Monday 28 December 2015

To the Antipodes

The strange winterlude between Christmas and New Year has been more limbo-like (limboid? Chrimboid?) than usual this year, as much of it has been taken up with preparations for what will be my first expedition to the Antipodes (not Mrs N's, who's made the journey several times). We fly tomorrow, by way of Hong Kong and Auckland, to visit the Wellington branch of the family (daughter, son-in-law, grandsons Sam and Ethan). I am of course looking forward eagerly to seeing them, but somewhat dreading the long, long journey. I shall do my best to insulate myself with books and music and whatever in-flight entertainment is bearable (I spent my last Canada flight watching back-to-back Curb Your Enthusiasm - perfect).
 As I'm taking my trusty MacBook with me, I am hoping to be able to send occasional dispatches from the Antipodes. I shall be back on these shores early in February, when normal service (if there is such a thing) should resume. Meanwhile, I leave you with this exhaustive, not to say interminable, account of the dark origins of the jelly baby (or should I say 'unclaimed baby') from - where else? - the BBC News website. And with this quotation from Sir Arthur Eddington, born on this day in 1882:
'Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.'

Thursday 24 December 2015



I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

R.S. Thomas

And a happy Christmas to all who graze here.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Hill's Carol

Here's something seasonal - the last sonnet of Geoffrey Hill's sequence An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture, an oblique exploration of the nature of 'the spiritual, Platonic old England' (Coleridge's phrase) through English landscape wild and tamed, aspects of colonial history, country life (as it was) and the history of our native church. (The Laurel Axe, which I've posted before, is another of the sequence.) Here, Hill's 'carol' blurs its sonnet form with half-rhymes (or less than half) and enjambment. It begins in celebration and ends in glory, and in between - a succession of those arrestingly vivid images that are Hill's speciality: 'the apple-branches musty with green fur', the yews' 'viridian darkness', 'the squire's effigy bewigged with frost', 'hobnails cracking puddles before dawn'...


So to celebrate that kingdom: it grows   
greener in winter, essence of the year;
the apple-branches musty with green fur.   
In the viridian darkness of its yews

it is an enclave of perpetual vows
broken in time. Its truth shows disrepair,   
disfigured shrines, their stones of gossamer,   
Old Moore’s astrology, all hallows,

the squire’s effigy bewigged with frost,
and hobnails cracking puddles before dawn.
In grange and cottage girls rise from their beds

by candlelight and mend their ruined braids.   
Touched by the cry of the iconoclast,
how the rose-window blossoms with the sun!


Tuesday 22 December 2015

A Great Biography

Since I retired, my reading rate has not increased as much as might have been expected. I only recently finished Secrets of a Woman's Heart, the concluding volume of Hilary Spurling's great biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett. I use the word 'great' advisedly; not only is it beautifully written and impeccably researched, it is packed with acute insights into Ivy's life and work, and imbued with a deeply sympathetic understanding of her often contrary character. When the first volume, Ivy When Young, was written, it was also that increasingly rare thing, a necessary biography: such was Ivy's mystification of her early life and origins that most of the little that was known was in fact untrue. Spurling put that right, telling the harrowing story of Ivy's youth and the succession of hammer blows that left her all but finished off by the end of Ivy When Young. Secrets of a Woman's Heart traces how she came back from that brink, setting up home with Margaret Jourdain and gradually becoming one of the leading novelists of her time, and certainly the least classifiable.
 Secrets is often very funny (I've passed on a few titbits in recent posts), but it is also a serious and deeply thoughtful study of ICB's work and personality, tracing the evolution of both over the years. It's easy to get the impression that Ivy, with her invariably (more or less) Edwardian settings, stylised dialogue and repertoire of recurrent character types, was in a sense writing the same novel over and over again, but Spurling illuminates the differences, particularly of mood, between them, and how they developed over the course of her career. I hadn't realised before how popular Ivy's novels were in the war years, when something in them seemed to chime with the feeling of the times. As Spurling says, 'What might be called the moral economy of Ivy's books had always been organised on a war footing.'  Elizabeth Bowen wrote of 'an icy sharpness [that] prevails in the dialogue. In fact, to read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz.' Angus Wilson went further: 'In the age of the concentration camp when, from 1935 or so to 1947, she wrote her very best novels, no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery.'
 Ivy had had an early and painful education in cruelty, suffering and bravery. This hard-won knowledge gave her her formidable, clear-sighted sharpness, but it also gave her a deep understanding of suffering and a profound sympathy with those condemned to it. This more sympathetic aspect of her character - along with a certain surprising mischievousness - came to the fore in her later years, most markedly after Margaret Jourdain died. Theirs seems to have been one of those fiercely close, essentially loving relationships that are indispensably sustaining to both partners, yet bring out the worst in them. Ivy and Margaret's perpetual sniping at each other was often cruel and painful to witness - and yet, when Margaret died, Ivy was plunged into a torment of grief, feeling her life was over. As she emerged from the grief, it gradually became apparent that Ivy was becoming a very much warmer and more sympathetic person - though it suited her to maintain the forbidding, unchanging image that was by then her trademark.
 She died in 1969, productive to the end. By the time Hilary Spurling completed her biography, ICB was already on her way to becoming a half-forgotten figure. Her works will probably never regain the kind of popularity they once had, but for those of us who have acquired the taste for her extraordinary novels, it's good to know that they are still available, thanks to the internet - a few are even in print. To have a biography as brilliant as Spurling's as well is a wonderful bonus.

