer, or indeed an avowed atheist like Larkin...

'A serious house on serious earth it is, 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete, 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in, 
If only that so many dead lie round.'

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Gainsborough Girls

Another day, another painting - this time Thomas Gainsborough's unfinished The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly.
 Yesterday I popped into the National Gallery and was wandering around more or less at random, as I often do. Invariably, when I do this, something will catch my eye and draw me to it for a longer deeper look. Perhaps because I'd just been writing about Autumn Leaves - another painting of children with a theme of transience and a mood of suspended sadness - it was this Gainsborough that reached out and grabbed me. More precisely, it was this beautiful picture and a slightly later, more unfinished painting of the two little girls (The Painter's Daughters Holding a Cat) that hangs at right angles to it in a corner of Room 35.
 The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly shows, on the right, Mary and on the left, Margaret, at about the ages of six and four respectively. Mary is every inch the protective elder sister, yet seems strangely detached from the little drama that is about to play out, as Margaret impulsively reaches to grab a butterfly that has perched on a thistle - a double jeopardy. Clearly the butterfly can be read as a symbol of the transience of life and beauty, the brevity of childhood, etc (and equally clearly, Gainsborough was no lepidopterist - this butterfly seems to have its upperwings where its underwings should be). The thistle needs no gloss.
 The two figures are quite beautifully drawn - note in particular the placing of the feet, perfectly expressing the tension between them, the subtle modulation of skin tones, and the masterly free rendering of their dresses. It is a very immediate picture of a frozen movement, a moment in time, and it radiates the artist's intense love and tender anxiety for his young daughters.
 The painting becomes yet more touching with hindsight, as life did not go well for these girls. Mary made a disastrous, short-lived marriage (against her father's wishes) to the virtuoso oboist and composer Johann Christian Fischer, and her always eccentric and flighty character gradually descended into outright madness; it is thought she probably ended her days in an asylum. Margaret's eccentricity stayed within the bounds of sanity, but she never married, and led a rather lonely, retired life. They are both buried in Hanwell churchyard. My first school was in Hanwell, but that's another story...

Monday 12 October 2015

'The first instance of a perfectly painted twilight...'

It's high time we had a painting - and what painting could be more perfectly seasonal than Millais's melancholy masterpiece Autumn Leaves? It's a picture I've lived with quite a bit over the years: there was a print of it in my rooms at university, and we have a (less satisfactory) reproduction of it in the front parlour of our present house. It's an endlessly fascinating work.
 The painting dates from 1856, when Millais's great Pre-Raphaelite works were behind him and his long descent into facile whimsy some way ahead. He was still young (27), professionally successful, happily married to Effie Gray - formerly the desperately unhappy Mrs Ruskin - and they were starting what was to be a numerous family. And yet Autumn Leaves, whatever else it is, is a deeply sad painting, suffused with a sense of transience and loss and, yes, death.
 According to Effie, Millais's aim was to paint a picture that was 'full of beauty and without a subject' - a kind of tone poem, you could say. The artist also 'intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling.' He also sought to evoke a Tennysonian mood - Tennyson being a master of the elegiac tone, and Millais his greatest pictorial interpreter.  The picture even drew on Millais's memory of raking leaves with Tennyson at the poet's house (somehow one suspects that Millais was the more efficient raker).
 Autumn Leaves was a hit with the critics, not least Ruskin (whose disastrous marriage of Effie had been annulled only the previous year). It was, Ruskin declared, 'by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, as far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight'. (It is also, he might have added, a perfect representation of the full glorious tonal range of autumn leaves.) Ruskin even invoked the name of one of his artistic gods - 'though Giorgione might have come nearer the glow, he never gave the valley mist. Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.' Indeed.
 Who are these girls raking leaves? We know that the two figures on the left are sisters-in-law of Millais - Alice Grey and, staring full at us, Sophy, the troubled teenage girl with whom the artist had an intense emotional relationship, and who later slipped into an unhappy condition we would now label as Anorexia Nervosa, dying young. The little girl on the right, holding the (meaningful) apple, is a Miss Smythe of Methven. But who is the girl who is standing, rake in hand, eyes downcast, behind and apart from the main group? This figure seems to be in a different register - not only pictorially - from the others, almost to be inhabiting a different space. There is no interaction between her and the other girls, or between her and the artist/us; she looks inward and stands apart. Indeed the painting would still make perfect pictorial sense if she was subtracted from it. I suspect that she is indeed not physically present in the scene, that she represents someone recently dead - perhaps another sister of Effie's? I haven't been able to find any documentary evidence for this, but is seems to me quite likely (and very 'Victorian'). Has anyone any information? I'd love to know...


