Friday 29 July 2016

The 51st Shade of Grey?

This report of an albino squirrel in a Sussex garden caught my eye today, not least because we've had one visiting - or quite possibly resident in - our (Surrey) garden for several weeks now. Needless to say, it eludes all my efforts to get a picture of it, but it's there pretty much every day, often in company with an ordinarily grey squirrel. They seem to get on fairly well, at least as long as there's plenty for both of them to scavenge - which there usually is, what with all the bird feeders and the detritus falling from them.
 If the figure for albinism in squirrels - 1 in 100,000 - is correct, there are only around 25 albinos in the UK at any one time. In that case, they must all be living in Surrey - apart from the Sussex albino in the BBC report. I've seen them recently in two local parks, and this 2009 piece (also from the BBC News website) lists many other Surrey sightings. What it doesn't mention is that back in the Sixties there was a thriving colony of white squirrels in Beddington Park. There was some debate over whether they were true albinos - some had dark eyes - but they were so numerous as to be almost commonplace. That colony died out, but albino squirrels have never gone away - at least in Surrey. Is it something in the water?

Thursday 28 July 2016

Dutch Flowers

Here's a link to something I wrote for the website of Freddie's Flowers, whose bouquets are truly rather wonderful - indeed they'd make rather good paintings...

Tuesday 26 July 2016

All Souls

What with all these butterflies, I realise that I haven't written about a book for quite a while now. It isn't that I haven't been reading, rather that I've been having to read a lot of books for review (in that excellent magazine Literary Review, since you ask). However, one book I have managed to read recently for my own pleasure was Javier Marias's All Souls.
 Reading A Heart So White gave me an appetite for more, so I moved on to one of his slightly earlier novels, All Souls. The Penguin edition of this comes emblazoned with two wildly misleading review quotations: 'Probably the wittiest novel set in British academia since David Lodge's Changing Places' (Daily Mail) and 'A dazzling example of the Oxford novel' (TLS). A dazzling example of the Marias novel perhaps, but anyone expecting a witty campus comedy is in for a few surprises.
 There is some acute observation of Oxford's curious ways by Marias's narrator - a visiting Spanish academic, detached and mildly bewildered - and there's one comic set piece, an account of a high table dinner descending into chaos, that owes more to Tom Sharpe than David Lodge. A couple of other scenes use the grammar of comedy, but not really for comic effect. For the rest, this is a ruminative tale of time and memory, love and death - of 'all souls', dead and alive - centred on the narrator's two-year stay in Oxford, his rather desultory love affair with a married woman, and his obsession with an obscure author (who actually existed, and two black-and-white photographs of whom are embedded in the text, Sebald-style).
 As with A Heart So White, Marias builds his narrative out of elements that initially seem quite unrelated, even irrelevant, but which feed back into the story as it develops, with all the relations between them revealed by the end. It's a clever and intriguing way of writing a novel, but I didn't find All Souls quite as clever or as intriguing as A Heart So White; it didn't seem to have as much depth, there wasn't quite as much going on. But never mind: they say Marias is an author whose quality can't really be judged by a single work, as many of the novels resonate with each other, even sharing characters and situations. I'm certainly going to read more of him (indeed my current bedtime reading includes his little book of biographical sketches - or glimpses - of authors, Written Lives). I've got the Marias bug.
 By the way, there's more about Marias on a fascinating blog called Vertigo, which has the works of W.G. Sebald as its core interest but ranges far beyond them.

Monday 25 July 2016

And the Hairstreaks Just Keep On Coming...

