Thursday 31 March 2016

A Portrait

This picture caught my eye in Tate Britain yesterday (I think they recently brought it out from storage). It's An Artist in His Studio by Alfred Stevens - not the hugely successful Belgian painter of elegant Victorian ladies, but the English sculptor best known for his extravagant Wellington monument in St Paul's Cathedral. An Artist in His Studio is dated around 1840, when the young Stevens was studying in Italy, but - apart from the costume - it could have been painted 50 years later (and by a French, or Frenchified, artist at that). There is nothing the least academic about this fresh and freely painted portrait - and nothing remotely suggestive of the Wellington monument. On the evidence of this early picture, it seems a pity that this Stevens didn't devote more of his energy to painting.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

A Debt to Black Beauty

The books that first got me reading - I mean really reading, and loving it - were a motley collection. I was nine or ten at the time and had spent my earlier years quite unaware of the powerful enchantment of books. Then along came the works that turned me into a reader: A Christmas Carol (which led me to Oliver Twist and beyond), a life of Albert Schweitzer (no idea who by, of if it was any good, but I read it repeatedly), My Family and Other Animals (I was a keen junior naturalist), In Memoriam (a precocious choice) and Black Beauty. I found Black Beauty gripping and at times almost unbearably moving, read it again and again (and was inspired to make many drawings of horses, which made me popular with horse-loving girls). Heaven knows what I would make of Black Beauty now - I'm pretty sure it's not one to reread - but I must always be grateful for any book that sparked such passion in me.
 Its author, Anna Sewell, was born on this day in 1820, into a Quaker family who later joined the evangelical wing of the Church of England. Like so many Victorian ladies, she spent much of her life as an invalid, a childhood accident having severely restricted her mobility. Black Beauty was her only published work, and she lived just long enough to witness its initial success - though she can hardly have dreamed that it would go on to become one of the best-selling books in publishing history.
 I remember enough of Black Beauty to know that it is an intensely moral book, concerning itself with how we treat our fellow humans as well as our fellow animals. 'There is no religion without love,' Sewell wrote in Black Beauty,' and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast it is all a sham... and it won't stand when things come to be turned inside out and put down for what they are.'
 Does anyone else recall the books - good, bad or downright shameful - that made a reader of them? Come to that, has anyone reread Black Beauty?

Monday 28 March 2016

Hail Caesar!

I've just been to see the latest Coen brothers film, Hail Caesar! - and I have to report that I was laughing from the first scene to the last. Indeed I can't remember when I last laughed so much at a (new) film. Some people - including even my old friend Bryan - have been left cold by this one, but I can't for the life of me imagine why. Viewed simply as a spoof on Fifties Hollywood, it's ridiculously well done, with deep and true affection and an acute eye for the absurd - better than even Mel Brooks in similar vein. But I think Hail Caesar! is a whole lot more than a spoof. In fact it can be construed - if construing's what you want to do - as a serious comic exploration of the nature of three dream factories or roads to redemption or paths to a higher form of life: Hollywood, communism and (specifically Catholic) Christianity. All, to different degrees, delusive; all, to different degrees, true - well, all except one (clue: it's the one in the middle). And all funny.
Anyway, I loved it - and the casting was brilliant, the performances great, the look of the thing, the script, the editing, the music, the narration... Hail, Coens!

Birth of the Nigroni

The other night,  by chance, I created a new cocktail - at least, I think it's new, and I pass it on in the interests of good cheer and enlightenment. Here's the recipe:

A generous slug of Sloe Gin.
An equally generous slug of Campari.
A similar amount of Orange Juice.
A splash or more of Soda.
A little ice if you fancy it, and a good stir.
A slice of orange or (if you can be arsed) twist of peel to finish.

Because of its generic resemblance to the classic Negroni, I call this elixir the Nigroni. It looks good, tastes good, and by golly it does you good  - well, probably not the last, but it certainly makes you feel good. Cheers!

Sunday 27 March 2016

Easter Day

Happy Easter to all who browse here. And to all my Norwegian readers - God Påske!

Saturday 26 March 2016

Renbourn Remembered

A year ago today, the brilliant guitarist John Renbourn died. For some reason I didn't mark this addition to the celestial jam session at the time, so today I make amends by posting this reminder of a great guitar talent - here playing with his old compadre Bert Jansch. A musical partnership made in heaven - enjoy (and if, like me, you're allergic to Billy Connolly, be sure to kill the vid at 4:27).