On The Dabbler today, I recall Beverley Nichols, of all people...

Saturday 10 October 2015

Larkin and Embarrassment

P.J. Kavanagh's collection People And Places begins with the author in Westminster Abbey, watching, with mixed feelings, the unveiling of a memorial to sixteen 'War Poets'. A year later, in 1986, he's back at the Abbey, this time for the grand memorial service for Philip Larkin. How, Kavanagh wonders, will the service negotiate the awkward fact of Larkin's resolute, oft-stated atheism without embarrassment all round? A few minutes into the service, he reports, 'it met the central difficulty head-on... when this was said:
 "In particular on this day we commemorate with thanksgiving Philip Larkin, who, possessing outstanding literary gifts, combined distinction with rare humility. We give thanks for his intellectual integrity which would not allow him to share the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke, and never more movingly than in the lines:
    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die..."
It was 'brave', Kavanagh declares, 'in the midst of such a vast musical brocade, to quote those lines'. Well yes, but the address went on to conclude rather more assertively:
 'Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as of those who do, with the assurance that, his fears dispelled, he now shares our rejoicing in eternal life, the gift of that Risen Lord whom here on Earth he did not yet know.' Larkin 'not yet' a believer? Hmm. This is not so much meeting the difficulty head-on as politely acknowledging it, with the impeccable manners that distinguish (or used to) the Church of England, and then carrying on regardless. In fact, apart from some of the music being live jazz, the Larkin memorial service was a decidedly Godly affair, with Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer, a Psalm (39: 'I said, I will take heed to my ways; that I offend not in my tongue'), Ecclesiasticus (read by Ted Hughes), a Handel anthem, prayers and hymns ('Lead kindly light', 'Abide with me'). Today that would look like the memorial service for a devout Anglican churchman.
Three poems were read - Church Going, An Arundel Tomb and Love Songs in Age. The abbey was full. It was St Valentine's Day (or Ss Cyril and Methodius if you prefer). Kavanagh concludes:
 'Larkin gains much of his Silver Classical feel from his reticence, from his obvious dread of embarrassment, which ought to have made him a Church of England man. What he would have made of this no one can tell. Most of us, I think, were glad it happened.' Silver Classical is very good.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Make Like a Poet

This being National Poetry Day, I feel obliged to mark the occasion by following the Poetry Society's injunction to 'Make like a Poet'. To achieve this, I gather, I shall have to 'Live like a Poet', 'Speak like a Poet', 'Love like a Poet', 'Think like a Poet', 'Dream like a Poet' and 'Act like a Poet'. This sounds like a pretty tall order, so let's hope it will have the salutary effect of discouraging would-be poets from taking up their pens. Meanwhile, there's always Radio 4 - poetry all over it today, some good, some great, some awful...

'Eighteen frames into the distance'