I apologise for returning so soon to the subject of Hairstreaks - though perhaps I shouldn't, as my White-Letter post is attracting surprisingly high numbers. Have I flushed out a hitherto unsuspected Hairstreak cult? Could it be those Norwegians?
 Be that as it may, I must report that today I had another Hairstreak encounter. This time it was the oak-loving Purple Hairstreak, and the encounter was hard-won, unlike the glorious surprise of that White-Letter Hairstreak last week. I was on Mitcham Common, where the extensive 'rough' of the golf course has become something of a butterfly haven. This afternoon - which was not very sunny or warm - the rough was alive with Small Coppers (of which I'd seen very few this year) and Small/Essex Skippers, and a few Marbled Whites were flying, as well as my first Brown Argus of the year (last year I'd seen dozens by this stage). The usual Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets were everywhere too, and the whole area was a butterfly lover's delight.
 While not enjoying these grassland beauties, I was scanning every oak tree - they are dotted and clumped all over Mitcham Common - in the hope of spotting a Purple Hairstreak. This is rarely easy: though the Purple Hairstreak isn't quite as elusive as the White-Letter, it does prefer to spend most of its time in the treetops, making only occasional short flights and seldom descending to ground level or even eye level. It's been several years since I saw one.
 After much oak-scanning I thought I'd spotted one in flight about two-thirds of the way up a tree, but it disappeared too soon for me to have a chance of positively identifying it. Some while later, while peering into a rather larger oak, I caught sight of something silvery flying out of the neighbouring (or rather contiguous) lime tree and settling on a spray of oak about eight feet from the ground. Squinting up through the leaves, I found it. It had settled, wings folded, on the stem of a leaf, and there was no mistaking that hairstreaked underwing - this was the Purple cousin of my heart-stopping White-Letter and the Greens of the spring. It seemed to have settled down for a rest in its sheltered position, and clearly had no intention of opening its wings - so I never found out whether it was male or female. But I had found my Purple Hairstreak, and after a while I went on my way rejoicing.
 It seems this is after all going to be my Year of the Hairstreak. Though I'm not likely to make it to the Oxfordshire stronghold of the very rare Black Hairstreak, I am in with a chance of seeing all four of my Surrey hairstreaks. If, that is, I can find a Brown this year. Watch this space later in the summer.

Into the Woods

The other day I was in the National Gallery (top tip: it's the best place to escape the London heat - perfect temperature control and great art wherever you look) and went to have a look at George Shaw's punningly titled new exhibition, My Back to Nature. I've liked Shaw ever since I first saw his extraordinary paintings of the Coventry housing estate - Tile Hill - where he grew up. He paints not with oils but with Humbrol enamel paint - the stuff we boys used to paint our Airfix kits with - which must present mind-boggling technical challenges; and he's habitually painted on sheets of MDF, but for this exhibition, in deference to his surroundings and his inspirations, he has switched to canvas.
 Shaw has been working at the National Gallery as an 'associate artist' for two years, free to roam the galleries at all hours and work in a studio within the building. The pictures in My Back to Nature are painted in response to works on the gallery walls - notably the three great Titian Diana paintings, and works by Poussin, Bellini (The Assassination of St Peter Martyr), Crivelli (The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels) and Constable (Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds). Shaw's subject matter, however, remains firmly rooted in the urban edgelands that are his spiritual home - in this case, a patch of scruffy urban woodland, strewn with rubbish and strange abandoned objects.
 These woodland scenes, meticulously painted, are imbued with mystery, magic and possibility - just as such places are in reality, or seemed to us in our early years, when urban woodland was a private place of secrets, transgressions, initiations. The pictures are all empty of people (with one exception, The Call of Nature, which depicts the artist urinating against a tree - his back to nature indeed) and many have the sense of something interrupted, of people or presences having just left, perhaps lurking somewhere out of sight (most strikingly in The Heart of the Wood, below). They have resonant titles that chime intriguingly with the mundane subject matter: The School of Love (title from Coreggio) is a grubby abandoned mattress, The Old Master depicts a tree with a crude cock-and-balls sprayed on it and The Old Country a tree with a decidedly anatomical cleft, Natural Selection shows pages from porn mags scattered at the foot of a tree (other porn litter is depicted under the titles The Lost and The Tossed - Shaw likes a joke).
 All this talk of pornography and litter might suggest that Shaw's paintings are exercises in gritty dirty realism, but they project something much bigger, more ambitious and more potent than that, something that has much to do with the artist's long immersion in the Gallery's collections. Classical myth (especially metamorphoses) and Christian iconography imbue these pictures, setting up powerful resonances - and the extent to which Shaw has immersed himself in Christian imagery is emphasised dramatically in a remarkable series of drawings in which the artist assumed the positions of Christ in the traditional Stations of the Cross. The climax of the exhibition though is a set of three large canvases hung together - The Rude ScreenMöcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken (a line from the eighth song of Winterreise) and Every Brush Stroke Is Torn from My Body (a quotation from Tony Hancock's The Rebel). It's hard to convey the impact these paintings - and many others in the exhibition - make when you see them on the canvas. I can only suggest that you head for the Sunley Room at the National Gallery and see for yourself. My Back to Nature is on until the end of October.

