Monday 30 November 2015

Hot Air

So, barely a fortnight after Islamist murderers staged a random massacre of infidels in Paris, the city is hosting the latest international 'climate summit', addressing what all concerned agree is the real threat. This vast expulsion of hot air will, as ever, achieve almost nothing; even if an agreement is signed, we can be quite sure it won't be widely observed, and it's highly unlikely that, with India pledging to triple its carbon emissions, there will be any real impact on the perceived problem.
 I don't know whether it's heartening that, so soon after the Paris massacre, it's back to 'business as usual', or depressing that that business is still the same old futile flogging of a half-dead horse. It's a subject I don't often refer to here (it tends to lead to unpleasantness), but ever since 'global warming' - as it was then called (I wonder why the name changed?) - rose up the political agenda, I've been suspicious of the whole business, on various grounds. I might as well outline some of them here:
Climate is an immensely complex supernetwork of immensely complex networks. We surely can't claim to have a complete understanding of how it works, let alone that 'the science is settled'.
 The claim that 'the science is settled' is profoundly non-scientific, like so much else in this field, which looks more like a mix of politics and spilt religion, its orthodoxy enforced by means that appear more like the ruthless enforcement of a faith than anything to do with science.
 The 'climategate' emails, the scientifically discredited 'hockey stick' on which so much of the alarmism was based, the more recent uncovering of systematically 'massaged' temperature readings... All of these - plus the inconvenient truth that 'global warming' did not occur in the manner that was confidently predicted (this, we are told, was an unexpected 'pause') - suggest that we would be wise to be sceptical. Scepticism is, after all, the very basis of the scientific method, and faith its very opposite.
 I suspect future generations might look back on our 'climate change' preoccupation with much the same bewilderment that we feel about medieval scholiasts (allegedly) arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Especially this time, when the angel-counting is taking place in a city where unmistakable, brutal notice has just been given of a threat very much more imminent and real.

But that's enough editorialising - I shall return directly to my usual, more agreeable preoccupations, and hereby pledge not to go near this subject again until the next climate summit [pledge subject to the usual provisos].

Illustrated London News

Something I wrote about Gustave Doré's images of Victorian London is on The Dabbler today, handsomely illustrated...

Friday 27 November 2015

Talking of Ivy Compton-Burnett...

Three years and more since I read Hilary Spurling's brilliant Ivy When Young (see here and here), I have moved on to the concluding volume, Secrets of a Woman's Heart, which promises to be every bit as illuminating, insightful and diligently researched. It picks up the story after the Great War and the succession of family tragedies that had rained down on Ivy, leaving her deeply traumatised (as we'd say now, and as she most definitely would not say), but at last free to live her own life.
 She set up home with Margaret Jourdain, who was among other things an eminent authority on English furniture and design, and the pair of them lived happily together for the rest of Margaret's life (she died in 1951). Miss Jourdain was very much the grande dame, a formidable woman and already famous in her field, while the unknown Ivy was, to most visitors, a dim governess-like figure in the background. (It was not until Pastors and Masters and its successors came out that the roles began to be reversed, somewhat to Margaret Jourdain's chagrin.)
 The distinguished Miss Jourdain had a vast, rather grand social circle, as well as numerous hangers-on and a following of devoted young men, so dinner guests were numerous and frequent. For some, dinner with the Misses Jourdain and Compton-Burnett was somewhat of an ordeal. One guest was Francis (Frankie) Birrell, 'one of Margaret's liveliest, seediest and most amusing young men', who on his first visit disgraced himself by falling asleep and smashing the arm of his chair:
 'I can quite clearly remember the soup,' he recalled. 'Then, I suppose, we must have had fish, because when I woke up there was plate of fish, uneaten, in front of me. As a matter of fact, my left hand was in it, covered with sauce. I was alone in the dining-room; the lights were burning, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was past midnight. The ladies had gone to bed.'
 Birrell let himself out and slunk home. And he was not the only one to succumb at the Compton-Burnett dinner table; a similar fate later befell the young Philip Toynbee, invited as an admirer of Ivy, who woke to find that 'the table, even down to the coffee cups, proved that the meal, as he sat bowed over his plate, had otherwise taken its natural and unperturbed course...' And Ivy, equally unperturbed, had gone to bed.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

