Tuesday 29 November 2016

From Bagpuss to 'an emergency of the too realized'

The adorable granddaughter Summer, being a three-year-old of taste and discernment, is a big fan of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's classic creation Bagpuss. Yesterday we were watching the very first episode, the tale of a ship in a bottle - or rather a shipwreck in a bottle, which is repaired and restored to ship shape by means of a little Bagpuss magic and music.
It put me in mind of a Kay Ryan poem, which I pass on with a tip of the hat to the incomparable Dave Lull...

Ship in a Bottle

It seems
not just a
ship in a
bottle but
wind and sea.
The ship starts
to struggle—an
emergency of the
too realized we
realize. We can 
get it out but
not without
spilling its world.
A hammer tap
and they’re free.
Which death
will it be,
little sailors?

No one shakes things up quite like Kay Ryan, and in so few, so precisely placed words.

Monday 28 November 2016


Because it's his birthday (born on this day in 1912), and because he isn't represented in the Royal Academy's AbEx exhibition, here's a splash of Morris Louis colour to start the week.
It's called Point of Tranquility...

Saturday 26 November 2016

Dr Gully: Stuff and Passion

Having found so much to enjoy in Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare, I've been seeking out her other novels, with limited success (this really is a very nearly forgotten novelist). I've just finished reading Dr Gully, which I found in a 1976 Penguin edition (published price 45p!). This is a fictionalised biography - or, more accurately, a fact-bound novel - that takes as its subject the eminent Victorian physician (and psychic researcher) James Manby Gully, who, towards the end of his life, became unwittingly embroiled in the sensational, and still unsolved, Charles Bravo murder.
 The most striking aspect of Jenkins' novel is that there is no mention of Charles Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself - and the ensuing inquests - don't happen until the closing chapters. This is all, as it were, back story. Charles Bravo doesn't even feature as a speaking or active character and is only heard of indirectly. That is how tightly focused the novel is on Gully's feelings and experiences. It is a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, clearly charismatic man with a mesmeric presence - a man whose spell the author herself seems to have fallen under.
 The essential action (as against plot) of the novel is embodied in the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and a beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo. She is trapped in a deeply unhappy mariage blanc with a hopeless alcoholic, while Gully is shackled by a defunct marriage to an older woman from whom he long ago parted but who is still alive. The course of the superficially unlikely romance between Florence and Gully is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable, and we follow its vicissitudes with real emotional involvement.
 Elizabeth Jenkins is not one of those rare novelists who don't so much write about the past as effortlessly inhabit it (think Penelope Fitzgerald). Rather she works her way in by building a world rich in abundant and intricate detail, a world of stuff - furniture, textiles, dresses, hats, coats, carriages, lamps, curtains, medications, mourning dress, stationery, wallpapers, toiletries, jewellery, wash stands, all the equipment of opulent upper-middle-class Victorian life. Jenkins not only tells you about these things, she often tells you which suppliers they came from - and you can be sure the information is accurate; this is a diligently researched book.
 In less skilled hands, this would be tiresome, but here it is essential to the writer's purpose, conveying the oppressive world of stuff - and servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping - in which the principal characters are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is giving nothing away to say that this affair is ultimately doomed, and that in the end Florence Ricardo becomes Mrs Charles Bravo. By then she has parted decisively from Gully, and we have only indirect knowledge of what is going on in her life. Gully is now a helpless observer, looking on as the terrible climactic events unfold...
 After the parting of the lovers, a good deal of the heat goes out of the story, and it unfolds in a different manner, closer to a more conventional kind of true-crime historical fiction. This, however, is interesting enough in itself, and Gully's piecing-together of the events that led to Charles Bravo's death is entirely plausible. What is less satisfactory is the near-sentimentality of some of the final scenes, in which Jenkins seems almost besotted with her creation, her James Gully. She might have done better to end on a sharper, more ambivalent note. That said, though, this remains a very fine exercise in making a persuasive and involving fiction out of a mass of factual material. If you can get hold of it, do give it a try.
 (The picture above shows Dr Gully with the materialised spirit known as 'Katie King'.)