Friday 25 March 2016

Then and Now

The Monet above is one of many sunny images of the Impressionists' riverside paradise of Argenteuil - images from another France, another age. Yesterday a jihadist was arrested in a much changed (for the worse) Argenteuil as he prepared to stage yet another atrocity in the name of the 'religion of peace'...

Eh bien, it's a gloriously sunny Good Friday, and on my way to the baker's to buy hot cross buns this morning I spotted another dozen or more Brimstones flying, and a surprisingly fresh-looking Tortoiseshell. It seems it's raining Brimstones this spring.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

My Fabulous Life

When it comes to kitchen waste bins, I'm sure we're all agreed that the old-established Dutch firm of Brabantia, with its elegant bins and (important, this) cleverly designed bags, has got it cracked. For some years I've been more than happy with our slimline 20L pedal bin - happy in this case meaning never having to give it a second thought (except once in a while to admire its perfection and wipe down its cool matt surface). This morning, however, when I took out the full bag - such a neat and easy process with Brabantia - I noticed that something was printed, in large upper-case letters, on said bag (and on the rest of the batch - I checked). It read 'BEWARE! CONTAINS EVIDENCE OF A FABULOUS LIFE.' These words are attributed to one Emily Jayne Phipps, of whom I know nothing. What on earth is she talking about, and how did her message end up on Brabantia's beautifully engineered rubbish bags? Believe me, Emily Jayne, it would take a remarkable feat of reverse engineering to work back from the contents of our rubbish bags to a life in any way fabulous. However, it put me in mind of a Randy Newman song, which is never a bad thing - this one...

Day of the Brimstone

After many days of cloud, gloom and cold here in the suburban demiparadise, yesterday was, for a wonder, sunny and bright, with a spring-like warmth in the air. Maybe today, I thought as I set out for Cheam, I'll see my first Brimstone of the year. And so I did, rather sooner than I expected - a bright and handsome male was flying East along the high street of Carshalton, zipping along in the typical fast-moving, zigzagging manner of the newly awakened Brimstone renewing his acquaintance with the world. Having checked out the Fox and Hounds, he headed off down Westcroft Road towards the Grove park...
 This heart-lifting sight - marking the true beginning of spring and of the butterfly year - was to be repeated no fewer than seven times in as many minutes in the course of my short train journey. The ivy-clad embankments were alive with patrolling Brimstones - and there were to be more when I got to Cheam: one flying along the village high street there (spotted from inside Waitrose), then two more in the course of my short walk to my son's house, where another one flew past as soon as I got there. That makes to total of 12, a round dozen, in little more than an hour - I don't remember when I last saw so many in such a short time, let alone on the day of their first appearance. Let's hope it is a sign of an abundant butterfly year to come.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

For today

Music of mourning from another Belgium, another age. Lekeu - a composer who deserves to be much better known - wrote this extraordinary piece at the age of 21 in response to the death of his mentor César Franck. Three years later Lekeu too was dead.

Monday 21 March 2016

Norway - My Kind of Country!

It's happened! For the first time since records began (i.e. in 2008), I have more readers in Norway than anywhere else on Earth. The US and the UK are now eating Norway's dust as Nigemania sweeps the land of fjords and Vikings, Grieg and Munch, oil money and natural beauty, freedom and prosperity outside the EU - what's not to like (apart from the criminally high price of booze)? I've never been there but I'm sure it's my kind of country (apart from the criminally high etc.). And it seems this is their kind of blog - I've no idea why (was it the Norwegian paperclip man?) but I'm very glad. To mark the happy day that Norway took the lead, I've posted the above Norwegian painting - the very jolly Daughters of Rain by Hans Dahl.