Monday 21 December 2015

Churches Locked and Open, and a Relief

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through God's house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...'
Over the weekend I was up in Staffordshire and Derbyshire with my cousin, hoping for a little light church-crawling (the weather having ruled out most other options). However, as things turned out, not one of our target churches was open. All were locked and lifeless, with no indication of where to get a key and little sign that anyone had ever thought to enter - and these were not little out-of-the-way churches in remote and isolated spots; all were in fair-sized villages, one (Morley) is among Derbyshire's finest medieval churches, and two (Uttoxeter, Ilkeston) were big and interesting town-centre churches. All locked, all lifeless - and this in the weekend before Christmas, the last of Advent. The contrast with the teeming crowds in the shopping centres could hardly be more pointed, or more dispiriting.
 Still, the glorious cathedral-like St Oswald's in Ashbourne was open and alive, with visitors wandering at large, the twilight interior illuminated by dozens of Christmas trees, and a small-scale devotional service under way. And, next day in Derby, the cathedral too was open - a vast and gorgeous Georgian box attached to a mighty medieval tower. A grand collection of opulent 17th- and 18th-century memorials (and coffin plates) here, all firmly Classical, with barely a Christian symbol to be seen - no continuity with Nazareth, only with Imperial Rome and Periclean Athens...

And, in Uttoxeter, the church may have been shut, but at least the Johnson memorial was to be seen. On a wall of a 19th-century conduit house in a corner of the marketplace - a kind of enclosed classical temple with a dome on top - is a relief carving (a copy of one in Lichfield) showing Samuel Johnson's famous act of penance when, on his last visit to the county of his birth, he stood bareheaded in the rain, to the wonder of onlookers, to do penance for an act of filial disobedience half a century earlier. The young Johnson had refused his ill father's request to man his bookstall at Uttoxeter market:
'Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.'

Friday 18 December 2015

'Convenient times and proper tempestivities'

'The race and course of age is certain; and there is but one way of nature and the same simple; and to every part of man's life and age are given his convenient times and proper tempestivities. For even as weakness and infirmity is incident to young children, a lustiness and bravery to young men, and a gravity when they come to ripe years; so, likewise, the maturity or ripeness of old age have a certain special gift given and attributed to it by nature, which ought not to be neglected, but to be taken in its own time and season when it cometh.'
Thus Cicero On Old Age, in the splendidly expansive Elizabethan translation by Thomas Newton (alumnus of Macclesfield Grammar School and Trinity College, Oxford) - salutary bedside reading for those of us in the foothills of senescence. My copy - containing Cicero's Books of Friendship, Old Age, and Scipio's Dream - was published in 1907 in The King's Library, a series of beautifully produced small volumes edited by Israel Gollancz, who also edited the equally attractive Temple Shakespeare. The King's Library was one of a fine flowering of new popular editions of the classics - all of them a pleasure to look at and to handle, and conveniently pocket-sized - that culminated in the triumphant Everyman's Library. The literary scholar Israel Gollancz was the uncle of publisher Victor, who was, rather improbably, Ivy Compton-Burnett's principal publisher, bringing out her novels of the Forties and Fifties in notably unattractive volumes.
 On Old Age was written by Cicero in the form of a 'dialogue' - in fact, more of an address by Cato the Elder, punctuated with occasional questions and prompts from Scipio Africanus and his friend Caius Laelius. Cato/Cicero's counsel is wise and soundly Stoical, though easier to assent to than to follow in practice. The gist and concernancy (Newton's style is catching) is along these lines:  
 'Unto such as lead their lives virtuously, measuring all their actions by the square of reason, and have their minds with all good gifts of grace beautified and garnished, there is nothing thought or deemed evil that cometh by necessity of nature. Of the which sort old age is principally to be considered, unto which all men wish to arrive, and yet when they have their desire, they accuse it as painful, sickly, unpleasant and tedious, such is the brainless unconstancy, foolish sottage, and perverse overthwartness of wayward people.'
 I fear most of us, most of the time, must class ourselves among the wayward and the overthwart.