Until I happened upon it while browsing the web, I had no idea that the eminent literary scholar Hugh Kenner had written a book about the great animator Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame). But there it was - Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, the third in a University of California Press series, Portraits of American Genius. And so, of course, it is: if any animator can claim the 'genius' label, it is surely Chuck Jones (no, not Walt Disney, who wasn't a particularly brilliant animator himself; his gifts lay elsewhere).
 Kenner's book draws on other published studies of Jones, on Chuck's own Chuck Amuck, and on conversations with the highly articulate and intelligent Jones. But most of all it draws on a deep knowledge and love of those great animations. Kenner outlines the unique set of circumstances that enabled them: Jones's own extraordinary talent and imagination, the coming together of a dream team of animators and voice artist (Mel Blanc) around him, and, paradoxically, the extreme parsimony of the producer overseeing their activities at Warner Brothers, Leon Schlesinger, whose only interest in animation was to keep it cheap. 'He [Schlesinger] once bought a yacht from Richard Arlen,' recalls Jones in conversation with Kenner, 'and called it the Merrie Melodie, with a little dinghy on the back that he called Looney Tunes. One day I said, "Mr Schlesinger, when are you going to take us out on your yacht?' And he replied, "I don't want any poor people on my boat."'
 Financial restraints worked with the artistic restrictions Jones imposed on his work - always paring it down to essentials - to create greatness. 'You don't lose when you restrict,' writes Kenner, 'no, you gain. That's true of all Art, and a maxim Animation was a long time validating. Out in Burbank the Disney folk were never sure that there was any limit between what they were doing and sheer hang-it-all Realism. (T.S. Eliot, whom they didn't read, had supplied a theme for pondering a decade previously. What had killed off the theatre the glory of which was Shakespeare, had been, Eliot postulated, its limitless appetite for Realism.)' There's the literary critic showing through...
 Chuck Jones, who was art-school trained and knew his anatomy, realised that the key to characterisation - in fact to just about everything - in animation was movement. You had to get the way a character moved precisely right, and to get that you needed to know that character's weight. This is one of many insights into Jones's technique that Kenner passes on. As a gauge of how precise an artist Jones was, here he is on Wile E. Coyote's trademark fall into space:
 'When I put down a twelve-frame hold, that didn't mean thirteen frames or eleven frames, it meant twelve frames exactly. When the Coyote fell off, I knew he had to go exactly eighteen frames into the distance and then disappear for fourteen frames before he hit. A new animator would come in and he would overlap it, and it would never work.' Eighteen frames, Kenner calculates, is three-quarters of a second, the time between heartbeats at a regular 72 per minute.
 Kenner (like all persons of taste and discernment) prefers Chuck Jones's style to Disney's, whose obsession with 'the illusion of life' led him into expensive artistic dead ends. 'If you're animating,' says Kenner, 'then take pencil in hand and animate! Don't restrict yourself to what a clicky-click tripod-supported optical eavesdropper might have picked up without even thinking (because it can't think) about trying.'
 Warner Brothers, having never really seen the point of its cartoon operation, closed it down twice: once in 1953 when they were convinced that 3-D was about to take over(!), and again, finally, in 1962, when it fell victim to the onward march of television. The movie theatres' standard bill of newsreel, cartoon, short and feature was becoming a dead letter as audiences got all they needed from the television. My own experience of Chuck Jones cartoons began in the news cinemas that were to be found everywhere in my boyhood and youth, and continued when those same six-minute shorts became a staple of television. Television didn't kill Chuck Jones's creations. Nothing ever could.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Green Table