Sunday 20 March 2016

First Cut

The first day of spring (the second first day this year), and a landmark of the gardening year - my first mow of the lawn. I always enjoy cutting the grass - the effect is so transformative, the effort so slight - and the first cut of the year is always special. The grass was pretty long in places, but the ground was a dry as could be expected at this time of year so the mowing was quite easy. The only irksome aspect of the whole thing was, as ever, the tendency of my cheapo Mow 'n' Vac (yes, honestly, that's what it's called) to shed its cuttings box or one of the flimsy bits of plastic that count as blades.Then there's the unpleasing noise of the thing, and the need to keep the trailing electric lead out of the way. In fact I have half decided to dispense with power mowing altogether this year and buy a good hand mower. I only have a fairly small lawn, it would be good work for the upper body - and how wonderful to restore the nostalgic sound of a hand-pushed mower to the neighbourhood soundscape. I'm going to have a look online and see what I can find...
 Mowing the lawn always puts Larkin's Cut Grass into my mind (even at this time of year). Today I was pleased to find that I still have it by heart. Short as it is, it's about the best my sieve-like memory can manage these days. I promise this will be the last Larkin poem for a while. Maybe.

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.

Friday 18 March 2016

Alas, Poor Yorick

The other day, on one of my charity shop prowls, I picked up a very handsome edition of Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey for a ridiculously low price. It was published in 1929 by The Scholartis Press, a short-lived venture founded by the lexicographer Eric Partridge. Beautifully printed and bound, edited from the second edition and the original MS by Herbert Read (who also supplies a long Introduction), this will look far better on my shelves - and read better - than my old Penguin Classics edition.
 It was on this day in 1768, less than a month after his Sentimental Journey was published, that Sterne's strength failed and he finally succumbed to the 'consumption' that had plagued him for years. Leaving behind more debts than assets, he was buried with little ceremony or expense in the churchyard of St George's, Hanover Square - but that was not the end of the story. There are several versions of what happened next, but it seems certain that 'resurrectionists' dug up Sterne's body and delivered it to an anatomist, who was busily dissecting it when an onlooker recognised the face of the famous Laurence Sterne. According to some reports, he fainted away from shock and the dissection was abandoned. Certainly, the body - or a decent amount of it - was rescued and reburied at St George's.
 There Sterne's mortal remains lay in peace until 1964, when the land was sold to the gloriously named Utopian Housing Society, who were obliged to dispose decently of all the bones they found before they could start building. Hearing of this, the Sterne enthusiast Kenneth Monkman - who had rescued and restored Sterne's home, Shandy Hall, in the Yorkshire village of Coxwold - was determined to rescue what he could of Sterne and reinter him in the village where 'Yorick' had been Perpetual Curate. Monkman insisted that any remains found in or near Sterne's burial place were to be examined by him, as a representative (and founder) of the Laurence Sterne Trust, before they were disposed of.
 So, early on a June morning in 1969, Kenneth Monkman and a representative of the Utopian Housing Society were on hand to watch the excavation at St George's. At first, rather few intact bones emerged, apart from a possibly Sternean femur - but then a skull was dug up that had had its top neatly sliced off. This was surely the skull of the anatomised author. To make sure, Monkman dashed home to collect a bust of Sterne said to be the most accurate ever made. With the help of a surgeon, skull was compared to bust and it was concluded that they made a perfect match - the skull of Yorick had been recovered.
 Now Laurence Sterne's remains lie, as they should, in the churchyard of St Michael, Coxwold - a rather fine church with an octagonal tower, and pews and pulpit installed by Sterne himself. And Shandy Hall, run by the Laurence Sterne Trust, is open to the public during the summer months. Worth a visit if you're in the area.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Larkin Again: Two Ways of Looking at a Toad

'I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours,' said Jerome K. Jerome. Clearly it also fascinated Philip Larkin, but he preferred actually doing it, building a successful career in academic librarianship while in his 'spare time' becoming the best English poet of his generation. His ambivalent attitude to work was best expressed in his well-known poem Toads, written on this day in 1954...