Thursday 17 December 2015


I see something of mine on Methodism and other causes of lunacy is on The Dabbler...

Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Price of Refrigerators at the Army & Navy

When I worked in Kensington, I often walked past the blue plaque on the block of mansion flats where T.S. Eliot spent his last years, and then, barely a hundred yards away, the blue plaque on the considerably grander block where Ivy Compton-Burnett lived. Did the paths of these two literary grandees ever cross, I would wonder? (And did either of them come across Carry On actress Joan Sims, who lived even closer to Eliot's apartment? That would have been something...) Now, thanks to Hilary Spurling's brilliant biography of Ivy, I know that at least her and the Eliots' paths did indeed cross.
 This was at a time when Ivy  had developed a habit of mischievously steering the conversation relentlessly towards such subjects as the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy stores.She would then exclaim with mock dismay, 'Here we are - some of the best-educated people in England, I suppose - and all we can talk about is the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy.' She applied the technique to Mr and Mrs T.S. Eliot when they met at a party in Knightsbridge and subsequently shared a taxi home. By all accounts, they talked of nothing but the forthcoming Rent Act (an obsession of Ivy's), cake shops, fishmongers, greengrocers in the Gloucester Road and where to go for the best fillet steak. Ivy found the whole episode very amusing, as did the Eliots, who were 'tickled by the fact that she was complaining bitterly both at the party and in the taxi at having to pay the porter five shillings for bringing up her coals!'
 The poet and the novelist continued to glimpse each other on their rounds and no doubt exchanged more observations on cakes and fish (the latter, oddly, the very subject that R.S. Thomas raised with Liz Taylor). 'I don't see very much of him, you know,' reported Ivy, 'but I like to know he's there.' She found the phenomenon of 'Mr Eliot's bride' quite fascinating. 'Apparently she's always adored him,' she told Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one), 'although she was his secretary for years. I am sure if I had been his secretary for a fortnight I should have wanted to poison him, not marry him... Yes, I should have run round to the chemist's for three pennyworth of poison after a very short time.'

Monday 14 December 2015

Yawning with Admiration

Writing about Adele's dreary song Hello  - in a piece quoted in today's excellent Dabbler post on the mystery of melody - Clive James uses the wonderful phrase 'yawning with admiration'. Wonderful and widely applicable: just think how many admirable works of art leave you, yes, admiring, but yes also, unmoved, bored, even on the verge of nodding off.
 I'm sure we could all compile our own list, but mine would have to include a great many of the contemporary 'literary' novels I used to read - clever, neatly executed but unengaging and unsatisfying. So-What Fiction I call it, and there's an awful lot of it around. At a more exalted level, where the admiration is vastly more merited, I would include in my list - let's see... Poussin's paintings, Reynolds' virtuoso portraiture, much of Haydn's music (yes, I know, I know) and even some Mozart, a lot of 18th-century classical architecture and many stately home interiors, the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, much jazz of the 'cooler' kind, and, I have to admit, quite a lot of Jane Austen (EmmaMansfield Park) and of Henry James when he's spreading himself in those big novels. I suspect there's an awful lot more than that fairly random sample - perhaps a deal of yawning with admiration is the price we pay for taking an interest in these things. But that's enough confessional for now... Anyone else?