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Ardizzone in the House of Illustration

Today I visited the House of Illustration, a new(ish - est. 2014) gallery devoted to the art of illustration. It's on Granary Square, part of the rather wonderful regeneration of the former post-industrial wasteland around King's Cross and St Pancras.
 The House of Illustration has an exhibition on (until 22 January) of works by the great illustrator Edward Ardizzone. I've always loved his work - since childhood, in fact - so this was a must-see, and it did not disappoint. There's a good range of work on show - drawings, watercolours, pen and ink, etchings, lithographs - representing his career as book illustrator, war artist, observer of the passing scene, and 'commercial artist'. In addition there are several of his delightful illustrated letters to friends and family, and a video in which Shirley Hughes, Quentin Blake and others pay tribute to Ardizzone, a man who seems to have been every bit as genial as his art would suggest.
 Ardizzone is a rare example of a cheering artist, one whose works often make you smile and always make you feel that bit better about being alive in this world. Even a picture of a burial party interring corpses - On the Road to Tripoli: A Cup of Tea for the Burial Party (one of his war paintings) - is more about the tommies enjoying their cup of tea than the grisly business they are engaged in. On the other hand there are a couple of war paintings, large watercolours, that are almost bleak - A Battery Position in an Orchard of Young Fruit Trees in the Snow and A Drunken Dutchman in a Street in Bremen, a sad, lone figure in an entirely blasted townscape. Nothing could be further from Ardizzone's usual happy drunks enjoying themselves - and occasionally fighting, especially the women - in the English pubs he loved (see, and enjoy, his illustrations for The Local, a book by Maurice Gorham, who also commissioned much of Ardizzone's work for the Radio Times).
 It's easy to undervalue illustrators and rank them far below 'real' artists - a good reason in itself to have a dedicated gallery like the House of Illustration - but a close look at the pictures in this exhibition leaves no doubt of Ardizzone's extraordinary ability. His use of cross-hatching, in particular, to create the most subtle gradations of tone and depth is quite prodigious, as is his all-round facility as a draughtsman. His rounded forms and broken lines suggest the influence of Rowlandson, his heavier lines and deeper shading recall Daumier, and there is something Baroque about the composition of his more complex pictures - but Ardizzone was himself from the start, instantly recognisable, instantly cheering. He brought something very special to the art of illustration, entering fully into the spirit of the book and creating real, complete pictures, with real depth, rather than just decoration. His art will outlast many of those books - indeed, it already has.
 As I wandered round this exhibition, I was delighted to find two girl students copying some of the pictures - and copying them so well Ardizzone would surely have approved. It's good to know that some students at least are still learning to draw.

Monday 21 November 2016

The Hon. F.S. Jackson, Cricketer Extraordinaire

Born on this day in 1870 was Yorkshire and England cricketer Stanley Jackson - or, to give him his full name and honorifics, Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, PC. As that list of initials hints, Jackson was a man of many parts, and he had quite a life.
 At Harrow, Jackson was a friend of the future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and had another one, Winston Churchill, as his fag. At Cambridge, he took the brilliant but unconventional batsman Ranijitsinjhi under his wing, getting him into the University First XI and ensuring that he won his Blue, all in the teeth of considerable racially-motivated opposition. Jackson played in the successful Yorkshire sides of the turn of the 20th century, scoring 1,000 runs each season and achieving the double (1,000 runs and 100 wickets) twice - all this despite his other commitments, mostly to do with his political career. These commitments also prevented him touring with England, but he played in 20 Tests (a record for a player who never toured) and was captain in 1905, retaining the Ashes.
 Jackson served in the Second Boer War and later became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was elected an MP in 1915, and served as Financial Secretary to the War Office. Then, in 1927, he was appointed Governor of Bengal, knighted with a GCIE and made a Privy Councillor. In 1932, while giving a speech in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta, he was shot at five times with a pistol by a revolutionary nationalist. Showing that he hadn't lost his sportsman's reflexes, Jackson ducked and sidestepped all five bullets and, before the smoke had cleared, coolly resumed his speech, to admiring cheers.
 Jackson died back in London in 1947. Looking back on his funeral, the Bishop of Knaresborough recalled, 'As I gazed down on the rapt faces of that vast congregation, I could see how they revered him as though he was the Almighty - though, of course, infinitely stronger on the leg side.'