'Why should I let the toad work
          Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
          and drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
          With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
          That's out of proportion.
Lots of folk live on their wits:
          Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts -
          They don't end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes
          With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines -
          They seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
          Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
          No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough
          To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
          That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
          Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
          And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
          My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
          All at one sitting.
I don't say, one bodies the other
          One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
          When you have both.'
Toads is a fine example of Larkin managing to sound blokily matter-of-fact and conversational while performing all manner of tricks of rhyme and metre and deploying some quite fantastical vocabulary. 'Losels', by the way, were 'losers', good-for-nothings, wasters, while 'loblolly men' were medical orderlies on board ship, doling out loblolly, a thick gruel, to the sick and injured.
 Larkin (for the purposes of the poem) concludes that work is not the only toad squatting on him; there's something inside him too that he knows will always hold him back from the heroic gesture  - 'Stuff your pension' is for him the 'stuff' of dreams.
 Sure enough, eight years later, Larkin is still working, and the toad is no longer any kind of crushing burden, but rather a welcome companion, helping him through life - or as the death-obsessed poet succinctly puts it, 'down Cemetery Road'. In Toads Revisited - like Toads, a poem of nine short-lined quatrains - Larkin paints such a dismal picture of life without work, shuffling around the park among 'palsied old step-takers, Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters, Waxed-fleshed out-patients', that returning to work seems a positively delightful prospect...
'Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,
Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me,
Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,
Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets -
All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,
Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,
Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
No friends but empty chairs -
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.'
'Turning over their failures By some bed of lobelias' - the only Lobelia rhyme in English verse? Probably... Of course, both Toads and its sister poem are drenched in Larkinian irony and humour, and should not be read as any kind of 'statement' (statement, that is, of anything beyond the poem). However, both embody an ambivalence - a mixture of dull resentment and reluctant gratitude - that many of us must have felt in our working lives. For myself, when the time came, I found it easy and liberating to slip out from under the toad and make my own way down Cemetery Road, whistling as I go. 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Norway's Nearly Man

Today - as if you didn't know - is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Johan Vaaler, the Norwegian who didn't invent the paper clip. This is, admittedly, a slender claim to fame, but the thing about Vaaler is that he almost did it, and he is still often erroneously cited as the 'inventor of the paper clip'. What he did was to invent the version illustrated above - and go to the trouble of patenting it - while, unknown to him, the fully evolved double-loop paper clip was already being manufactured in Britain by the Gem Manufacturing Co. It was never patented, but has remained the definitive, unsurpassable paper clip (or, as the French would have it, trombone). The Norwegians, however, have a special feeling for the paper clip, and during the Nazi occupation, when all obvious national symbols were banned, many took to wearing a paper clip on their lapels as an emblem of resistance and solidarity. That's a better legacy than clipping together sheets of paper.


There was a discussion on Radio 4's Today programme this morning about the curious fact that Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Frauke Petry, leader of the German 'right wing' 'populist' party AfD, all graduated in Chemistry. Perhaps (the general drift of the discussion seemed to be) this gave them a logical, analytical, scientific approach to problem-solving that improved their understanding of political questions...
 Not mentioned was recent research demonstrating that Engineering graduates - presumably with the same logical, analytical, scientific approach to problem-solving - are massively over-represented among, er, Islamic terrorists. Funny old world.

Monday 14 March 2016

First Butterfly - Just!

The spell of settled sunny weather that has settled on the Southeast (now that we've seen the last of Storm Kevin and his long swishy tail) has been delightful - but, for the butterfly lover, frustrating. These are days that look like spring - the strong crisp sunlight, the jewel-bright colours, the haze of swelling buds and early leaflets on the trees -  but, thanks to a chilly East wind that never eases off, they feel like winter. Not only has this cold spell drastically slowed down what looked like being a crazily precocious spring, it has also meant that these sunny days that look so butterfly-friendly have yielded, day after day, no sightings of early fliers. Today I did a little tour of likely local sites - places rich in sunlit sheltered spots - and once again was unrewarded. I decided to walk back along a residential street - and there, at last, I saw, or rather glimpsed, my first butterfly of the year. It was flying - or rather being blown - past at shoulder height, and I saw just enough of it to be sure it was a Small Tortoiseshell. I gave chase - no, not waving a net - but it had vanished away as suddenly as it had appeared. Not the most satisfying first sighting I have had - but definitely one of the later ones. I blame global warming.
 The painting is A Study in March, or Early Spring (1855) by John William Inchbold.

Just a note...

... to remind readers that The Dabbler is thriving in its new Facebook incarnation. Lots of good stuff, some from this very blog.

Saturday 12 March 2016

First Bat!

I was walking all day yesterday in deepest Surrey, mostly in sunshine - and yet I didn't see a single butterfly, not so much as a Brimstone or a Red Admiral. However, what I did see, to my amazement, was a bat, flitting about at treetop level in broad daylight, flying in rapid circles, with little darting diversions to snatch some flying morsel (of which there can't have been many at this time of year). It was too large to be a Pipistrelle, but what species it was I couldn't say. After a couple of minutes of circling, it flew off into the woods and was lost from sight. I'm pretty sure this is the first time ever that I have seen my first bat before my first butterfly. The times are out of joint...