I mentioned recently that my cousin was launching her new novel - in fact her debut novel - The Green Table. Since then, I have read it.
 Now, I'm not one for log-rolling - still less, nepotistic log-rolling - nor am I generally one for new fiction, but I must tell you that this is a seriously good novel, and one that's very hard to put down.
 The Green Table is set in Amsterdam before and during the Nazi occupation - a time and place that are vividly (but economically) evoked. The action revolves around a notably well drawn set of central characters. Hedda Brandt is a dance teacher, formerly a dancer with Kurt Jooss's company, who has stayed behind in the Netherlands after others of the company left for England (the novel takes its title from Jooss's most famous work). Katje is a young girl full of life and desperate to dance, who persuades Hedda to take her on as a pupil. Katje has a troubled brother, Werner, who is a piano pupil - and worshipper - of the German would-be composer Erik Weiss, an enigmatic, increasingly sinister figure, with whom Hedda has an intense and difficult working relationship. Hedda has another pupil, Elise, who is physically handicapped, and whose family befriend Hedda, thereby bringing her together with Elise's half-brother Kai, with whom she reluctantly but helplessly falls in love.
 The action follows this group of characters (and those around them) as they struggle with the ever increasing difficulties and dangers of life under the Nazis, the desperate urge to resist and the consciousness of the deadly risks of stepping out of line. As the story proceeds - crisply told in short sharp chapters - the tension mounts inexorably, and we care more and more about what will happen to these people, who will survive and how, what price will be paid...
 This is not a faultless novel. I found the Prologue, though essential, a bit of a stumbling block, and didn't really begin to enjoy the story till the time shifted to 1939 and it began in earnest. Though the structure is impeccable and the characters really live, the dialogue is sometimes lumpy, and there's a certain gaucheness of tone - perhaps a hangover from the book's origins as a (very different) novel for 'young adults', but anyway justifiable as reflecting the younger characters' gaucherie. These minor flaws make little difference to the assured flow of a novel that keeps you - even me - turning the pages, eager to find out what will happen next, what will become of these people. It is involving, gripping, moving - in a word, a page-turner (though that was the last thing the author thought she was writing).
 It would be a shame if The Green Table, published by a small press, languished unread and neglected, as so many do. It deserves better; indeed it deserves a mainstream success (though desert seems to come nowhere in the book world today). I heartily recommend it - and, in particular, if you or anyone close to you belongs to a book circle, I'd recommend it as an excellent reading choice, with much to enjoy and discuss. If you're thinking of buying it, do go to the Cinnamon Press website - here's the link - rather than to Amazon, as this will be of more benefit to the publisher and the deserving author.


Monday 5 October 2015


This chap is one of a small band of grotesques who support the vaults in the little Romanesque church of Saint-Martin, Tollevaste, deep in the pastoral-bosky-richly hedgerowed landscape of Cotentin. This unspoilt church, with its array of inventively carved corbels and capitals owing far more to paganism than Christianity, was but one of the highlights of my latest Norman jaunt (how inexhaustible is Normandy, let alone France!). Here are some others...

In Cherbourg, in the church of Ste Trinité (much fine Flamboyant stonework), a set of exquisitely carved panels in Nottingham alabaster, from the original altar - a reminder of English Normandy.
Also in Cherbourg, the Café de Paris - a name that always seems to denote either a very bad restaurant or a very good one. In Cherbourg's case, it's the latter - a really excellent mid-range 'bourgeois' restaurant. If you find yourself in Cherbourg - a town full of interest but with none of the easy-going charm of Dieppe - head for the Café de Paris and you'll be fine.

Another church - Saint-Martin, Réville, with its tall tower, standing imposingly on a rocky mound, the little town on one side and the sea on the other. Another fine Norman interior. Then, by way of a change, along the coast at Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue, there's a wonderfully correct and convincing mid-19th-century recreation of a 13th-century cathedral. There were also...

Oysters, eaten in an unpretentious restaurant next to a poissonnerie. These were some of the finest I've ever had. The oysters of Saint-Vaast are renowned in Normandy, and no wonder. Later, walking through a spinney, we found we were making our clattering way along a path surfaced for a couple of hundred yards with oyster shells - thousands upon thousands of them.

Bricquebec, an inland town dominated by the remains of its medieval castle. In the bailie stands the kind of thing I normally don't warm to at all, but in this case... It's called the Pyramide de Mémoire and is a concrete pyramid composed of sand from Utah Beach, in which have been embedded some 2,000 objects, remnants of warfare - bullets and shell casings, helmets, jerry cans, engine parts, canteens, pieces of shrapnel. The friable texture of the concrete means that gradually, over the years, it is wearing away, exposing new objects little by little as they emerge from their entombment. Eventually all those objects will appear, come free of their setting, and the pyramid itself - the work itself - will erode away to nothing. It's a rather brilliant idea, and the pyramid, with its embedded relics gradually emerging, is strangely moving. A notice instructs anyone detaching an object from the pyramid to take it to the Mairie so that it can be passed on to the local Musée.