Saturday 19 November 2016

Tackling AbEx

My taste for Abstract Expressionism having been revived by my recent visit to the Guggenheim in Venice, I was inevitably going to visit the Royal Academy's blockbuster exhibition sooner or later. I reckoned I was feeling strong enough to face twelve rooms of AbEx yesterday, so off I went to Burlingon House - where I was delighted to find a complete absence of queues (if they'd managed to get Monet into the title - From Monet to Pollock? - it would have been a different story).
 For a blockbuster, this one was pleasingly uncrowded, with little or no jostling and clear views of the paintings, both close up and at a distance (often the better option with some of these vast canvases). It's a high-impact exhibition of mostly high-impact, large-scale works, and the overall effect can accurately be described as stunning.  Though it was interesting, enlightening even, to see so much Abstract Expressionism in one place, I was left wondering if it's the kind of art that lends itself to display on such a massive scale.
 Is a roomful of Jackson Pollocks more or less impressive than a few, carefully selected and hung? I'd say, on the evidence of the roomful at the RA, decidedly less. I'm happy to regard Pollock as a great artist (not Titian great, not Rembrandt great, but modern great), but paintings that are so assertive, so densely busy, so fizzing with energy are hard to take en masse and can too easily feel more like an assault than an aesthetic experience. And Pollock's are among the best paintings in the exhibition - lesser works in these circumstances can seem strenuous, inspissated, melodramatically gestural, almost comic (I must admit I was sometimes wearing a not entirely appropriate smile as I toured the rooms).
 Rothko - of whose greatness I have no doubts - does not come out of this exhibition as well as he should have done. Some very fine examples of his mature work have been gathered, but hanging them in the central hall - a space open on four sides, where all routes through the other rooms meet - does them no favours. Rothkos need an enclosed, peaceful, womb-like space to bring out their mysterious beauty - and they need carefully modulated, dimmish light. The central gallery is less brightly lit than the rest of the exhibition, but it's not a good Rothko light.
 So, what did I get out of this exhibition, and why am I glad that I girded my loins and tackled it? Certainly a new appreciation of Arshile Gorky (who gets a room to himself), whose Water of the Flowery Mill [below] struck me as a very beautiful painting indeed (and one which, like all such brushy, juicy, textured work, does not reproduce well). Then there was Willem de Kooning, who is abundantly represented here and whose works I studied with some care. I thought I didn't much care for De Kooning, but the more I saw of him here the more I realised that it was just a case of having come across too many De Koonings of the kind I don't like - the more angry, slashing, grotesque stuff - and too little of the rest. I stood long and happily in front of the glorious, quasi-pastoral Villa Borghese [above] and Untitled (1961) - such colours, such plenitude of light and air, such a relief after the claustrophobia and relentless tension of other De Koonings.
 A good deal of this exhibition left me cold - Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, even Clyfford Still. I was hoping there might be rather less rigour and absolutism, rather more colour for the heck of it, perhaps a bit of Morris Louis, some more decorative Helen Frankenthalers... Abstract Expressionism ends well, though, with a room of late works that includes a vast, light-filled four-canvas mural by Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, a kind of leave-taking from the movement ('Tom' was the critic Thomas B. Hess, an early champion of Abstract Expressionism). And there are two glorious late De Koonings - ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled V (1976). These sent me on my way weary and dazed but convinced that, in the end, I had seen some very fine art.