When you can buy the first edition of a novelist's most famous work, in its original dust jacket, for £1.99 in a charity shop, you know he has fallen thoroughly out of fashion. So it is with that once towering literary figure Angus Wilson, CBE, knight of the realm, professor, whose Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) I snapped up recently for that paltry sum (slightly foxed, and the Ronald Searle jacket a little tatty, but even so...). I snapped it up because I've never read it - nor any of Wilson's novels, only some short stories and a rather good critical study, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. I don't know why I hadn't read more - his books were everywhere for years, and the novels achieved critical as well as popular success, some (including Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) even being televised. I had had it in mind for some while to catch up with Wilson, see what I had been missing, and perhaps even get some clue as to why his reputation has faded so fast.
Well, now I have read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and I can report that I found it an immensely enjoyable experience, richly satisfying in a decidedly old-fashioned way. It's a big book, ample and spacious but shapely too, with a cast of characters so large that they are listed In Order of Appearance at the start of the book. There are nearly 40 of them (excluding those already dead or off-stage) and virtually all of them are interconnected in complex ways that tend to lead back to the long-ago event that is at the centre of the novel. This interconnectedness is on a positively Dickensian scale (almost on a par with Bleak House), and I found myself referring often to the list of characters to remind myself who's who and how they link in to the others. Some of the characters are decidedly Dickensian too, notably the glorious Mrs Salad, former cloakroom attendant and charlady with a picturesque turn of phrase and grand ideas.
 The character at the centre of the novel is Gerald Middleton, distinguished medieval historian and wealthy man, and the event around which everything revolves is the excavation in 1912, in Suffolk, of the tomb of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Eorpwald (a real historic figure) and the sensational discovery therein of a phallic pagan idol. Middleton has good reason to believe that this idol was planted as a deliberate hoax by the son of the lead archaeologist, who was killed (the son, that is) in the (Great) war, but not before Gerald and the son's fiancée, Dollie, had fallen in love and had an affair. It is the tangle of guilty feelings around these events - complicated by his continuing feelings for Dollie - that the troubled Middleton strives to resolve in the course of the novel.
 Around this focal point, a mass of side-plots and coincidences spin merrily away as different characters - some fully rounded, others more sketchy, some (notably Gerald's estranged wife) grotesque - come into and out of focus. The novel is topped and tailed by two sharply comic set-pieces - one a blow-by-blow account of an excruciating meeting of a distinguished learned society, the other an equally wince-inducing account of a grand party getting badly out of hand. Both these long chapters are bravura stuff, as, in its different way, is the long central chapter in which Middleton, enduring a Christmas get-together of his largely dysfunctional family, looks back over his life as he drifts in and out of sleep.
 In the end, Gerald does achieve some kind of resolution, and is certainly in a far better state of mind than he was at the beginning. It's a satisfying conclusion to a hugely readable, beautifully crafted novel - one that surely doesn't deserve to disappear into obscurity. No doubt Wilson - like that other neglected giant Ivy Compton-Burnett - keeps a toehold in the fashionable field of Queer Studies (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is peppered with gay characters), but that's really not good enough, for either of them. I'll certainly be scanning the charity shop shelves for more Angus Wilson, and hoping I enjoy others as much as I enjoyed this one. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know...

Tuesday 24 November 2015

How Distant

On this day 50 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote this poignant and evocative poem about emigration - or rather about home, the leaving of it and the making of it, the precarious human venture...