Sunday 13 December 2015

In the Tate

Above, by way of decoration, is an unusually restful Holman Hunt, depicting A Cornfield near Ewell (Ewell? That's down my way - not many cornfields now...). It was something that caught my eye as I wandered around Tate Britain yesterday, to the accompaniment of hideous recorded sounds emanating from war-damaged bugles etc (this was a Work of Art, designed no doubt to Make Us Think). Quite a few other pictures caught my eye, of course - but one didn't so much catch it as cause it to stare in amazement. Not that it's a good picture - far from it - but that it's there, restored and on display, after decades of languishing in the Tate's stores.
 George Cruikshank's The Worship of Bacchus is one of the most extraordinary artistic undertakings ever completed - a gigantic (13ft by 8ft, give or take) and immensely detailed panorama of all the social evils caused by the demon drink. In case the point hasn't been made strongly enough in these lurid images, the picture is also emblazoned with explanatory headings, to hammer it home a little more. Subtle it isn't; borderline hysterical it certainly is. The density of detail across such a vast acreage of canvas is quite staggering; wherever the eye roams it will find some new scene of debauchery, violence, madness and ruin. These are the culmination of an inexorable process that can be traced from its innocent beginnings in scenes of domestic and celebratory social drinking - be warned, my fellow drinkers, take heed!
 Cruikshank was a passionate, fanatical teetotaller, determined to preach the message of total abstinence at every opportunity. I have a reprint of one of his lurid illustrated tracts, The Black Bottle - one of the eccentric 'series of small books' published by J.L. Carr (the Last Englishman). As Cruikshank's father died of alcohol poisoning after a drinking game, his extreme views were pardonable, but they did his career no good when they contributed to his falling out with Dickens after illustrating Oliver Twist - his best work, and arguably the best Dickens illustrations of all. (He also did a nice set of pictures for Tristram Shandy.)
 When Cruikshank died in 1878, The Times wrote that 'There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward, or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.' After his death, it was discovered that, for all his childlike transparency, Cruikshank had a secret family of 11 children with a mistress who had been a servant in his house and whom he had set up with a home conveniently close by. Who knows? He might have been a secret drinker too.

Friday 11 December 2015

Talking of Dance...

In her latest book of essays (Alive, Alive, Oh!), Diana Athill, who turns 98 later this month, celebrates one of the compensations of old age - being able to view art exhibitions from a wheelchair. The crowds, she says, part before a wheelchair like the waves of the Red Sea, enabling her to settle down before the pictures and enjoy them close up, unobstructed and at leisure - an enviable advantage at a popular blockbuster exhibition. She recalls as one of her most blissful artistic experiences sitting enraptured before Matisse's Red Dance.
 This would have been the painting usually known as Dance (1910), which came to the Royal Academy on loan from the Hermitage in 2008. Diana Athill's rapture is not misplaced; this huge painting  is one of the most dramatic and visually powerful modernist works, as well as one of the simplest. It is widely seen as Matisse's response to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, another big, bold 'statement' painting, and one that seemed to change - and challenge - everything. However, Matisse's Dance could hardly be more different: whereas Les Demoiselles is all jagged confrontation, Dance is all self-absorbed ecstasy - all dance indeed.
 The dancers are barely individualised, faceless (all but one) and minimally notated, and the Arcadian setting in which they dance is reduced to pure colour: blue sky, green earth. The dancers too are pure colour - a fiercely vital red. It is the interplay of those red bodies that gives the painting its kinetic life; these are bodies in motion, caught in the frenzy of the dance.  The figure on the left is key to the composition - the perfect turning curve of his body at once anchors and drives the movements of the other dancers, whose wild poses are more pagan than classical.
 The roots of Matisse's Dance can be traced in classical art, in Botticelli and Poussin, Turner, even Blake - but it is defiantly modern, defiantly itself. It still retains its power - and its mystery. Like all pictures of dance, it's an attempt to paint the unpaintable, but this painting that doesn't engage with, doesn't seem to need, the viewer is uniquely elusive. It is a picture in which you can only immerse yourself receptively, listening to its silent music - as Diana Athill, in her wheelchair, did with such relish.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Hermes Pan