Thursday 17 November 2016

The Bright Wake: Adam Nicolson's Homer

Reading in bed is one of the great simple pleasures of life, but bedtime reading has to be chosen with care. Topping my bedside pile recently was Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, and this was not a good choice. Not because it's not good - it's brilliant - but because it was almost too good, certainly too intellectually stimulating, and it was too big; short books, or ones that divide themselves easily into smaller units, are better for bedtime. As a result, I took far too long to read it - but I have finally done so, and must report that I found it the most illuminating, exciting study of Homer I've ever read.
 Nicolson sets out to answer two linked questions: Where does Homer come from, and Why does Homer matter? He immediately declares his own conviction that the accepted dating of 'Homer' is wrong, that the Iliad had its origins in a period 1,000 years before the standard eighth-century BC date, at a time when the semi-nomadic, hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppe first came into contact with the sophisticated, authoritarian city-and-palace culture of the eastern Mediterranean. It's a case that he argues convincingly in the course of the book, and it certainly seems to explain a lot about that strange and bloody epic.
 Nicolson's great strength, though, is in conveying the sheer thrill of discovering Homer - which is not necessarily the same thing as reading him: Nicolson had 'done' Homer at school, but it was many years later, after the decidedly Homeric experience of sailing a 40ft ketch through a violent storm, that Homer first came home to him, in a blaze of revelation. 'I knew that this was the human spirit on fire, rapidity itself, running, going and endlessly able to throw off little sidelights like the sparks thrown off by the wheels of an engine hammering through the night. Speed, scale, violence, threat; but every spark with humanity in it.'
 What follows is a journey through Homer that is at once literary, historical, topographic, archaeological, ethnographic and intensely personal. It's a dazzling performance,  in the course of which Nicolson covers a lot of ground, in every sense - and a lot of sea, so essential to understanding Homer's world. His conclusion? 'Homer is not Greek; he is the light shining in the world. He provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to these questions; he merely dramatised their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.' As I closed this extraordinary book, I could only agree, and marvel.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Keaton Walks

The publicity blitz for the new Harry Potter spin-off film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has been so relentless that I keep accidentally catching interviews about it, usually with its star, Eddie 'Rubberlips' Redmayne. What is always mentioned in these interviews, as an index of Rowling's all-round wonderfulness, is her direction that Redmayne's character, Newt Scamander, has a 'Buster Keaton walk'.
What, I wondered, is that? Nothing so instantly identifiable as a Charley Chaplin walk, that's for sure. Keaton's various walks are subtly nuanced and adapt themselves to circumstances - is there really a single Buster Keaton walk? I suppose there is, but it doesn't often last long in the same register. So I thought I'd have a look on You Tube. A search for 'Buster Keaton walking' yielded this little gem, which I pass on for your enjoyment, and as a reminder of Keaton's rare kinaesthetic genius.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Talking Cricket with the Giant

The other day I learnt that the world record for session-drinking - one not recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, despite its branding - is held by the gigantic pro wrestler (and occasional film actor) André the Giant. André (né André René Roussimoff) was reported to have downed 156 beers (each of 16 US fl oz/ 470ml) in one sitting, and he came close to that figure on several other occasions. But André also has his place among the lesser footnotes of literary history...
  In the 1950s, Samuel Beckett bought a plot of land in a hamlet northeast of Paris, where he built a small house with the help of a local called Boris Roussimoff, who became a friend and card-playing partner. Boris was André's father, and by the time André was 12 he had already grown too big to be taken to school on the school bus. Beckett volunteered to drive the young giant to school in his truck, and did so daily for some while.
 What did the great writer and the young wrestler-to-be talk about in these surreal scenarios? According to Boris, they talked almost entirely of cricket (Beckett is famously the only Nobel literature laureate to have featured in Wisden). Some, however, have imagined other conversations between the two...

Monday 14 November 2016

Leon Russell

And the deaths just keep on coming... Now it's Leon Russell who has gone to join the great celestial jam session, having died in his sleep at the age of 74.
 Russell was a massively talented musician who could do just about anything - songwriting, performing, producing, arranging, mentoring, playing sessions, managing the practicalities (he pulled together the epic Mad Dogs and Englishmen phenomenon out of the wreckage of Joe Cocker's Grease Band). He worked with everyone, from Phil Spector to Elton John, B.B. King to George Harrison, the Beach Boys to Bob Dylan (that's his piano on Watching the River Flow and When I Paint My Masterpiece).  He wrote A Song for You, which has been covered by more than 100 artists, and was universally revered by his fellow musicians - a supreme example of the 'musician's musician'.
 Leon Russell and the Shelter People was one of the albums of my misspent youth - I still have the played-to-death vinyl LP. I have only to hear the opening bars of Stranger in a Strange Land and I'm back in 1971. Here's a link...
 Those days are gone - Eheu fugaces labuntur anni - and now so is Leon Russell. RIP.