How Distant

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning.
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

And how distant it does seem, that age of emigration, when young men (and whole families) set out into the unknown, beyond the range of any but the most minimal contact with their native land or any real hope of seeing it again, facing long slow voyages to new worlds where they would have to make their own lives, or die trying. One of the things we tend to overlook about the 19th and early 20th centuries is how extraordinarily mobile people were, not only in moving from home to home (in those days before the ties of mass home ownership) but from country to country and across vast swathes of the world.
 My own grandfather was a case in point. As a young man in 1892, he embarked for Canada, 'to try his luck', with little money and no friends or contacts on the other side. He eventually got a job with the great Canadian Pacific Railway, settled in Vancouver, married and was swiftly widowed, spent two years at sea in the Far East, returned to England, then crossed the Atlantic again to work for Westinghouse, finally settling back in England and marrying my grandmother in 1906. I'm sure many other families have similar tales to tell...  

Sunday 22 November 2015

Barney and Hoagy

The Met Office's latest publicity stunt is to give a name to every little storm that blows our way. They'll be coming in alphabetical order, and we've already had Abigail and, last week, Barney (can't wait for Storm Nigel - and won't have to wait long at this rate). While Barney was still blowing, I remarked to my son, 'Tell you what, if this storm destroys any buildings, what's left behind will be Barney rubble.' He turned and stared wearily out of the window. A ball of tumbleweed was blowing slowly along the street. The clock ticked. A fly coughed and fell from the ceiling, dead...
 But talking of Barney Rubble, Radio 3's Composer of the Week last week was Hoagy Carmichael. I wish I'd heard more of it; I hadn't realised just how many great songs he wrote, or how many great singers performed them. But where's the link? Here's the link - Hoagy's guest appearance on The Flintstones, performing Barney's song Yabba Dabba Doo, with assistance from Barney on the Stoneway and spirited backing vocals by the combined forces of Flintstones and Rubbles. Enjoy.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Yes, They Drew

Yesterday I managed to make it to Oxford (having failed in an earlier attempt) to see the exhibition of Venetian drawings at the Ashmolean, and I'm glad I did. Titian to Canaletto: Drawing in Venice is quite an important exhibition, not only in assembling many works that have never been shown together - and some that have never been exhibited before - but in roundly refuting an old calumny: that the Venetians didn't bother much with drawing. According to the Florentine Vasari - and, later, Sir Joshua Reynolds - the Venetians were so besotted with colour and set such low value on drawing that they barely practised the art, preferring to paint straight onto the canvas without preparatory drawing. Anyone who had seen the fine collection of Venetian drawings at the Uffizi (or several others) would have known this was nonsense, and yet it remained the received wisdom. Well, it won't be any more.
 The Ashmolean demonstrates clearly that the Venetians valued drawing very highly, not only using preparatory drawings for paintings but also making drawings as reference material and as works of art in themselves. Learning to draw was an essential part of an artist's training in Venice, as it was everywhere else, and the family workshop system expanded into academies where drawing - from life and from artefacts and examples - was the basis of study. Meanwhile, from early in the 16th century, highly finished drawings were made as a cheaper substitute for paintings and as a basis for printmaking - and collectors bought them.
 As you might have gathered, this is an exhibition with a message (which it puts across very effectively and digestibly), but it contains things of great intrinsic beauty. Among them is the exquisite Titian Study of a Young Woman above, a superb example of the expressiveness, depth and subtle tonalities the Venetians could achieve with chalks (often wetted) on paper (originally blue, now faded to beige and brown). There are other striking portrait heads, including a strong Bellini, a typically moody Lotto and a brilliant Tintoretto head of Giuliano de' Medici. The drawing as a finished work of art reached its Venetian peak with the works of Piazzetta, who is represented by a handful of magnificent works, including this life drawing and the Head of a Youth, who is the poster boy for this exhibition (below).
 Equally impressive are G.B. Tiepolo's wonderfully light and fluid pen and wash drawings, making even a grisly martyrdom into something lovely, and it was a special treat for me, as a fan, to see a couple of drawings by his son Giandomenico. Talking of fluid pen and wash drawings, there's a lovely one of A Venetian Cloister by Guardi, with whom - and with Canaletto - this richly rewarding exhibition ends.