 Talking of 'flitting' - surely le mot juste for bat flight - here's George Meredith, opening the last 'sonnet' of Modern Love:
 'Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat...'

Thursday 10 March 2016

Economics: A Reminder from Ruskin

What passes for political discourse in this country is nowadays largely limited to questions of economics (with the odd laudable exception). During the last general election campaign, the dreary 'debate' was almost entirely about questions of economics, and the EU referendum campaign is shaping up to be much the same - everything reduced to competing projections of our economic future outside/inside the Union, and all other issues (such little matters as sovereignty, identity, unprecedented mass immigration, Islamic terrorism, even the state of health of the EU) swept into the margins of the debate. This might be comprehensible if economics were a proven science, but its track record has been dismal and, in particular, its accuracy as a predictive tool has been shown time and again to be close to zero. I suppose we accord the 'dismal science' so much (unearned) respect because it looks like the kind of thing that makes sense, that really ought to work - and because we don't have anything much else, having marginalised so many other ways of looking at questions of polity and governance.
 When economics first began to exert its influence - in the form of 'political economy' - the more imaginative thinkers saw through its pretensions and attacked it vigorously, though ultimately to little or no effect. Here, from the opening of Unto This Last (1860), is John Ruskin's analysis of what's essentially wrong with the new 'science'. Reading it today, in a world so thoroughly engulfed in economics and its consequences, is a bracing experience (as Ruskin so often is)...

'Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious — certainly the least creditable — is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection. Of course, as in the instances of alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds, political economy has a plausible idea at the root of it. “The social affections,” says the economist, “are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature; but avarice and the desire of progress are constant elements. Let us eliminate the inconstants, and, considering the human being merely as a covetous machine, examine by what laws of labour, purchase, and sale, the greatest accumulative result in wealth is obtainable. Those laws once determined, it will be for each individual afterwards to introduce as much of the disturbing affectionate element as he chooses, and to determine for himself the result on the new conditions supposed."
This would be a perfectly logical and successful method of analysis, if the accidentals afterwards to be introduced were of the same nature as the powers first examined. Supposing a body in motion to be influenced by constant and inconstant forces, it is usually the simplest way of examining its course to trace it first under the persistent conditions, and afterwards introduce the causes of variation. But the disturbing elements in the social problem are not of the same nature as the constant ones: they alter the essence of the creature under examination the moment they are added; they operate, not mathematically, but chemically, introducing conditions which render all our previous knowledge unavailable. We made learned experiments upon pure nitrogen, and have convinced ourselves that it is a very manageable gas: but, behold! the thing which we have practically to deal with is its chloride; and this, the moment we touch it on our established principles, sends us and our apparatus through the ceiling.
 Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death’s-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.'

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Before the Fire

This animated 3-D tour of parts of London before the Great Fire is rather wonderful, I think. But was the city really that murky and gloomy, was its tonal palette that limited? It is always represented as such, in dramas and elsewhere, but surely London could be a bright and sunny place at times. The absence of people in the animation is understandable, given its technical limitations, but it does enhance the doomy, pre-apocalyptic feel of the animation. Nice music, though - by Hans Zimmer.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Pigpen: Forever One of the Grateful Dead

On this day in 1973, the short, often sad life of Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan, founder member and erstwhile lead singer and presiding spirit of the Grateful Dead, came to an end. He was 27 years old and he essentially died of drink, having turned his back on mind-bending drugs in favour of whiskey and wine (as did his close friend Janis Joplin). McKernan also resisted the Dead's move from a raw, blues-based sound into more experimental psychedelic noodling. A blues man through and through, Pigpen was increasingly sidelined as the band broke through with their two great studio albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, and, as his health began to break down, he eventually had to leave the band. His death, soon after his departure, shattered the remaining band members, who over the coming years worked songs that Pigpen had made his own (notably Good Lovin' and Turn On Your Love Light) back into their live performances.
 'Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead,' reads the inscription on his gravestone in Alta Mesa Memorial Park. Here he is in his one and only vocal appearance on that classic album American Beauty - the country blues Operator...

Monday 7 March 2016

Hello, Norway...