Hermes Pan, with its suggestion of winged heels and antic prancing, is a too-good-to-be-true name for a choreographer - but it was his real name, minus a long tail. Hermes Panagiotopoulos - who, as Hermes Pan, became famous as Fred Astaire's choreographer - was born on this day in 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee, where his father was the Greek consul. Life took a dramatic turn for the worse after his father's death, when Hermes' uncle, holding the family (Hermes, his sister and mother) at gunpoint, burnt all the money and shares they had inherited, to demonstrate that if the inheritance wasn't coming to him, it wasn't going anywhere. This plunged the little family into dire poverty, scraping a bare living in the meanest quarters of New York, where the one good outcome was that the young Hermes learnt some handy steps from black street dancers. His natural dance ability eventually got him into Broadway chorus lines, and somewhere along the way he met a young actress called Ginger Rogers, who suggested that he, like her, should think about heading for Hollywood and trying to get film work.
 Hermes, his sister and mother duly piled into an old Ford they'd bought for $75 and set off for California - an epic journey in those pre-interstate days. Two years later, Pan was working on the set of Flying Down to Rio when Astaire, working out steps for the 'Carioca' number, asked him if he had any ideas. He did. And so began a long, happy and fruitful collaboration, which only ended with the disastrous Finian's Rainbow (1968), whose young director, one Francis Ford Coppola, ignored all Astaire and Pan's dance ideas, and sacked Pan.
 By then, however, Pan and Astaire had a great body of classic work behind them. The two men were natural collaborators, who seemed to understand each other instinctively - and, crucially, Pan was prepared to work every bit as hard as the notorious perfectionist Astaire. Indeed, on top of working intensively with Fred, Pan also had to rehearse Ginger, whose busy filming schedule often didn't fit with Astaire's rehearsal sessions. Another part of Pan's job was to join Fred in adding the tap soundtrack to dance sequences - he tapped for Ginger. The wonderful thing is that the two men had a great time doing all this, finding plenty of fun and laughter in it (see the RKO publicity picture above). As Pan said, 'All dancers are children. They have to be in order to let themselves move unself-consciously.'
 Some of Pan's choreography tended towards a slightly kitsch 'arty' style that really didn't suit Astaire. But when he worked with Fred's easy charm and effortless physical grace - and sense of humour - the results were unsurpassably brilliant. Here's one of the very best... Enjoy!

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Some Cecil Essays

I've mentioned Lord David Cecil before on this blog (e.g. here), and I'm still coming across books of his on the charity-shop shelves. The latest to catch my eye was a handsome little 200-pager called Poets and Story-Tellers: A Book of Critical Essays. It dates from March 1949 and was reprinted in the month of publication (imagine that happening today with such a book). Dedicated to Max Beerbohm, it's a collection of reprinted essays and lectures, on subjects ranging from Antony and Cleopatra to E.M. Forster, by way of John Webster, Thomas Gray, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Turgenev, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, and Virginia Woolf. All of the essays display Cecil's elegant, sympathetic style and shrewd judgment, though his praise of Jane Austen might seem a little extravagant to even the most devoted Janeite (Fanny Burney, on the other hand, gets a perfectly balanced assessment). As someone who is all but allergic to Virginia Woolf, I of course judge Cecil over-generous to her, but I think he expresses very well what is ultimately unsatisfying about E. M. Forster, concluding:
 'No wonder Mr Forster leaves his readers a little uncomfortable! This inability to achieve a consistent moral relation to his subject-matter means that the world of his creation is fundamentally unstable. For, unluckily, that world rests on moral foundations; it is the expression of his moral vision. If that vision is incoherent, if those foundations are insecure, so also is the building that rests on them. We move through it entranced but uneasy; for we are, half consciously, aware that at any moment the whole delicate structure may come tumbling about our ears.'
Shakespeare, on the other hand, Cecil presents in his essay on Antony and Cleopatra as an artist who 'did not approach life primarily from the moral point of view'. He presents the facts, and leaves moral judgment - ours as well as his - suspended. We cannot form a single and certain moral conclusion about a character such as Antony.
'The moralistic critic finds such uncertainty painful,' writes Cecil, 'To him, a world in which he cannot be sure whom to praise, whom to blame is a disheartening place, whose apparent glories must be suspect. But Shakespeare is only disheartened by a world without glory, a world which weakens his gusto for living. In his darkest mood, he has shown us such a world. But this is not the mood which informs Antony and Cleopatra. On the contrary, in it Shakespeare teaches us that it is possible to face life at its most baffling and imperfect and unideal, and yet to find it inextinguishably enthralling and splendid. It is a lesson worth learning.'
It is indeed, and Cecil's essay is a powerful defence of one of Shakespeare's very greatest plays against the critics who have condemned it for not being something it was never intended to be.

Monday 7 December 2015


Today Tom Waits and I turn 66. We shall be celebrating quietly, as befits our years.
 Meanwhile, down at the supermarket this morning, the usual Christmas muzak was playing - it's so ubiquitous that, happily, it barely registers - until suddenly there was something a little out of the ordinary. It was Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo (wise words), and a chap of a certain age was singing merrily along with it as he pushed his shopping trolley. 'That's early Alma Cogan,' he informed his wife, who seemed strangely unimpressed. You can find this jolly ditty here.... The lyrics are really rather clever, and the tune - well, be warned: it's an earworm of epic proportions. You'll be singing the refrain all day. And why not?