Friday 20 November 2015

Anne Tyler: Stepping off assuredly

Here's a link to an interesting interview with that fine novelist Anne Tyler, whose new one, A Spool of Blue Thread, is on my waiting list. I was delighted to learn that she has the opening lines of Richard Wilbur's Walking to Sleep pinned on her wall to encourage her as she faces the writing day:

'As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.'

These lines are followed a little later by a warning: 

                                  '... All such suggestions
Are yours to take or leave, but hear this warning:
Let them not be too velvet green, the fields
Which the deft needle of your eye appoints,
Nor the old farm past which you make your way
Too shady-linteled, too instinct with home...'

Tyler's more negative critics detect something sentimental and excessively homey in her novels, or claim they do.  I don't myself see how anyone reading her with close and unprejudiced attention could reach any such conclusion. Perhaps her mistake has been to acknowledge that a particular deep happiness is among the possibilities of family life; that's never going to make you popular in some circles. Though she's a rare combination of a genuinely popular novelist and one hugely admired by her fellow writers, Tyler has never been fashionable, and never a critics' darling.
 Her openness to happy states of being also aligns her with Richard Wilbur, who in a Paris Review interview declared himself thus:
'I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contradictory evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that is my attitude.'
 The headline on the Anne Tyler interview seems odd: is her claim not to be a 'spiritual person' really the story? Well, we must take her word for it. Richard Wilbur, by contrast, is certainly inclined towards spirituality - or rather, in his own words, he is preoccupied with finding 'the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit'. Which seems to me as good a summing-up as any of the poet's job.

Thursday 19 November 2015

It's Here!

Today, as I hardly need tell you, is International Men's Day. I'm sure that, like me - like Ron Burgundy here - all you chaps out there count the days until it comes round again. It has made such a difference to all our lives, I wonder how on earth we got by all those years without it...
 Today is also World Toilet Day. I hope this is nothing more than coincidence.
 I used to dislike the word 'toilet' and strenuously avoid it, but I no longer bother. It's as good/bad as any word for something that seems to be denoted only by euphemisms or dysphemisms. I believe 'toilet' has been back in use among le ton for some while. On the other hand, I've always had a soft spot for the northern 'nessie' (from necessary house) - or indeed cabinet d'aisance. But toilet will do, especially today.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Robert Dukes

Yesterday I dropped in on Browse & Darby to see the latest exhibition by Robert Dukes, a fine painter whose work I first saw there in 2008. He's still making his trademark still-lifes of fruit - oranges and lemons, apples and quinces - and they look as good as ever: wonderful brushwork, singing colours, rich textures. There are also a few landscapes - he should do more - pictures of his pet dachshund (they make such good models), of VW Beetles and liquorice allsorts(!), drawings and 'transcriptions' from the works of other artists: Balthus, Rembrandt, Veronese, Tintoretto, Sickert, Freud, and Delacroix's Lion Hunt (the largest picture in a characteristically small-scale exhibition). Dukes is a very painterly painter; his works have to be seen on the wall rather than in reproduction (but you can get in idea of the exhibition here). If you're around Cork Street, do go and have a look - you'll probably feel better for it. I certainly did.

Ebenezer Alert

On today's Dabbler, my review of a new biography of G.B. Edwards, the man who wrote the extraordinary Book of Ebenezer le Page...