Saturday 12 November 2016

'A traveller with the moon's halo above him...'

Talking of Godfathers of Gloom (see 'RIP', below), I was reading R.S. Thomas last night. The Bard of Bleakness certainly deserves his craggy and forbidding reputation - nobody has written better of life's fierce rigours and God's stubborn absence. However, when, on occasion, a shaft of light penetrates the Cambrian gloom, it shines all the brighter for its rarity. As here -


Not conscious
    that you have been seeking
    you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
          dust free
    with no road out
but the one you came in by.

        A bird chimes
    from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
    you know. The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
    as you are, a traveller
          with the moon's halo
    above him, who has arrived
    after long journeying where he
          began, catching this
    one truth by surprise 
that there is everything to look forward to.

Friday 11 November 2016


We cannot let this day pass without discovering what Donovan makes of it all. Here is his official tribute to LC - and now we know what cologne he favoured...

Donovan Tribute to Leonard Cohen
I join the many tributes today for the passing on of the Great Poet Leonard Cohen.
Leonard once said he would be remembered only as a minor Poet of the Mid Twentieth Century. This is characteristic of Leonard’s understated humour. Leonard is a major Poet and we hail his body of work this day!
Last October just passed I was in Berkley California at the home studio of our friend Mandy Aftel, admiring a painting of Leonards, a recent gift to Mandy from Leonard. The gift in praise of Mandy’s Natural Fragrance blending, which Leonard loved to wear.
In the London of the Sixties, Leonards first album was ‘de rigueur' in every young artistic girl and boys flat.
I stayed at Leonard’s Greek house on Hydra one summer and knew that Leonard was from the Classical Poetic Tradition, with a special love of the work of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Thank you Leonard for being a champion of Poetry and encouraging all Poets to excel in this Dark Age of Unreason and Uncertainty!


So now it's RIP Leonard Cohen, who at least lived to a ripe old age, and seems to have died happy. I fancy he always was (well, reasonably so) - I never bought into the 'Godfather of Gloom' stuff; so many of his songs are full of self-deprecating humour and delight in the pleasures of life. I'm Your Man, my favourite among his albums, would surely make anyone smile. In a way it's a pity Cohen didn't pip Dylan to the Nobel - he was, after all, a poet who started singing his poems, unlike the songwriting genius Bob.
Which track to play? I've opted for this one, which somehow seems fitting. It's adapted from a poem by Cavafy, which itself took its inspiration from Antony and Cleopatra. I rate it one of Cohen's most beautiful songs.

Thursday 10 November 2016

Sutch Is Life

Talking of electoral matters, David 'Screaming Lord' Sutch was born on this day in 1940. Sutch, an eccentric rock'n'roller and self-publicist, stood in forty-odd parliamentary by-elections, invariably losing his deposit - though he once beat the candidate of the Continuing Social Democratic Party, shortly before the SDP collapsed (Sutch subsequently offered the leadership of his National Teenage Party to David Owen). Several of Sutch's National Teengage Party policies later became law - votes at 18, passports for pets, all-day pub opening - but his principal aim was to get noticed. With his trademark top hat and rosette-covered leopardskin jacket, he was indeed unmissable on stage when the results were called out.
 As a musician, Sutch can be generously seen as a goth-horror/ shock-rock pioneer, his stage act involving coffins, knives and daggers, fake blood, skulls and offal. Joe Meek saw enough promise in him to produce a single, but Sutch was never more than a cult act. On the other hand, he was amazingly well connected and could spot talent, giving early opportunities to the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Noel Redding and Nicky Hopkins. All of these performed on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, which has a reputation as one of the worst ever made (I'm not going to check). His follow-up album, released as Hands of Jack the Ripper, featured (among others) Ritchie Blackmore, Matthew Fisher and Keith Moon - none of whom knew they were being recorded.
 And where was this legendary album recorded? According to Wikipedia and every other source I can find, at the 'Carshalton Park Rock'n'Roll Festival'. Eh? I must have missed that, though I was living on the edge of that very park right through the Sixties. Does anyone know or remember anything of this 'festival'? Malty? Were you there?