I don't often look at my blog statistics (honest), but lately I can't help noticing a very odd development, and I wonder if anyone can throw any light on it. The greatest number of my pageviews come, as they have done for a long time, from the United States, and they still do - but snapping at the heels of the US now is, er, Norway. Norway (from its tiny population) yields me over 50 percent more readers than the United Kingdom and, if present trends continue, might soon overtake even the United States. I have no idea why this should have happened: as far as I can make out, my review of the Peder Balke exhibition - and a mention of another Norwegian painter, Frits Thaulow - have been my only forays into Norwegian waters. Maybe Balke was enough...
 Anyway, thank you, Norway - and if any of my Norwegian readers feel like getting in touch, please do.

Sunday 6 March 2016

Farrell before Troubles

When I recently spotted a copy of J.G. Farrell's A Girl in the Head on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop (actually my favourite second-hand bookshop in all England - The Bookshop in Wirksworth), I bought it out of curiosity. Having recently reread Farrell's masterpiece, Troubles, I was interested to sample one of his earlier works.
 A Girl in the Head was published in 1967, the last of three novels that preceded Troubles, and it attracted little acclaim, or even notice. It is a kind of black comedy set in a dreary English seaside resort, Maidenhair Bay, where one Boris Slattery, an ageing cynic and chancer, now lives, with various others, in the family home of his unhappy wife, Flower. Slattery - by his own account an aristocrat of middle-European descent - is on his uppers, and arrives in Maidenhair Bay by chance, having stepped off the train there on a whim. He has two overriding obsessions - himself, and a beautiful young Swedish girl who is coming to stay in the family home for the summer. In fact, Boris's eye for young and underage girls make for some pretty queasy reading; this unreliable narrator has none of the charm, wit or poetry of Humbert Humbert.
A Girl in the Head charts Boris's largely sordid, drink-sozzled life in Maidenhair Bay, and the devious machinations by which he attempts - and usually fails - to further his ends. He sometimes comes across as a kind of literary Ed Reardon, but is mostly less engaging even than that. His milieu - the small seaside town, the beach, the changing weather - is skilfully evoked, Farrell's strong sense of place showing through. Similarly the author's ingenuity in devising situations of excruciating physical embarrassment is often in evidence. But beyond that there is really nothing to suggest that the next time this author published a novel it would be one of the greatest of his time - Troubles.
 To achieve that leap, to unleash his full creative power, he needed - as he was already sensing - a broader canvas, or rather a context of greater historical significance in which to place his hopelessly befuddled characters. Farrell was living in New York at the time of A Girl in the Head's publication, and reading up on the Irish War of Independence (of which his mother had some memories). He was also toying with various possible fictional scenarios, including a man trapped in an apartment building; a passive, possibly suicidal, Englishman abroad; a military widower with a teenage daughter; and a man battling with hordes of cockroaches (Farrell's hotel room was infested with these forerunners of the Majestic's cats in Troubles). Taking a break from his creative struggles, he took a boat to Block Island - and there he had his Eureka moment, looking around the spectacular remains of the burnt-out Ocean View Hotel, all twisted pipes, molten glass, charred beams, washbasins and blackened bedsprings. Yes, the very image of the burnt-out Majestic Hotel so vividly described in the opening pages of Troubles. Farrell had found his inspiration - the inspiration so sadly lacking in A Girl in the Head.
 Odd, isn't it, how many of our best writers have found their true strength, or at least a new lease of life, by turning from the present to the historical past for their mise en scène? Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge being other obvious examples, not to mention Hilary Mantel...

Saturday 5 March 2016

Tate Modern: No Change

Being a fair-minded type [outbreak of coughing and shuffling in the audience], I like to test my opinions against reality from time to time, in case something has changed that might cause me to think again. Too often, alas, this reality check merely serves to confirm my prejudice - or rather demonstrate that it is no prejudice but sound judgment.
 So it proved with Tate Modern, which I rashly revisited yesterday. I have long held that this is a very bad art gallery indeed, a dismal and dispiriting waste of a huge amount of space (to say nothing of money, and opportunity) - and I saw nothing yesterday to change my mind. The thematic arrangement of the collection is incoherent to the point of randomness, and far too many of the depressing white spaces that pass for galleries are given over to crass and joyless gigantism. I saw plenty that vaguely piqued my interest, plenty that was simply repellent, a little that was genuinely clever or well made, but - leaving aside the Rothko Room, the Richter room, and a thin peppering of real quality works - almost nothing that lifted the spirits or delivered real aesthetic pleasure. Any room of the National Gallery delivers more of those than the whole of Tate Modern. Though it has held some superb exhibitions, and I've enjoyed a few of the turbine hall installations (the current one appears to be a kind of untended allotment garden), Tate Modern seems to me a monument to failure - the gigantic failure of Modern Art, or rather its decline into a sordid, self-serving industry, a trendy branch of showbusiness. Happily there are many very good artists still at work in the world - but they are sorely under-represented in Tate Modern.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Thomas and Larkin Mark the Day