Monday 16 November 2015

Leonardo Loredan

Leonardo Loredan, born on this day in 1436, was Doge of Venice for 20 turbulent years at the start of the 16th century. He is best known to posterity for Giovanni Bellini's superb portrait of him, one of the treasures of the National Gallery. At first glance this portrait seems stiff, formalised, hieratic - a conventional picture of the office (and the ceremonial dress) rather than the man - but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be very much the likeness of an individual, rendered with an acutely observant eye, an expert brush and a high degree of psychological penetration.
 Earlier portraits of Doges were produced to a formula and showed little real individuality; they were also in unrevealing profile, rather than full face. Bellini's Loredan, by contrast, is startlingly lifelike and individual - a speaking likeness, one of the earliest 'modern' portraits. Loredan already, at the outset of his reign, looks careworn, but he also looks as if he means business and would have few scruples about achieving his ends. You wouldn't be surprised to see that face on the streets of Venice today - and you wouldn't particularly want to meet the man behind it...

Paris again...

on The Dabbler today. A haunting image, still more so now...

Sunday 15 November 2015

Saturday 14 November 2015


The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) by R.B. Kitaj. Conceived under the awning of Les Deux Magots.
Impossible to think of anything but Paris today.

Thursday 12 November 2015


November 1967: Bob Dylan records All Along the Watchtower, one of many classic tracks on his great(est?) album, John Wesley Harding.

January-August 1968 (it was a tough session): Jimi Hendrix records his towering, epic cover version of All Along the Watchtower.

November 2015: Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower is used as the music track on a TV commercial for Blue de Chanel, an aftershave.

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl...


On Radio 4's In Our Time this morning, Melvyn Bragg and his guest historians were discussing the Battle of Lepanto, and, as usual, very illuminating and informative it was. However, there was (as far as I heard) not even a fleeting reference to G.K. Chesterton's mighty poem about the great sea battle. I learnt that James VI of Scotland wrote a poetical celebration of the Christian victory, despite his reservations about the Roman Church in general and Don John of Austria in particular - but nothing of Chesterton.
 The programme sent me straight back to Chesterton's poem (published 100 years ago this year). I hadn't read it straight through in some while, though many stray lines and images are firmly embedded in my poetic memory from childhood days, when my father would recite it with great relish. I found it then rich, gorgeous, musical and mysterious, having barely a notion of the historical context - and, come to think, those adjectives might still serve even now I know more of the history. Hilaire Belloc regarded Lepanto as not only Chesterton's best poem but the best of his generation, and there are devoted Chestertonians who regard it as simply the greatest poem of the 20th century. Well, I certainly wouldn't go that far, but it is an extraordinary achievement - and one of the best poems in the language for reading aloud. Try it...

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still—hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael’s on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
      Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that, is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed—
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

[Incidentally, I think this is the first use of the phrase 'When all the world was young' that has served memoir writers so well, though Charles Kingsley coined 'When all the world is young, lad'.]

Wednesday 11 November 2015

More for Remembrance: A Singing War

The Blackadder version of the First World War - hellish trenches, futile slaughter, lions led by donkeys, etc - still seems to be the prevailing narrative, and Wilfred Owen at his harshest the poet of that war. Indeed, at 9 this morning, Radio 4 had Vanessa Redgrave reciting Anthem for Doomed Youth, and on Sunday, at a service in his Islington fiefdom, Jeremy Corbyn (that bewildered oldster you might have noticed at the Cenotaph) read Owen's Futility. These are powerful poems indeed, but Owen's war was his war; others had very different experiences and expressed very different feelings about it all. Among these, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney - though he did not ignore the horror - often found a kind of consolation in the masculine camaraderie of the shared ordeal. And he found music - as in this beautiful, if rough-hewn poem, First Time In...