Ah London

I spotted this plaque while walking through Bloomsbury at the weekend with my Derbyshire cousin, who knows much of London rather better than I, the native, do. Hoho, I thought as I read the plaque, I wonder which witty 18th-century Bloomsbury intellectual put that up, and what kind of nothing it was that happened that day. Later, however, browsing the internet, I discovered the sad truth: these plaques are mass-produced and available to buy on Amazon. Their origin is, it seems, unknown - but unlikely to have anything to do with Bloomsbury or even 1782. Ah well...
 A happier find was the odd-looking church of St George the Martyr, Holborn, which was open for some kind of choral rehearsal, so we stepped in to have a look. It's a Baroque church much remodelled in the 19th century, and inside it's really rather fine - a Wren-style box warmed and Christianised by good, relatively restrained Victorian furnishings at the holy end (or rather side). The antiquary William Stukeley was rector here in the 18th century, and on Bloomsday 1956 the church witnessed the ill-fated marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. That's London - history (and oddity) wherever you look.
 I'd forgotten how enjoyable walking through London can be. This walk took us eventually to the Courtauld, then over the river to the South Bank and the Christmas exhibition at the Bankside Gallery. It's a selling exhibition of small works - etchings, woodcuts and engravings, monoprints, mixed media, watercolours - with some lovely work at remarkably low prices, especially among the prints. If you're in a buying mood, hurry along and have a look.
 On the other hand, St Pancras, that greatest of all the London termini, is currently home to an abomination of a Christmas tree - a gigantic, conifer-shaped mass of Disney characters in toy form, topped by the inevitable Mickey Mouse. Jeff Koons himself could not have produced anything quite so revolting. Indeed, it makes the hideous giant statue of The Lovers at the other end of the station look almost like art. If you're passing through St Pancras over the festive season, keep your head well down. Ah London - human awful wonder of God...

Thursday 3 December 2015

Meanwhile, in the Garden...

The scent of lilac in December is weird and unnerving - but there it was, faint but unmistakable. The dwarf lilac in my garden is in flower, in December! No leaves, just a dozen of so of those compact little flowerheads, clusters of tiny trumpets. Amazed to see such a thing at this time of year, I bent to smell them - and yes, there it was, the scent of lilac.
 What will become of these flowers? Will the bush bloom again in its appointed season? Why this bizarrely early/late flowering? Is this 'global warming'? No - as proponents of 'climate change' always like to point out, weather is not climate. This is weather - a weirdly mild November continuing into early December, thanks to that pesky jet stream (though we've had a couple of frosts even down here in Surrey suburbia). It was much the same last year (when I saw my last butterfly on 29th November) and will likely turn - a December cold snap has been a feature of most recent winters, however things develop after that.
 Redwings have arrived, but not in the kind of numbers that suggest a harsh winter ahead, and there is an abundance of berries, but that doesn't always presage cold weather. We'll know what we're in for when we get the Met Office seasonal forecast: it will be the opposite of that they say.
 Meanwhile, the bird life in the garden - which I'm seeing rather more of these days - has changed noticeably from last year. Happily the house sparrows are still thriving, as are the less couth starlings and ring-necked parakeets (once exotic, now bordering on a menace), but greenfinches - frequent visitors only a couple of years ago - have all but gone, following the chaffinches. All manner of pigeons feed continually on the lawn along with the collared doves, dunnocks and robins, and jays and magpies come and go, along with a welcome new regular, the pied woodpecker. The most regrettable absence is that of the goldfinches, still quite abundant round here, but mysteriously boycotting my garden ever since I bought a niger-seed feeder specifically to attract them. That stuff's supposed to be goldfinch crack - what's wrong with you guys? Come and get it...
 For me, though, the happiest development has been the growing abundance of coal tits, the most subtly beautiful of the titmice. Blue and great tits are still constant features, and long-tailed tits visit often, but the coal tits - once shy and infrequent visitors - now seem the most numerous of all. What's more, they've developed a habit of flying right up to the kitchen window and looking in, quite unperturbed by the bleary, dazed figure staring out at them.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Ivy and Margaret Fall Out over the Cydrax