The poets' birthdays are coming thick and fast; today it's Edward Thomas (born 1878). On his birthday in 1915, two years before his death, he marked the day with one of his happier poems:

March the Third

Here again (she said) is March the third
And twelve hours singing for the bird
'Twixt dawn and dusk, from half past six
To half past six, never unheard.

'Tis Sunday, and the church-bells end
When the birds do. I think they blend
Now better than they will when passed
Is this unnamed, unmarked godsend.

Or do all mark, and none dares say,
How it may shift and long delay,
Somewhere before the first of Spring,
But never fails, this singing day?

And when it falls on Sunday, bells
Are a wild natural voice that dwells
On hillsides; but the birds' songs have
The holiness gone from the bells.

This day unpromised is more dear
Than all the named days of the year
When seasonable sweets come in,
Because we know how lucky we are.

That last line is so unexpected...
Also on this day, in 1956 (60 years ago!), Philip Larkin wrote First Sight, an unusually sweet poem of 14 lines (but not a sonnet) that moves from winter to spring, or its promise - 'Earth's immeasurable surprise':

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

Medical News: Joy Kills

I am indebted to the BBC News website for tidings of the latest killer lurking in our midst - joy. It seems a moment of intense joy can trigger a potentially fatal heart condition. The list of trigger situations makes chastening reading; I particularly like the last - news of a CT scan giving the all-clear: 'Why doctor, that's such fantastic - -' [thud]. The cross-head 'More Research Needed' could be wheeled out for absolutely any medical/ scientific 'research' story (for 'research', read 'money'). But as we're only talking about a subset of those potentially at risk from a 'rare event', this is perhaps not the most obviously urgent of research projects. And there's a lot to be said for dying happy - isn't there?

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Richard Wilbur: Love Calls Us

Today is the 95th birthday of the great American poet Richard Wilbur - an occasion to rejoice that he is still with us. I hadn't realised until today that he shared his birthday with Robert Lowell, born four years earlier (and dead nearly 40 years). When I was at university (as the Sixties became, with sickening inevitability, the Seventies) Lowell enjoyed an almost god-like status among contemporary poets; it was pretty well taken for granted that he was one of the greats and that his fame would endure, certainly outlasting the likes of Wilbur, who was seen as an irrelevant old-school formalist.  As it turned out, the intervening decades have not been kind to Lowell; though he is still respected, is he still read? The last time I tackled the Selected Poems (a few years ago), I was surprised to find how underwhelmed I was... Ah well, it is not a competition, but it is good to know that Wilbur is still alive and, I like to think, being read anew, now that the decades of unfashionableness no longer matter. Who could fail to enjoy a poet so in touch with the pleasures of being alive in this world, whose poems, so beautifully constructed, are such a delight to read? Here is one of his best-known works. Enjoy - and pay attention, and give thanks - that is all the world asks of us, and no living poet has better embodied those sweet imperatives than Richard Wilbur.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

Please Help Yourself...

I recently reported on an outbreak of nomenclatural insanity in my local Barclays bank. Happily this has since been rectified and the three hole-in-the-wall machines now perform their functions in the anonymity that befits them. However, the bank madness is still all around us. This afternoon I stepped into a branch of Lloyds to make use of its indoor cash machine and, while getting my bearings - checking this was indeed a bank and not the reception area of some dubious club - I noticed a rack containing a range of leaflets. 'Our Products and Services', said a notice on the wall. 'Please Help Yourself...' I scanned the titles in a state of total bewilderment and, unable to believe my eyes, noted them down. The 16 leaflets - four rows of four - were titled as follows:


Words fail me - though not, alas, the marketing hotshots who came up with that lot. Do the banks really need at this stage to give us more reasons to hate them?