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit, shaded close by slitten 
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome,
So that we looked out as from the edge of home,
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next day's guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to war's rout;
Candles they gave us, precious and shared over-rations—
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the White Rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung—but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

What was the 'beautiful tune'? Most likely it was Ar Hyd y Nos - All Through the Night. I guess we'll never know what the pit boys' 'roguish words' were...
The First World War was a singing war, especially among the Welsh (of course), but throughout the ranks and on both sides, as when Christmas carols, in German and English, drifted poignantly across No Man's Land during the short-lived festive truce.
And there is Siegfried Sassoon's glorious Everyone Sang:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Ivor Gurney was not a casualty of war. Though he went mad soon after, most of those who write about him now think that this would probably have happened anyway; he was mentally unstable before the war, prone to dramatic mood swings. Though he returned obsessively to his war experiences, it was less often in horror than in quest of his lost self and life and, as ever, home. Some very fine poems of his live on, and some beautiful songs. Let's end this musical post with three of the best - In Flanders, Severn Meadows and Even Such Is Time (a setting of Walter Ralegh's great poem).

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Cory Wells

Gone to join the ever-growing celestial jam session is Cory Wells, founder member and lead vocalist of Three Dog Night, who had a huge hit with their funked-up cover of Randy Newman's Mama Told Me (Not to Come). Soon after the single hit the top of the US charts, Newman (typically) rang Wells to thank him for putting his kids through college. After a string of hits - all cover versions, therefore missing out on the big bucks - Three Dog Night broke up in 1976, by which time some band members were habitually, in Wells's word, 'incapacitated' for the usual rock 'n' roll reasons. Wells, a keen fisherman and a family man (married for 50 years), moved on to become a frequent contributor to magazines such as Field & Stream and, for six years, field editor of Outdoor Life. 'I need the serenity and the celestialness of the outdoors,' he said. 'Nature doesn't care if you're a rock star or a garage mechanic.' RIP.
Here's a reminder of Cory's surprisingly rough, bluesy voice, and of Three Dog Night's biggest hit.

Monday 9 November 2015

Another for Remembrance

Hardy's In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations' led me back to a poem by Edward Thomas - one of his greatest, I think - on a similar theme. A similar theme, but in every other way different: Thomas's is a much more concrete, immediate and local poem, precisely local in time and place (scaled right down to the woodpecker's round hole in the fallen elm), with the author placed firmly inside the scene and participating in it. It is also written in a more relaxed, free and discursive style, in the loose iambic pentameter that comes so naturally to English verse and even, as here, to reported speech (thanks to Shakespeare). Drawing on a long English tradition of pastoral, and playing with 'Georgian' conventions, it twists and subverts them to create something quite new and fitting to its time and place. It is a brilliantly but effortlessly constructed poem, full of so much good stuff that with every rereading, I find, something new catches the light and flashes out...

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
                       The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Sunday 8 November 2015

On Remembrance Sunday

‘The history of Waterloo field is to be ploughed and sowed and reaped and mowed: yet once in a way these acts of husbandry were diversified with a great battle, where hosts decided the fate of empires. After that agriculture resumed its sullen sway.’
The young Thomas Hardy copied this passage from Charles Reade into his notebooks. No doubt it was still in his mind when, years later, he wrote his great and justly famous poem of wartime, In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'...

Only a man harrowing clods
    In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
    Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
    From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
    Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
    Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
    Ere their story die.

    Hardy takes his 'breaking of nations' theme from Jeremiah: 'Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.' This chimes with a passage in Les Murray's wonderful poem, The Say-But-The-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary (which Bryan A commends in a recent tweet):
'If death is now the birth-gate into things unsayable
in language of death's era, there will be wars about religion
as there never were about the death-ignoring Olympians...'
Too sadly true. Read the whole poem here, and marvel. Bryan calls it the best argument for Christian belief he has ever read. If this is true, it is surely because it is less an argument than a dazed recognition.