Thursday 21 July 2016

White-Letter Day

Yesterday was a Summer day. A summer day too, of course - and a hot and sunny one - but also a day on which Mrs N and I have the care of the entirely adorable granddaughter with the seasonal name, Summer.
 We had had the traditional tub of ice cream outside the café at Nonsuch Mansion (Tudor Gothick, Jeffrey Wyatville, 1802-6) and were strolling along the woodland path back towards Cheam Park when a nondescript little brown butterfly flew down and settled a few yards in front of us. What could that be? I wondered idly (it was very hot). The little brown butterfly folded its wings and at that point I believe I audibly gasped. There was no mistaking those underwings, that fine white streak ending in a semblance of the letter W, the orange-and-black border, the little tail springing from the hindwing... My friends, it was a White-Letter Hairstreak!
This news might not mean much to some (many?) of you, but let me assure you - to see a White-Letter Hairstreak like this, on the ground, settled (and this one settled not once but twice, with a little flight in between) is something that very rarely happens. This is a butterfly that is content to spend its life in the tree tops - elm-tree tops - feeding on honeydew, making the odd jerky little flight (more of a hop really), and seldom showing itself at all to the human world below. The last time I saw one - a faded specimen that seemed to have lost the will to live - was half a century ago.
 Being an elm-dependent species, the White-Letter Hairstreak took a hit when Dutch elm disease struck, but fought back very successfully, adapting to hybrid elms and wych elm in the absence of the good old English tree. It could in fact be one of our most abundant butterflies - and yet your chances of ever seeing one are very low indeed. Serious butterfly watchers resort to binoculars to get a glimpse of the White-Letter Hairstreak as it pursues its treetop life (which seems dangerously close to 'twitching' to me). In Partick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles he describes standing with a White-Letter enthusiast in a public park in Ponders End, feeling self-conscious as he trained a telescope on a couple of scruffy hybrid elms in the hope of getting a glimpse of underwing. He did.
 Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory recalls, years after the event, a frustrating encounter with a White-Letter Hairstreak:
 'I remember one day when I warily brought my net close and closer to an uncommon Hairstreak that had daintily settled on a sprig. I could clearly see the white W on its chocolate-brown underside. Its wings were closed and the inferior ones were rubbing against each other in a curious circular motion - possibly producing some small, blithe crepitation pitched too high for a human ear to catch. I had long wanted that particular species and, when near enough, I struck. You have heard champion tennis players moan after muffing an easy shot... But that day nobody (except my older self) could see me shake out a piece of twig from an otherwise empty net and stare at a hole in the tartalan.'
 Truly an elusive butterfly to have escaped even the voracious net of Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Not Sickert

While I was in Derbyshire, my cousin and I crossed the border to spend a (grey) day in Sheffield, a city that is quite transformed - for the better - from the one I knew in the early Seventies. It was good to revisit the Graves Art Gallery (housed in a grand art deco / classical building), where I spent many a lunch hour browsing. The permanent collection is manageably small, with a particularly well chosen selection of British works from the early 20th century - among them the picture shown above, Homeward Bound, Rue St Remy, Dieppe, which I instantly identified as a Sickert. But it isn't: it's by one Sylvia Gosse, a name new to me, who was a friend, pupil, colleague, 'firm friend and guardian angel' of Sickert. She shared his fascination with the streets of Dieppe and other urban scenes, and her pictorial technique owed much to her master, to the point where her pictures were sometimes mistaken for his, even in their lifetimes.
Sylvia Gosse was the daughter of the eminent man of letters Sir Edmund Gosse and therefore extremely well connected. Her mother was a pupil of the painter Ford Madox Brown (Ford Madox Ford's grandfather), her uncle was Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema , and she was acquainted with most of the literary and artistic lions of her day. And yet her demeanour was shy, shrinking and self-effacing, and she was happy to remain in the background of the Camden Town, Fitzroy Street and London Group circles, with all of which she was closely associated. A portrait by Harold Gilman (below) conveys the retiring character of this considerable artist, who surely deserves to be better known. I'l be looking out for her - and remembering that what looks like a Sickert isn't always a Sickert...