It seems it wasn't only dinner that could be something of an ordeal chez Ivy Compton-Burnett and Margaret Jourdain. After lunching with them at their Kensington mansion flat in May 1942, James Lees-Milne recalled that 'we ate lentil soup, white fish with sauce and steamed potatoes, a rhubarb and ginger tart, Morecambe shrimps and biscuits. Margaret Jourdain opened a large bottle of Cydrax, poured out Thesiger's* and my glasses and was about to pour her own when Miss Compton-Burnett shouted, "Margaret! Remember at breakfast it was decided that you were to finish the opened bottle of flat Cydrax."' Cydrax - there's classy...
 This stuff, readers of a certain vintage might recall, was a noxious sweet fizzy drink based on carbonated apple juice. It died out here in the Eighties, but lives on in Trinidad, of all places, where Cydrax and, in particular, its pear-based cousin Peardrax are regarded as quite sophisticated drinks that somehow express the exotic essence of Trinidad and are ideal for toasts at weddings and suchlike happy occasions.
 Those of us who grew up in the late Fifties and early Sixties have reason to be grateful to Cydrax. It lured our parents, deceived by the name, into thinking that cider itself was innocuously non-alcoholic, so the real thing was widely provided as something for the children to drink on social occasions. We were more than grateful for this first taste of the pleasures of alcohol. 'The children seem to have enjoyed themselves,' remarked the parents as their flushed, glassy-eyed offspring struggled into their coats for the journey home. We had indeed...

* This was Ernest Thesiger, actor (Bride of Frankenstein, etc), dandy, embroiderer and close friend of Ivy and Margaret. Beverley Nichols said of him 'Nothing is more terrifying to me than to see Ernest Thesiger under the lamplight doing his embroidery.'

Summat Wrong

'There's summat wrong wi' that man.'
Thus one Oldham voter's verdict on poor old Jeremy Corbyn (in a radio voxpop this morning). Is there anything to add?
Allowing for the fact that there's summat a bit wrong with anyone who'd go into high-profile politics these days, the voters have an unerring sense of when that summat is just too wrong - which is why Ed Milliband lost the last election, why William Hague would never have won one, and why (I suspect) George Osborne, if he becomes leader, never will.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Masters of Atlantis

I recently wrote a piece on Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis for a literary magazine with a line in forgotten/neglected classics. In the event, it wasn't used, so, by way of upcycling, I shall post it here for the select band of connoisseurs who browse the pastures of Nigeness...

The American author Charles Portis is best known for his classic western True Grit, but among his other work is a comic novel that is regarded by its admirers – myself included – as one of the funniest of the 20th century, and one of the most distinctively original. It has been described as ‘a glimpse of how a twentieth-century Mark Twain might write’, and Portis is certainly a writer in that droll Southern tradition, but Masters of Atlantis is (like True Grit) a complete one-off. I first learned of it from references on various American blogs, was intrigued, bought it and read it – and read it again and, just now, again – and every time I found it so laugh-aloud funny that it was positively embarrassing to read it on public transport.
 Portis’s comedy is impeccably deadpan. He has no need to set up comic situations and setpieces; everything emerges from the characters and their doings, which Portis has only to describe in his spare, fluent prose. For these characters of his are – how shall I put it? – a bunch of crackpots, cranks, dingbats. Portis does nothing to point this up – he hardly needs to – nor does he mock or judge; he is sympathetic, entirely relaxed about the endless possibilities of human folly. As well he might be, so many of those possibilities being richly comic.
 So, what is it about? Masters of Atlantis tells the story of one Lamar Jimmerson and the founding, flourishing and long decline of the Gnomon Society of America, a fraternity dedicated to preserving the, er, ancient wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis. When the novel begins it is 1917 and Jimmerson, in France serving with the American Expeditionary Force, finds himself at a loose end in the town of Chaumont. There, one evening, he is approached by ‘a dark, bow-legged man’ who, in the course of several meetings, takes a deal of money from Jimmerson, a trusting soul – and passes on to him a volume beyond price, the Codex Pappus, in which the Gnomon Master Pletho Pappus has laid out, for those initiates who can understand it, the whole wisdom of Atlantis.
 Armed with the Codex and the Poma – a conical red hat given to him by the mysterious stranger – Lamar makes his way to Malta to seek out, as instructed, Pletho Pappus and a man named Rosenberg. His attempts to make himself known to the one Pappus and three Rosenbergs in Valletta, making use of various Gnomon salutes, come to nothing. However, before long, an English aesthete named Sydney Hen crosses Jimmerson’s path, and soon shows himself determined to possess the Ancient Wisdom, dominate the passive Jimmerson, and, if he can get his way, take over the entire Gnomon project. Two things come out of this fateful meeting – Lamar’s marriage to Sydney’s surprisingly sane sister Fanny, and, ultimately, the Great Schism that will divide World Gnomonism into the Jimmerson School and the Hen School.
 Portis wastes no time in tracing the rise of Gnomonism in America, covering the years up to 1936 in the novel’s first 20 or so pages, along the way chronicling the contributions of Jimmerson’s helpers, including a go-ahead fellow called Bates:

‘Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales, Inc., he got his hands on a mailing list titled “Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana,” which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men. Lamar was a little surprised to find his own name on the list… His gossiping neighbours in Skokie, it seemed, had put him down for an odd bird. They had observed him going into his garage late at night in a pointed cap and had speculated that he was building a small flying machine behind those locked doors, or pottering around with a toy railroad or a giant ball of twine.’