Friday 6 November 2015

Peppa Pig and the Word of the Year

As usual, the Collins' Word of the Year is disappointing. 'Binge-watch'? It isn't even a word, but two yoked together by the all-purpose 'binge', extended from 'binge drinking' (which, by the way, is correct - no hyphen. Strictly, 'binge-watching' would mean watching binges.) I know this Word of the Year lark has more to do with publicity than lexicography, but even so...
 From the shortlist, I'd have gone for 'manspreading', a word that clearly and usefully describes an everyday phenomenon for which there was previously no word. And what of 'transgender'? So last year, surely - the happening sexual identity badge of 2015 must be the wonderful 'genderqueer'.
 Talking of binge-watching, I have perforce spent the past couple of days doing just that with Peppa Pig (a subject of which I have written before). The adorable granddaughter has been decidedly out of sorts, and only repeated viewings of this porcine soap opera (interspersed with the occasional Pingu or Charlie & Lola) will keep her happy, or at least reconciled to her lot.  For the grandparents this is a strange experience that brings on a unique condition of brain-dead numbness that after a while is almost pleasant.
 Funny the little things you notice too - like the fact that the part of George Pig is performed by not one but two actors. George, I should explain, is Peppa's little brother, whose contribution to the dialogue consists entirely of stereotyped grunts and the word 'Dinosaur'. Okay, at this point some dedicated Peppahead might point out that, in the episode Cuckoo Clock, George says 'Cuckoo' more than once, and in the classic Rainbow episode from season three he manages the word 'blue'. However, this is still not much of a part for one actor, let alone two. Do the pair of them get together and have anguished meetings, digging deep to find George's motivation, the inner hurt that drives him? Do they practise method acting, carrying those grunts over into their daily lives, emitting only the word 'Dinosaur' at their smart dinner parties, to the admiration of all? Do both actors essay both word(s) and grunts, or is one the grunt artist, the other the Dinosaur specialist?
 Throughout the course of this Peppa binge, Daddy Pig, I have to report, retained his legendary uselessness, his catchphrase 'I'm a bit of an expert at these things' proving sadly wrong time after time. However, in the episode where Peppa goes to ballet class, he reveals wholly unsuspected skills, demonstrating an impeccable plié, relevé and sauté to universal admiration - all done with a degree of ballon that belies his weight. I found this strangely moving, but by then I was pretty far gone...

Tuesday 3 November 2015


Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing is not short of surprises - the most dramatic of which is her frank, and frankly astounding, admission that she can't stand Jane Austen. Less surprising perhaps is that she worships Virginia Woolf just this side idolatry. But this admiration leads into unexpected territory - that of the John Bull Printing Set. Being the kind of chap who likes to rely on lazy stereotypes, I'd assumed the John Bull Printing Set was a boy thing (partly on the grounds that girls would have more sense than to fall for its delusive charms). But no - keen to emulate her Bloomsbury heroine's establishment of the Hogarth Press, Susan pounced with glee on the John Bull printing set she was given one childhood Christmas. And she loved it. Indeed she goes to far as to say 'No one who missed the era of the John Bull Printing Set can say they have lived.'
 Hmm. The trouble with the John Bull - and I speak from bitter memory here - was that a more useless printing system could scarcely have been devised. The type came in the form of rubber strips (John Bull's main business was in puncture repair kits), from which each individual letter, number or punctuation mark had to be removed with a pair of tweezers. A large proportion of these tiny bits of rubber would inevitably be lost, and setting those that remained, a piece at a time, in the little wooden rack that served as the printing block was the devil of a job. Not only was it extremely fiddly in itself, you had to be sure that each letter was the right way round (i.e. its mirror image) and the right way up - not easy with tiny Ss and 2s and Zs. When you eventually got to the point of printing, you'd often find you'd got something wrong and have to dismantle the whole forme. And you didn't have much time to devote to printing, as the ink pad that came with the kit would run dry annoyingly fast.
 Even the dedicated Susan Hill didn't get far in her printing operations, and eventually abandoned John Bull in favour of producing handwritten stories and newspapers. Most John Bull adopters never got beyond setting up and printing their own names to stamp on the title page of books, or anywhere else that ownership might be asserted. I still have some old Observer's books stamped with my name - in abbreviated form as I didn't even have enough usable letters for my full name (my set was from the cheaper end of the range). Some of these books contain alternating or overprinted stamps of my name and my brother's, tracing long-running ownership disputes. We each of us had a country named after us too; they slugged it out in epic two-man Test series in the park, and laid claim to various patches of local territory. Indeed I still regard a small traffic island at the end of our boyhood road as sovereign territory of Nigelliana, and keep a proprietary eye on it. But that's another story...

