Friday 29 April 2016

Another Voice from the Past - and the Saddest Story...

My indefatigable son-in-law has done it again, coming up with a fine singer-songwriter from the Sixties folk scene who had somehow eluded me - though, in view of his life story, that really isn't too surprising. Jackson C. Frank, who came over from Buffalo equipped with a Martin guitar, some fine songs and a rich, expressive voice, was a striking figure on the London folk scene of the mid-Sixties, where he caught the attention of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Al Stewart, Sandy Denny (his girlfriend for a while) and fellow expat Paul Simon, who produced his first - and, as it turned out, last - album.
 So far, so straightforward, but Frank's back story was tragic, and worse was to come. When he was 11, a furnace exploded at his school, killing 15 of his fellow pupils, including his then girlfriend, and leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body. It was while he was recovering in hospital that he was given his first guitar... Ten years later, Frank received a hefty insurance cheque that enabled him to make the journey to London and launch his short-lived musical career.
 It wasn't long before his mental health was beginning to deteriorate, with depression coming to the fore as he developed writer's block and his money ran out (the album hadn't sold, and had barely been noticed except by a few cognoscenti - including Nick Drake, who learnt a lot from it). He went back to the States, and when he made a brief return to London in 1968 he was clearly in a bad way - 'falling apart in front of our eyes,' according to Al Stewart - and couldn't find any work.
 Back in Woodstock, where he'd set up home, he married and had a son and a daughter, but the son died of cystic fibrosis, the marriage fell apart, and Frank was committed to a mental institution. In 1984 he made his way to New York, hoping to track down Paul Simon, but ended up living on the streets, when not being shunted from one institution to another. Some years later, by chance, a fan who lived in the Woodstock area tracked Frank down and, although the singer was by then an unrecognisable overweight wreck, he got him singing again and dug out a lot of his old unreleased recordings - but not before Frank had been blinded in his left eye by a stray airgun pellet while sitting on a street bench. He died in 1999 at the age of 56, and at least some of his songs have lived on, in cover versions and on film sound tracks, as well as on that one album, which was rereleased on vinyl in 2014. There was even a Radio 4 programme about him a few years ago. I managed to miss that too.
 But to the music. Frank's best-known song (covered by Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch, Laura Marling and many others) is Blues Run the Game - here's a link - and it is also my three-year-old grandson Sam's current favourite song. He is a boy of sophisticated and eclectic tastes... This song, dedicated to Frank's girlfriend who died in the fire, was featured on the soundtrack of the film Martha Macy May Marlene. And here's another one... Listening to all of these (and there are more on YouTube), I can't help but think of the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis - and sure enough Blues Run the Game is covered by Colin Meloy of the Decembrists on the concert album (Another Time, Another Place) of that great film.

First Martin

One of the joys of my recent trip to the Mani was the profusion of swallows, martins and swifts. Back in chilly Blighty - where I've already seen my first swallows (in Staffordshire) - I wasn't expecting to see anything more in that line before the arrival of the first swifts, which should be happening around the end of next week if they're on time (and no one could blame them for not being; it's been a cold and uninviting spring). However, as I was walking home from the shops just now, I looked up into the sky to check how close the latest rainclouds were - and there was a lone House Martin, racing overhead like a bird on a mission (presumably to get to its nesting place and start the year). It was a heart-lifting sight on a chilly morning. And the swifts can't be far behind...

Thursday 28 April 2016

Charles Cotton

The poet, writer and angler Charles Cotton was born on this day in 1630, in the delightful village of Alstonefield, just over the Derbyshire border in Staffordshire (I've lunched there many times, at The George, with my Derbyshire cousin). Like many Royalist gentlemen in the wake of the Civil War, Cotton sought a quiet life in the country - and he found it in fishing the River Dove with his close friend and writing partner Izaak Walton. Cotton contributed the section on 'how to angle for trout or grayling in a clear stream' to The Compleat Angler, of which later editions also included Cotton's poem The Retirement.
 Otherwise, Cotton was best known in his time for his more or less indecent 'burlesques' of Latin classics, and for his authorship of The Compleat Gamester, a manual of games that was the standard work until Hoyle came along. He also produced a successful (if unreliable) translation of Montaigne's essays, and clearly had a more sensitive side to his nature, responding warmly to the scenery of the Peak District (whose praises he sang in The Wonders of the Peake) and finding, in the valley of the Dove, his paradise on Earth.
 One of Cotton's poems, The Evening Quatrains - with its startling images of an ant as a 'monstrous elephant' and the shafts of an upturned cart as 'the cuckold's crest' - was set to music by Britten as the Pastoral movement of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. You can enjoy it, arranged for tenor, horn and piano, in this video. I wonder if Cotton's poem, rich in evening imagery (including 'lowing herds'), fed into the creation of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard...