 The helpful Bates is soon quite eclipsed by the arrival of Austin Popper, the character who is the comic heart and driving force of Masters of Atlantis. Popper is a motormouthed, silver-tongued bull artist with a unique talent for talking himself and those around him into all manner of scrapes, then talking himself out of them – or, in extremis, taking to his heels. He appears, disappears and reappears throughout the book, and the effect of his reappearances is always galvanising.
 One of Austin Popper’s early triumphs is in the Battle of the Books, bitterly fought with the now openly hostile Sydney Hen:

‘Hen stepped up the campaign… by having his people remove Mr Jimmerson’s books from libraries and bookstores and destroy them. Popper countered with a program of defacement, ordering the Jimmerson men to fill in all the closed loops of letters in Hen’s books with green ink, to underline passages at random in that same green ink and to scrawl such comments in the margins as “Huh??!!” and “Is this guy serious?” and “I don’t get it!” in red ink, the aim being to break the reader’s concentration and to subvert the message. He also commissioned a drawing of a pop-eyed, moronic human face, that of a collegiate-looking fellow with spiky hair and a big bow tie, and had rubber stamps made of it. The face had a strange power to annoy, even to sicken the spirit – one had to turn away from it – and Popper directed that it be stamped on every page of Hen’s book, in a different place on each page so that the reader could not prepare himself.’

 At one point, Popper takes off for the Rockies with a Romanian madman called Golescu to pursue a scheme of extracting gold from a (fictitious) plant of repulsive appearance and invasive habit called Creeping Bagweed  or Blovius reptans. Not only does the scheme fail but Popper and Golescu fall out over a woman, and Popper is chased out of town by an FBI agent. Another mysterious Popper disappearance ensues, followed by another triumphant reappearance to energise the increasingly torpid Jimmerson and his dwindling band of followers.
 Masters Of Atlantis has been criticised for losing momentum as it goes along – hardly surprising, as it is a story of loss of momentum, of the long decline of Gnomonism from its interwar glory years. But Portis doesn’t linger on this, at one point letting 12 years pass between chapters  - ‘another long Gnomonic stasis’ – and whenever Austin Popper reappears with his latest crackpot scheme (e.g. Jimmerson to run for Governor of Indiana) things liven up no end.
 By the time of Popper’s final reappearance, Jimmerson and his tiny band of followers have taken up residence in a trailer park in La Coma, Texas (‘a town notable for its blowing paper’), owned by one of the few living  Gnomonists, a wheelchair-bound midget called Morehead Moaler. But the Gnomon Society is to have one last moment of public attention when it is one of the subjects of a Congressional investigation.
 The account of these proceedings is among the funniest chapters in the book, as the ill-briefed and mystified interrogators try at once to hurry things along and to get to the bottom of the matter, ponderously pursuing bizarre and irrelevant lines of questioning. Here they want to find out more about Austin Popper’s lost years as an alcoholic tramp living in a box:

‘”A big crate? A packing case of some kind?”
“A pasteboard box.”
“Under a viaduct in the warehouse district of Chicago?”
“No, sir, it was in a downtown park in one of our eastern cities.”
“A long box you could stretch out in?”
“A short one… When it snowed I had to squat in it all night with my head between my knees like a yogi or a magician’s assistant. Then when morning came I had to hail a policeman or some other early riser to help get my numb legs straightened out again.”
“More a stiff garment than a house.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Hunkered down there in your box, slapping at imaginary insects on your body. Your only comfort a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. Supporting yourself with petty thievery, always on the run, with Dobermans snapping at your buttocks. Not a pretty picture.”
“It was cheap rum.”
“The clear kind?”
“The dark kind.”
“ As an urban bum, Mr Popper, did you often stagger into the middle of busy intersections with your gummy eyes and make comical, drunken attempts to direct traffic?”

And so, gloriously, on.
Comedy is a deeply subjective affair – there are even people who don’t find Wodehouse funny – but I hope this taster of Masters of Atlantis might tempt you to give it a try. If it’s your kind of comedy, you’re in for one of the most enjoyable reads of your life.

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. Duckworth, 2011 (UK paperback), originally published 1985.