Monday 18 July 2016

A Cavendish Monument

So, talking of 17th-century church monuments, these allegorical figures, carved with extraordinary, surely non-native skill, adorn the tomb of Ann Keighley (died 1627), wife of William Cavendish, the first Duke of Devonshire, in the church of St John the Baptist, Ault Hucknall. The church, near the Elizabethan prodigy house Hardwick Hall, is grander than might be expected for its remote location, but it is still a huge surprise to find monumental sculpture of this quality and in this stlye in a Derbyshire village church.
 The figures represent Modesty, Prudence, Love, Obedience and Piety, and they have evidently been knocked about a bit; three are headless. They look thoroughly Italian, as does the tomb on which they stand, which is topped by a kind of hipped roof from the corbels of which spring the five statues. Nothing much seems to be known about this extraordinary monument, and no names have (as far as I can find out) been suggested for its maker.
 By a quirk of history, this obscure village church also contains the tomb of the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived for many years in the care of the Cavendish family. His handsome tomb slab, with a Latin inscription celebrating his learning and renown, lies at the foot of Ann Keighley's monument. He died at Hardwick at the grand age of 91, kept fit (according to Aubrey) by much walking, the occasional game of (real) tennis, and, when he was sure no one was about, singing at the top of his voice.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

The Hum Sublime

This improvisation is so glorious I just had to share it with any who might not have come across it (with a tip of the hat to Jonathan Law).
As for me, I'm off to Derbyshire for a few days tomorrow. I hope to indulge my growing obsession with 17th-century church monuments while I'm there...

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Progressives Astonished Again

I was glad to hear that archaeologists, using a novel scanning technique involving lasers, have discovered that a large area of Sussex downland that is now wooded was farmed 'on an astonishing scale' before the Romans arrived and set about rubbishing the achievements of the people they were conquering.
 What has emerged so far is evidence of a managed farming collective 'on a very large scale' - and really we shouldn't be surprised; we've known for a long time that southern England exported quantities of grain to the Continent. I fancy that similar examination of many other southern English landscapes would yield similar results. And yet it always comes as a surprise: 'The degree of civilisation this implies is completely unexpected in this part of the world at this time - something closer to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians than the current view of prehistoric Britain.'
 Well, it's unexpected for two reasons, one being that virtually all accounts of pre-Roman civilisations were written by the conquering Romans, who were keen to present the indigenes as primitive savages (which can't have been the case: as Graham Robb points out, Gaul could never have been conquered so fast if it didn't already have a well developed road network). The other, deeper reason that these things continue to surprise is the sheer sticking power of the idea of Progress, of history proceeding inexorably in one direction. By this calculus, the longer ago people were living the more primitive they must have been, and the less 'civilised'. We retroprogressives, of course, don't look at things that way, and are pleased rather than surprised by discoveries  of how 'advanced' supposedly primitive civilisations were.
 We were not surprised either by the result of the recent EU referendum. The progressive idea of the Remainers that they were 'on the side of history' and that there could only be one reasonable outcome was clearly delusional. And yet many Remainers are still reeling, staggering around wild-eyed and wailing 'What happened?' Well, for any who actually want an answer to that question (and many of the wailers, I fear, don't), I'd recommend listening to a talk by the philosopher John Gray that was broadcast on Radio 4 this morning. Here's the link.

Saturday 9 July 2016

White Admiral, Black Bottle

Yes, another butterfly - but what's a chap to do at this time of year, when he knows the White Admirals and Silver-Washed Fritillaries are flying in the woodland rides (weather permitting)? Yesterday I took myself off to Bookham common in rather more hope than expectation. It was quite warm but cloudy, with a bit of a breeze, and the sun didn't break through once as I wandered for a couple of hours around the more promising parts of the common (and, for once, didn't get lost).
 My first sighting came after I'd decided to sit on a bench and read for a little while. As I got up, I glanced into the adjacent bramble patch - and there, within six feet of me, was the most beautiful fresh White Admiral quietly nectaring. This unexpected encounter with my favourite butterfly was the best possible start, and soon, as I strolled along, I was seeing more of these woodland beauties - mostly as I more usually see them, in flight, a flicker of white on dark, swooping and gliding, or powering along the margin of the ride. Those other, more showy power fliers, the Silver-Washed Fritillaries, were also in evidence, but in smaller numbers (for once) than the Admirals. I totted up 13 White Admirals (much better than last year) and five Silver-Washed Frits in this interlude of aurelian bliss, and travelled home a happy man.

On an entirely unrelated matter, regular readers might know that I have a weakness for Scotch whisky, the water of life. Finding it hard to justify indulging in single malts (unless they're on offer), I keep a beady eye on the blends available on the supermarket shelves. My recent researches have persuaded me that the standard Famous Grouse has declined steeply in quality, while Bell's has improved, Grant's sherry cask and ale cask blends are worth buying (especially if going cheap), the relaunched Johnnie Walker red label is not very good, and Teacher's, with its new peatier formula, has regained the crown as best-value everyday-drinking blend.
 And now there's a new, or rather relaunched, blend on the market - Gordon Graham's Black Bottle. This is not the Black Bottle of old, blended entirely from smoky Islay malts, but a more eclectic affair, aiming at something with a wider appeal. It's certainly distinctive, and not only for its traditionally shaped opaque bottle - no other supermarket blend tastes like this. How to describe it? Smooth, fruity, a bit spicy, with a heck of a lot of dark stuff going on - molasses, brown sugar, chocolate. I'm really not sure if I like it, but I've got a feeling I'll be back for more - and I'd recommend it to any habitual blend buyers looking for something different. Cheers!