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Postcards from the Past

I'm indebted to my son-in-law for bringing the singer-songwriter and ace guitarist Michael Chapman to my attention. Somehow, despite the fact that he made several highly-praised albums, was a fixture of the late Sixties folk scene and moved on into prog rock, I never saw or heard him (well, I might have done - those were hazy times - but I have no memory of it). Unlike so many from that era, he's still going strong (at 75) and still exploring new musical territory. There's lots of impressive footage of him on YouTube, but it was Postcards of Scarborough, a track from way back, that caught my attention. It's a good, slightly poppy song, and I love those postcards - I remember Scarborough when it looked like that; in fact I remember those postcards. Many a happy boyhood holiday was spent there, with my brother and grandmother, who left us boys to our own amusements, playing the arcades, going to the cricket, wandering around town in our sports jackets and flannels, climbing up to the church and castle. How long ago it seems... Well, it was.

Who Likes Shakespeare?

In Shakespeare's quatercentenary year (and I must say I don't think much of the commemorative stamps) it's sad to learn that 34 percent of his countrymen and women say they dislike his work, and only 59 percent say they like it. This being a survey result, it must of course be taken with a pinch or two of salt, but what was most depressing was the finding that, in terms of liking, understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, this country came 11th out of 15 countries surveyed, way behind, for example, India, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and even China.
 America came ahead of the UK in liking Shakespeare, but only by a few percentage points - which I found rather surprising, especially after listening to an interesting Radio 4 programme this morning, Shakespeare in Obama's America. Robert McCrum reported from Washington DC on how Shakespeare's plays are used in political discourse, and talked to the likes of Alec Baldwin (does he have a like?) and Stephen Sondheim about the place of Shakespeare in American culture.
 There seemed to be a consensus that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing scripts in Hollywood. This chimes with the frequently-heard assertion that, in his home country, he would be writing scripts for EastEnders. Would he? My view of Shakespeare is that he was the most prodigiously gifted poet ever born - but he had the misfortune to be born at a time when it was impossible to make a living as a poet, and only the theatre offered the chance to make money from verse. So perforce he became a dramatist - and, because he was so supremely gifted, became the greatest playwright ever born.