Monday 2 November 2015

Titian's Butterflies

Here's an image to brighten a foggy November morning. It's a butterfly painting by the gloriously named Titian Ramsay Peale, born on this day in 1799. The sixteenth child and youngest son of the American naturalist and painter Charles Wilson Peale (the first man to paint George Washington), his brothers included a Raphaelle, a Rembrandt and a Rubens.
 Titian was, like his father, a noted naturalist and painter. He was also a great collector, especially of butterflies, and devised an excellent method of displaying specimens in sealed cases with glass fronts and backs. As a result of his care, some of his specimens have survived in good condition to the present day. And, happily, he left behind some very beautiful and accurate watercolour paintings of his favourite creatures.
 The museum founded by his father and continued by him was America's first popular museum of natural science and art, but it unfortunately went bust in 1843 and had to be sold on. Titian went to work in the US Patent Office and before long become a pioneering photographer. He died at the ripe old age of 85.

Sunday 1 November 2015

'Slight'. Slight? SLIGHT?

'I have never, ever understood why it did not win every prize extant, but prize-judging is a law unto itself, as it were. I have been on the panels of many, and never once have things gone as might have been predicted. I was a judge for a major prize the year The Blue Flower was entered and I have never tried so hard to convince others of anything as I did that this was a rare, a great, novel whose like we might none of us see again. It was not that my fellow judges were wilfully determined not to agree, or had anything whatsoever against Penelope Fitzgerald - for who could? They simply could not see it. They saw something pleasing, short. Slight. That was the word I heard again and again. 'Slight'. I think I sweated blood, but to no purpose.
 'Slight'. Slight? SLIGHT?
 The Blue Flower is a masterpiece. It is the most extraordinary book, and half of it is in invisible writing, so much is there that is not there, so much lies below the surface, so much is left unsaid and yet is redolent and rich with meaning. Fitzgerald manages that quite remarkable feat - she simply walks into another world, one of several hundred years ago in another country, and takes up the story, moving among the characters as if she had known them all her life, and so the reader does so, too...'

Exactly. This is Susan Hill raving, rightly, over Penelope Fitzgerald's last, greatest and most moving novel, in a volume called Howards End Is on the Landing, which I picked up in a local charity shop, thinking it would make good bedtime reading. And so it does, though it has a tendency to veer into a kind of cosy English bellettrism, the sort of thing tweedy Edwardian bookmen used to write. It is, in Hill's own phrase, 'a journey through my own library' - a library so extensive and miscellaneous that it had virtually taken over her home (I should say her then home, the cottage she lived in with the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells; she has since moved out to live with the TV writer Barbara Machin).
 Searching one day for a particular title, Susan kept coming across books she had never read, books she had forgotten she even owned, and others that were awaiting a second or later reading. So she decided to devote a year to exploring her own library, reading only from it, following chains of assocation and trains of thought, finally, as she puts it, 'repossessing' her books. And, of course, making another book about the whole process, with short sketches of favourite books and authors and bits of literary autobiography.
 The result is very readable, with obvious appeal to the curious book-lover, and its easy style and short chapters make it a good bedside book. It could be more tightly and carefully written, it could be more incisive, but there is good stuff in it, and I have so far noted down two of Hill's recommended titles that I'm definitely going to get round to reading soon (Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris and F.M. Major's The Rector's Daughter). There will probably be more.
 Meanwhile, I wonder if it's time to 'repossess' my own library (smaller than Susan Hill's though it surely is)... Not yet, I think - not while I keep coming across books new to me that I simply have to snap up and read. Some keen reader could certainly make a blog out of such a project - but it won't be me.