Friday 8 July 2016

An Arts & Crafts Link

You might think of Carshalton Beeches (if you think of it at all) in terms of long characterless roads lined with 'half-timbered' detached houses - and you wouldn't be far wrong (though the effect is improved in places by abundant trees, notably Beeches). There is, however, one rare little gem of a house nestling in these unlikely surroundings, and I've been writing about it for Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. Here's the link...

Thursday 7 July 2016

Fred Neil: A Legacy

The singer-songwriter Fred Neil died 15 years ago today. Though he never made it commercially as a performer, he will always be remembered for at least two classic songs. One is the number that everyone thinks of as Nilsson's Everybody's Talkin' (just as we always think of Without You as Nilsson's song, rather than Badfinger's). The other is a song that reflects Fred Neil's passion for dolphin conservation, the cause for which he effectively gave up his musical career. I first heard Dolphins on Tim Buckley's Sefronia album, and can't help but think of it as Tim Buckley's Dolphins - it's certainly a song he was born to sing, a perfect vehicle for his extraordinary voice: here he is performing it on Old Grey Whistle Test (complete with Whispering Bob Harris intro). Dolphins was also put to brilliantly effective use in The Sopranos (the greatest TV drama ever made) - and this time it was not Buckley's but Fred Neil's own performance. Sad to reflect that Tim Buckley was dead of a heroin overdose a year after that OGWT performance.

Wednesday 6 July 2016


I spent yesterday afternoon - the sun having decisively come out, at last - taking a butterfly walk in the Surrey hills. I don't think I've ever known such a year for Marbled Whites - they were everywhere, too numerous to count, and a joy to see after so many damp, dismal, butterflyless days. The Ringlets too are having another great year, outnumbering the Meadow Browns (so far), and Speckled Woods continue to thrive. Small Heaths galore were flying, with Skippers Large and Small, and the odd Common Blue (the Blue resurgence is yet to come, with second broods and Chalkhills).
 What I was hoping to see, however, was the spectacular grassland specialist the Dark Green Fritillary - and I was rewarded by seeing one closer than I had ever experienced before. He (I think it was a male) suddenly appeared from nowhere, landed on a thistle a couple of yards away from me, paused just long enough for me to identify him, and then was off again, dashing away up the slope above and disappearing from view - these are strong fast fliers, very powerful. I think I might have seen a couple more, but only as speeding silhouettes hurtling away into the distance.
 Sunny again today. Summer seems to be back on track - hurrah!

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Wilbur's Toad

Not long ago, I posted a late poem by Philip Larkin that was occasioned by accidentally killing a hedgehog while mowing the lawn. Now I find that something similar happened to Richard Wilbur too. This time the hapless victim of the power mower was a toad, memorialised in a poem by Wilbur that manages to be at once acutely observant, genuinely touching and slightly absurd in its formal mock-heroic tone...


       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

 Some fifty years later, a schoolgirl on whose syllabus Death of a Toad had appeared wrote to the poet to find out more about the poem. He responded with a letter of wonderful generosity:

'Dear Penny,

I don't get letters like yours every day, and I wish I did. It makes me pleasantly dizzy to think of being read by 170,000 teachers for a week. In the long history of exposure, it beats even Gypsy Rose Lee.

Let me see what I can remember about the poem's inception. The poem was first published in Poetry (Chicago) in February of 1948, and that means that it was written during the lawn-mowing months of 1947. We (Charlee and I and our daughter Ellen) were then living in Cambridge, and I, having earned an MA at Harvard, was about to begin a three-year Junior Fellowship there. At some time during the summer, Charlee's cousins, the Tapleys, who lived in Wellesley Hills, invited us to look after their house and grounds while they went off on a vacation jaunt. We were happy to get out of the city, and the house was far bigger and airier than our Plympton Street apartment, and so the sojourn in Wellesley Hills was agreeable to us, even though we felt somewhat oppressed by what we perceived as the tepid gentility of the town.