Monday 25 April 2016

More from the Mani

Around this little church - Agios Nikolaus in the village of Chora - are scattered the ashes of the writer Bruce Chatwin. He and his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor were especially fond of this church hidden among the olive groves, and used to picnic in its shade, overlooking a glorious view of the Messenian Gulf and the surrounding hills. When Chatwin died in 1989, he left instructions for his ashes to be scattered there, at a site that he believed to be sacred as well as beautiful. A little band led by PLF and Chatwin's wife duly performed the al fresco ceremony, with copious libations along the way.
 Chatwin wrote The Songlines while staying at a hotel near PLF's house at Kalamitsi, the Fermors having balked at the prospect of accommodating him under their roof; one mighty, self-mythologising ego in the place was quite enough.
 The Fermor house at Kalamitsi is still there, and still much as it was when PLF died in 2011 (at the age of 96). It is owned by a Greek museum foundation, with the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society also keenly involved in securing its future. Very soon now, the entire contents of the house will be put into storage while the building is prepared for reopening as a museum - but happily our host had arranged for our little group to be shown around by PLF's housekeeper, Elpida (as seen on TV), while it is still as it was.
 When the Fermors had the house built, it stood quite alone, amid olive groves, and it it still well hidden, even though several buildings have gone up nearby. It is a beautifully designed villa set in an equally beautifully designed terraced garden leading down to the sea and the beach from which PLF swam every day until his knees finally gave out, a few years before his death. The house is cool and airy throughout, the garden full of shady corners, and the whole effect is altogether delightful, not to say idyllic.
 Inside all is indeed as if PLF had just stepped out for a stroll (or one of his epic swims); there has been none of the tidying-up and reordering that can so easily drain the soul out of a literary shrine. There are books and papers, photographs and miscellaneous bric-à-brac everywhere - especially books, of which every room has at least a bookcase-full. They are, for the most part, battered and worn and much read, often almost to destruction - the library of a true reader with an extraordinarily wide range of tastes and interests, all the way from the Greek and Latin classics to Tintin and P.G. Wodehouse and such surprising titles as Fuzz Against Junk (Olympia Press) and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. In PLF's own bedroom - a decidedly ascetic room - there is only a set of Shakespeare, whom he read in his last years more than any other writer.
 Everything about the house looks as pleasingly worn and ragged as the books. The furniture is battered and miscellaneous, the decor far from smart - except for one room. This is the vast and beautiful sitting room cum library where PLF used to hold court, dazzling and charming his visitors well into his 90s. Coming across a library after having already seen so many hundreds (thousands?) of books is a bit of a shock, but the walls are indeed book-lined, and even roughly classified, though the hand-written labels don't often match what's on the shelves. Even in this relatively smart room there are miscellaneous bits and pieces everywhere - pens and pencils, shells, stones, letter-knives, curling photographs, a Patum Peperium pot... And there are PLF's vinyl LPs - a box-full and a cupboard-full - complementing his collection of tape cassettes, which live in a Bendinck's Buttermints box in another room.
 How much of this characterful disorder will survive when the house eventually opens as a museum remains to be seen. It certainly felt very special to be among the last to see the place as it is now, as the Great Man knew and inhabited it.

Sunday 24 April 2016

From the Mani

Well, the Mani did not disappoint, and the walking terrain was not as dauntingly rugged as I'd feared it might be (we were based in the Exo Mani, not the deep Mani). The worst of it was a punishingly long stretch of kalderimi (paved mule tracks built by the Turks) that had somehow been deconstructed into an endless four-foot-wide rubble-strewn boulder field, offering ample opportunities for missed footing, turned ankles and messy falls - with the obligatory sheer drop to one side. Happily we came through unscathed, if exhausted - and there were ample compensations along the way, throughout four days of unbroken sunshine and 30-degree temperatures...
 Not least the butterflies, which were flying in abundance wherever we went: blues, whites and browns of all kinds, many beyond my powers of identification (the 60-odd British species provide enough challenges for me; Greece has four times as many). Swallowtails were everywhere, gliding from flowerhead to flowerhead and even around the village streets. Brimstones were flying, along with Clouded Yellows and Cleopatras, and I saw my first Red Admirals of the year.
But what gave me most pleasure was finding myself among Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries, beautiful small fritillaries that I haven't seen in England in years.
 As for the wild flowers - the great spring flowering was, our host told us, already past its best, so warm and dry had been the early spring, but there were still wonderful things to be seen, including several species of orchids I had never seen before, glorious scarlet-and-black anemones, intense blue pimpernels, the lovely Venus' Looking Glass, and drifts of wild cyclamens. The air was full of smells of sage and oregano and blossom, and the only sounds were of sheep bells and bees, many of them wild black bees in quest of mud for their nests. Twice we came across wild tortoises lumbering across our path...
 And then there were the churches - an astonishing abundance of tiny Byzantine churches and chapels (one village we visited had a total of 60). Many are in completely out-of-the-way locations, some built into caves or cliff faces, others standing quite alone with nothing but olive groves and pastures for miles around. A pleasing number of churches were open, and most of them in a greater or lesser state of decay, though still in occasional use. Several had colonies of bats hanging from the roof, and one was loud with wild bees coming and going to their sanctified nest.
 All the churches were of the same pattern (cruciform, with an apse and, quite often, a westward extension) and all were, or had been, covered all over - walls, dome, arches, window surrounds - with paintings of Christ and his mother, the apostles, favourite Greek saints, and scenes from the Bible. Most of these paintings are badly decayed, peeling and fading away, the remnants of their golden brightness, once-rich colours and stylised faces glimmering faintly through the gloom of invariably dark interiors. Often a face or detail has survived in good condition (or been restored) and you can feel something of the chastening numinous force it must once have had.
 So, butterflies, flowers, sunshine, churches galore - what more could one ask? Well, there was more, and I'll be writing about that tomorrow.

Monday 18 April 2016

To the Mani

I'm flying to Greece in the small hours of tomorrow morning (and by EasyJet - oh joy) for a few days' walking in the Mani - yes, Patrick Leigh Fermor country. Sunshine, butterflies and flowers await, DV... I'll be back at the weekend.

'The spiritual equal of Shakespeare' meets a fan...

Hugh Kingsmill's little book on Frank Harris (which I bought recently at The Bookshop in Wirksworth) certainly gets off to a lively start...
 The time is a June afternoon in 1912, the place Dan Miller's bookshop off St Martin's Lane, London. Half a dozen regulars are in the inner room, including Kingsmill (Hugh Kingsmill Lunn), Middelton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Frank Harris, whom Murry is keen to introduce to Katherine Mansfield. What's more, the next issue of Murry's magazine, Rhythm, will carry an extravagant encomium of Harris, proclaiming him 'the spiritual equal of Shakespeare', 'acknowledged by all the great men of letters of his time to be greater than they; accepted by artists as their superior... a master of life,' his best short stories 'among the supreme creations of art', etc, etc.
 What could possibly go wrong?
 The answer soon came, in the form of a rampaging Frank Harris, in a towering rage with Murry for having published in the current Rhythm a piece wildly praising the poet James Stephens. Jabbing his finger at a passage from Stephens which Murry described as better than Milton, 'God's great fist!' roared Harris. 'And you call this better than Milton! You, Murry, put this drivel above Paradise Lost!'
 Things got worse when Harris picked up the contents sheet of the next Rhythm, apparently unaware that he was being likened to Shakespeare in it, and began mocking the titles listed...

 'He was beginning to improvise in Rabelaisian vein... when Murry burst into tears and ran out of the shop.
 "Good God!" Harris stared round in amazement.
 "Oh, he'll kill himself!" Katherine Mansfield cried, and rushed after Murry.
 "What the...?" Harris gasped.
 "That's Katherine Mansfield," I said.
 "Katherine Mansfield!" He struck his brow with his hand. "Katherine Mansfield!" He turned to Harold Weston: "I thought she was a girl of yours."
 Weston shook his head modestly.
 "Why didn't any of you tell me?"
 There was a long silence, and my next memory is of Harris and myself outside the shop...'

Eventually a reconciliation was brought about by Kingsmill, who sped by taxi to the Murry-Mansfield apartment and talked soothing words to the sobbing pair. Wiping their eyes, they returned to the bookshop and later went with Harris to the Cafe Royal. Murry's enthusiasm for 'the spiritual equal of Shakespeare' did not long outlast the unfortunate incident in Dan Miller's bookshop, but his encomium was duly published in the next Rhythm. In it, Murry hails 'a man whose word of praise can change the whole of life for me for months, and a word of condemnation make me cry till I think my heart would break. Even if Rhythm achieves nothing else that is ultimately permanent, it shall be rescued from oblivion by this alone, that it told the truth about Frank Harris.'
 By golly, you don't come across that sort of writing in the London Review of Books, do you?
 As for 'the truth about Frank Harris', that is soon eluding Kingsmill's best biographical efforts, as he discovers that almost nothing about Harris's life - even his date and country of birth - can be established with any certainty, and that Frank's copious autobiographical writings are the least reliable source of all. Still, Kingsmill remains good-humoured and indulgent, happy to follow the factual trail - such as it is - in parallel with the fantasy.
 For example, when the young Harris took his leave of America (whither he had emigrated at the age of 14), he almost certainly made his way East and took ship for England. However, by his own account, he travelled West with a beautiful and adoring mulatto called Sophy, who was desperate to go with him on a journey round the world, as his servant if need be. Harris, however, manfully resolved that they must part, and so they did, in floods of tears, at San Francisco, whence Frank passed alone through the Golden Gate and into the Pacific.
 Kingsmill drily summarises: 'Harris travelling westwards across the Pacific and Harris travelling eastwards across the Atlantic met again in Paris', where he resumes the story.
 They don't make them like Frank Harris any more. They don't even make them like Middleton Murry. From that febrile literary scene, only Katherine Mansfield emerges as a genuine artist, whose works have deservedly lasted and become classic. However, thanks to his monstrously outsized 'character' and boundless gift for self-dramatising fantasy, the figure - if not the works - of Frank Harris will continue to loom large. And, to be fair, his My Life and Loves is something of a comedy classic.