Most of my poems are made out of accumulated thoughts and feelings and perceptions, and almost never does it happen that I have an experience and then go straight to a chair and write about it. But that's how it happened with "The Death of a Toad." Mowing the Tapley's suburban lawn one day, I mortally injured a toad, and before the day was out I had made that into a poem. Why did that occur? I think it was because I was young, and just out of military service, and spoiling to live, and felt, as I said before, oppressed by the safe, somnolent retirement-village atmosphere of Wellesley Hills; part of me identified, therefore, with the toad, and made me see the toad as representing the primal energies of the Earth, afflicted by the sprawl of our human dominion.

The first two lines of the third stanza are out to associate to toad with those "primal energies" -- and of course there is biological ground for doing so. The words are out to magnify the toad and at the same time to be disarming about that -- to acknowledge by an undertone of humor that I am making a great deal of a very small creature. My tonal ambiguity has worked for some readers but did not work, as I recall, for Randall Jarrell.

The poem has an ad hoc stanza form, created by the way the phrasing wanted to happen. It's scannable as a "loose iambic" poem in the metrical pattern 465543. I think that in '47 I was beginning to enjoy incorporating the six-foot line in some of my made-up stanzas; later I did so in a poem called "Beasts." The six-footer being very often a slow and awkward measure, it's a challenge to use it effectively, and in support of one's meaning.

Whether my toad actually took refuge under a cineraria or not, I can't say; but it had the right shape and shade of leaf for my poem. I recall, for some reason, that the first stanza originally ended "in a dim,/ Low, and an ultimate glade." That sounded too good to me, and I knew why when I remembered Poe's description of Dream-Land as "an ultimate dim Thule." In the first lines of the poem I imagined the declining sun as moving -- so setting suns may appear to do -- along the horizon, and that's what led me to use the verb "steer," which has given trouble to a number of my readers. Quite reasonably, some have seen in that word not a verb meaning "to pursue a course" but a noun meaning "a castrated animal." It's led me to consider, more than once, replacing "steer" with "veer."

Does that give you what you were after? Thank you for the news of Barbara and of the tearing-up of our lane in Key West, and our very best wishes to you,


 In the wake of Geoffrey Hill's death, it is deeply comforting to reflect that we still have a poet - and man - of Wilbur's calibre alive among us.

Sunday 3 July 2016

A Happy Return

My 'walking down in Kent' on Friday was walking with a purpose. I was looking for the enchanted place - enchanted in memory - where, six decades ago, my father and I wandered happily, nets in hands, amid a profusion of butterflies, where he introduced me to the various tribes and species, and a lifelong love of these bright beauties was planted in me. Could it still be there after all these years, that patch of waste land - slightly scrubby chalk downland - across an unmade road from a row of seaside cottages, with the shingle beach on one side and a fringe of woodland on the other? My expectations were low, but somehow my hopes were high...
 As I followed the coastal path into the village, the landscape became faintly familiar - and then came a double row of cottages on either side an unmade road leading down to the beach: surely one of these was our holiday home all those years ago? I remember it smelt of coal gas and damp and had to be aired on arrival, but I recall little else of those far-off holidays, apart from the beach and the butterflies and that patch of ground where I first came to know them.
 I walked on a little further, and there was another row of cottages, a single row on another unmade road, and facing it... the enchanted place! That patch of slightly scrubby chalk downland was still there, unspoilt, undeveloped - and preserved as an SSSI, a site of special scientific interest. It even had orchids now (I hesitate to identify the species), which I don't think were there in my boyhood. And as for the butterflies...
 The weather was overcast, quite cool, with a fresh wind and the odd spot of rain falling - not promising - but for all that, the whole space was alive with fresh and frisky Marbled Whites (my first of the year), while Meadow Browns and Ringlets bobbed up from the long grass, and a few Large Skippers perched on their vantage points. As I wandered about in a blissful mnemonic daze, I also spotted Common Blues, Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals - heaven knows what abundance of butterflies there must be on a hot and sunny day. I intend to return and find out soon, now that I know that my enchanted place is still there, still teeming with butterfly life, after all these years. My father would be glad.

Saturday 2 July 2016

A huge absence

I was walking down in Kent when I got the news of Geoffrey Hill's death. I suppose it should not have come as a surprise - he was 84 years old - but it still felt like some kind of blow, as if a mighty oak had fallen, leaving a huge absence and a strange silence. He was surely 'England's greatest living poet' (who is now? A question best left for another day, or none.)
May he rest in peace, and his work endure as it deserves.

Offertorium: December 2002

For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.