Sunday 17 April 2016

In One Place

As one who has lived for the past four decades (and for much of the previous two) within the same square mile of suburban demiparadise, I am naturally an advocate of staying put in one place. These lines by a great poet of place, Constantin Cavafy, sum up perfectly how, by staying put, we gradually transform and enrich the place we are in, as it transforms and enriches us...

In the Same Space
The setting of houses, cafés, the neighbourhood

that I’ve seen and walked through years on end:
I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.
And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

I came across this poem in a recent post on the wonderful First Known When Lost, a blog that mixes really well chosen poems with equally well chosen pictures to explore various themes (the Cavafy came from  Staying Put). It's been full of discoveries - and welcome rediscoveries - for me, and I recommend it warmly to all who browse here.  

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Meet James Ensor

Born on this day (in 1860) was James Ensor, artist and famous Belgian (a surprisingly large category). He lived virtually all his life in Ostend and explored his various obsessions, religious and otherwise, in some very strange paintings, though the strangeness faded away as he became older and more successful. Follow the link to see They Might Be Giants perform their characteristic tribute to 'Belgium's famous painter'.

The Comma: Above and Beyond

Some real spring warmth at last today and yesterday, and this morning my first Comma of the year, flying and briefly settling by the path leading to the station. It hasn't been a bad start to the butterfly year, with a few Tortoiseshells and Peacocks, one early Small White making a heroic crossing of a busy dual carriageway, and an abundance of brilliant yellow Brimstones. Indeed, if this keeps up, 2016 looks like being the Year of the Brimstone. I'm still waiting for my first Red Admiral, but it shouldn't be long (the first UK sighting was, as it often is, on New Year's Day).
 This morning's beauty, the Comma, is the butterfly with the ragged wing margins which, at rest, looks like a tattered flake of tree bark or a dead leaf, complete with a tiny C-shaped perforation - the 'comma' of the name. This was just the kind of extravagant, above-and-beyond mimicry that fascinated Nabokov:
 'When a butterfly has to look like a leaf [he wrote in Speak, Memory], 'not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings resembling grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. "Natural selection", in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behaviour, nor could one appeal to the theory of "the struggle for life" when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation.'
 Passages like this earned Nabokov the scientist (which he was, a very considerable lepidopterologist) an unfair reputation as an anti-Darwinian, even a creationist, neither of which he was. Nabokov argued that the standard (neo-Darwinian) explanation of evolution in terms of a gradual accretion of the effects of random point mutations could hardly account for such extravagances of mimicry, which were more likely to be the product of a larger-scale mutation occurring relatively suddenly and, as it were, overshooting the mark. The butterfly's resemblance to a leaf need not be taken nearly so far to secure protection against predators, any more than the 'eyes' on some butterflies' wings need to so precisely mimic the play of light on an open eye (most butterflies do just as well with minimal eye-spots). Such resemblances Nabokov thought of as unlikely (and, to us, delightful) coincidences, like the happy typo that transforms the meaning of a sentence, 'the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that becomes a flower'.

Monday 11 April 2016

Beyond Satire

When I came across a link to this story, I took it for a factual piece (until I noticed the source). After all, ain't it pretty much the truth? The Daily Mash is getting rather good these days, while The Onion often seems to have lost its edge. As for the 'real world' news - well, it appears to be passing ever farther beyond satire. Today's most choice item (amid plentiful competition) was, I thought, the news that Jeremy Corbyn, having boldly announced that he was going to publish his tax return, discovered that he, er, couldn't find it. This was swiftly followed by the news that he'd been fined £100 for returning it late. They might well have been about to run one of those stories on The Daily Mash when reality overtook their best efforts.

In the Bank

Like most people these days, I don't often need to enter a bank (though I'm old enough to remember when the only way to get hold of cash was to queue up and present a cheque, made out to 'Self', to the cashier). Whenever I do set foot in a bank, though, I seem to be presented with a little vignette of our times - often in the form of asinine signage or other nomenclatural insanity.
 This morning, however, it was different. No sooner was I over the threshold than I was approached by a smiling greeter - something that always makes me wonder momentarily if I've strayed into a restaurant or nightclub - who kindly referred me to a nearby colleague, even cheerier than herself. This lady would have been delighted to help me with my transaction (an international money transfer), but alas she was awaiting a Mr (let's say) Wilson, who was due for a scheduled meeting with her at that precise time. So I joined the appropriate queue, while she approached every man who came in with the question 'Are you Mr Wilson?'. None was, so after while she gave up on Mr W and came to my aid, performing the (fairly brief) online transaction - in the course of which a message pinged up on the screen telling her that her visitor had arrived. She looked up, but seeing no likely candidate nearby, concluded that he must have been taken to one side by her greeter colleague.
 In a few minutes she had done with me and, after an exchange of courtesies, she arose - shortly after a woman customer sitting nearby had also arisen and left - and went to consult her greeter colleague about the whereabouts of Mr Wilson. The outcome was that they realised, with some consternation, that Mr W had turned up, waited a while and gone. Mr Wilson was in fact the woman sitting nearby. A vignette of our times indeed.

Sunday 10 April 2016

Church, Hall, Gasworks, Bookshop, Lake

This grumpy-looking lady sits, bodiless, on a ledge to the right of the altar in the church of St John the Baptist, Boylestone, in (you guessed!) Derbyshire. The church is essentially an early Victorian rebuild, but it's nicely done, with a strikingly Germanic-looking pyramidal roof to the tower - and, as with almost any church, there's always something to be found, if only a severed head.
My cousin and I dropped in on this one, and a couple of others, after a visit to Sudbury Hall, that beautiful 17th-century mansion with its shimmering diapered brickwork and wide lake. I often find visiting 'stately homes' a wearying and not very rewarding experience - so many of them seem to be variants on the same plan of ostentatious display - but Sudbury is different, being on a relatively modest scale and, though hardly homely, not at all overwhelming.
In the village of Sudbury, hidden away up a grassy path, is a most curious survival - a small-scale Victorian gasworks that is surely the homeliest ever built. It was designed by George Devey, an architect whose work I am very fond of, who also built the low west wing of Sudbury Hall - and, as you can see from the picture, it is in an advanced state of disrepair. Happily, however, plans are afoot to rescue the building before it is too late, restore and refurbish it and put it to community use.
 Back in Wirksworth (where my cousin lives), a visit to Derbyshire's finest small bookshop - The Bookshop - yielded two small books (I'm buying small just now) that I was glad to find: Hugh Kingsmill's study of Frank Harris (Holiday Library reprint, 1949) and a book of colour reproductions of Hans Memling paintings.
 The day before, over the border in Staffordshire, brought the first swallows of the year (despite the cold) - first a singleton, then later a pair, circling lazily over Rudyard Lake, the beautiful stretch of water that gave Kipling his name. His parents, John Lockwood Kipling and Alice MacDonald (one of the extraordinary MacDonald sisters), met at the lake, on an excursion from Burslem, and had such fond memories of the place that they gave its name to their first-born son. A good thing they didn't meet at Boylestone.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

A Double Find, and Re-learning

Browsing in one of my local charity shops this morning, I was astonished and delighted to find, side be side on the shelf, A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (Middlebury College Press) and Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love (Penguin). Both in near-mint condition, priced at a mere £1.99 each - naturally I snapped them up. And this charity shop was in Wallington, not Carshalton (South Londoners will appreciate the difference). It seems the neighbourhood is looking up...
 By way of celebration, here's a lovely sonnet from the Reader, one of Justice's piano poems, looking back to the agony and ecstasy of learning. 

The Pupil

Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practising for
That moment on the threshold.
                                               Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

I am busy re-learning the piano myself, with the aid of a high-end digital keyboard that sounds remarkably like a grand. This time around, I'm really enjoying it, partly because I have listened to and loved so much more music now, partly because I am free this time from the nerve-shredding horrors of 'grade' examinations - and indeed 'the dread Czerny'.
 But now I am off to my spiritual second home in Derbyshire for a few days... 

Monday 4 April 2016

Fighting for the Library

Here is a heartening story of a community resisting the closure of a much-loved public library. The Carnegie in Herne Hill - one of some 550 in Britain built with money donated by the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie - is a handsome building, inside and out, the very model of a golden-age public library: you can take a look around it here. Lambeth Council's plan is, they say, to close the library temporarily in order to transform it into, and reopen it as, a 'healthy living centre' (Lord save us). How they could do this without gutting and thereby ruining the original building (does it look like a potential 'healthy living centre' to you?) I have no idea. Nor do I see how such a move could 'generate savings'. The protestors, who are driven by a genuine affection for a highly-valued community resource, have made it very plain that they don't want a 'healthy living centre'; they want their library, as it is and where it is. I hope they win - and I'm sure Andrew Carnegie must be rolling in his grave.
 My own local library suffered a similar fate, but in a different form. The library building - a very charming specimen of Edwardian 'Queen Anne' - was sold off, and the library relocated into an expanded Leisure Centre, where it has the air of a face-saving afterthought, sharing space with the swimming pool, gym and indoor sports hall, and seeming pretty insignificant in that loud and sweaty environment. Nowadays 'healthy living', it seems, trumps the life of the mind.

Saturday 2 April 2016

A Funeral

Sadly, as we get older, we find ourselves attending more and more funerals. Back in the day, you knew pretty much what to expect at a funeral - it would be structured around some version of the prayer book service, with familiar hymns, readings, maybe a single eulogy - but now we live in more avowedly secular times, and you never know quite what to expect, except that it will be, above all else, a 'celebration of the life'. Personally, I have reservations about this approach (it seems to me that time-honoured religious language - not necessarily belief - offers the best and surest way of addressing the facts of death and grief and uniting the living with the 'great majority'), but a secular funeral can indeed be a moving and rather wonderful thing.
 So it was with the funeral we attended yesterday - that of an old walking friend, who had died in his sleep, just short of his 72nd birthday. I knew him as a genial companion, a gentle soul - and a happy one, despite much sadness in his life - but what I hadn't realised was just how big a Bob Dylan fan he was (I wish I'd known; we could have beguiled many a weary mile with Dylan talk). After the entrance music, Turn! Turn! Turn!, sung by Judy Collins - not a Dylan song, of course - it was Dylan all the way. Following a succession of heartfelt eulogies came the most intensely moving part of the service - a recording of one of his daughters singing, very beautifully, Lay Down Your Weary Tune.
 This is a pretty obscure Dylan song, initially rejected from The Times They Are A Changin' and only surfacing in 1985 on the Biograph compilation. In the meanwhile, though, it had been covered by The Byrds - on the Turn! Turn! Turn! album, in fact - and it was from this version that I half-knew the song. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. When he wrote it, Dylan was (he says) trying to re-create the feel of a Scottish folk song, and it is indeed very 'folky', the verses written in common measure (lines of four feet and three feet alternating). It is also a song deeply imbued with religion, with biblical cadences and the feel of a hymn or psalm. Indeed it has been called 'one of the greatest theological songs since King David composed his psalms' - which is pushing it a bit, but it is a wonderful song, and, given the right performance, deeply moving. The Byrds' version was judged inferior and shoddy at the time, but it still sounds pretty marvellous to me - here's the link; judge for yourself.
 Meanwhile, back at the funeral - my friend's (or his daughters') masterstroke was to end with Maggie's Farm as everyone left the (packed) chapel. It sounds ridiculous, but it was very him,  and it worked perfectly. Everyone came out into the spring sunshine with a smile on their face - just as he, that genial soul, would have wanted.

Radio Choice

Don't miss tonight's Archive On 4 (Radio 4, 8pm), in which one Bryan Appleyard tackles the dangerous cult of optimism and speaks up for good old English pessimism. I hope it includes a snatch of Half Man Half Biscuit's The Light at the End of the Tunnel...