Concluding unscientific postscript

Next time there's a big vote, will the pollsters and pundits be taken as seriously as ever, despite their laughably bad record? They have now got three big ones in a row completely wrong: the 2015 general election, Brexit and Trump. Apart (perhaps) from the 2010 general election fudge, they haven't got anything right since Blair's easily predictable victories - and before that they called the 1992 election (which John Major won with the biggest vote in British electoral history) completely wrong.
There's a pattern here, isn't there? A tendency to over-represent the more leftist/ politically correct/ status quo-ist opinion. I don't suppose this is intentional, but something is clearly going very wrong, and unless they fix it the pollsters and pundits have surely forfeited any right to be taken seriously next time.
 But they will be, we may be sure of that.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Don't Panic!

Anyone remember this from 1980? That was how it felt when Reagan was elected - and yet he turned out to be the greatest US President of the postwar period. That's the thing with Presidents - you don't know what you've got till they stop being candidates and take up office. Chin up, eh?

Tuesday 8 November 2016

But meanwhile...

here's something to keep us entertained while we await the result.

Who Will Win (if anyone)?

With the fate of the Free World hanging in the balance, all eyes naturally turns to Old Nige to discover who's going to win this US Election thing. On this occasion Old Nige can only scratch his hoary head and offer an uncharacteristically hesitant prediction. I think there is still a chance of a Trump win (as I've felt all along), but G-man Comey's speed-reading of 650,000 emails in nine days might just have snatched it back for Hillary. Here's what I fear might happen: La Clinton wins the White House, Trump wins the popular vote. This would be just about the worst possible outcome - more a case of everybody losing than anyone really winning - so let's hope I'm wrong. It's not unknown...

Monday 7 November 2016

A Hero's Life: Bernard Freyberg

The first time the name of Bernard Freyberg registered with me was when I was admiring this rather beautiful building on Wellington's Oriental Bay - the Freyberg Pool. A placard nearby gave some information on the Freyberg in whose honour the pool was named, and the more I read the more amazed I was at his life and achievements - and at my own ignorance of them. Then I read in the paper yesterday that a blue plaque has been unveiled on his childhood home in Richmond, Surrey - unveiled on the exact centenary of his winning the Victoria Cross.
 Freyberg won the VC for his role in the battle of the Somme, leading his battalion - from the front, under heavy machine-gun fire, and repeatedly - in the capture of Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre, then refusing to leave the battlefield until he had issued final instructions to his men, despite having been wounded four times. When he won the VC, Freyberg already had a DSO to his name, won for swimming to shore and lighting flares to distract the Turkish army during the Gallipoli landings. He returned safely, under heavy fire, from that sortie, but went on to take a total of nine wounds during his First War service, the worst from a shell exploding at his feet. He also gained two more DSOs. His love of action and ability to survive 'mid shot and shell later earned him the nickname 'Salamander'.
 Freyberg rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming the youngest general officer in the British Army, and his career continued to thrive between the wars, but in 1937 he was obliged to retire on health grounds. This, however, was not the end of the story, as he returned to active service in the Second War, commanding the Allied forces in the battle of Crete and going on to lead the 2nd New Zealand division through the North African and Italian campaigns, picking up more severe wounds along the way, and yet another DSO. He was well liked by the Kiwis who served under him, both for his personal courage and for his concern with their welfare - and he even managed to have a good relationship with Montgomery.
 After the war, Freyberg accepted an invitation to become Governor General of New Zealand, and was garlanded with more honours, including the title of Baron. After his term as Governor-General, he returned to England, taking up residence in the Norman gateway of Windsor Castle, where he was Deputy Constable and Lieutenant-Governor. He died in 1963 from one his many war wounds, and is buried along with his wife and son in the churchyard of St Martha on the Hill, a beautifully sited old church near Guildford (about which Martin Tupper, author of the Victorian bestseller Proverbial Philosophy, wrote a very bad poem, Old St Martha's).
 Why was that Wellington pool named after him? Freyberg had in his youth been a powerful swimmer, twice winning the New Zealand 100-yards championship. He was also a registered dentist, is thought to have fought in the Mexican civil war, and probably had a spell as a prizefighter in New York - all this before his military career even began. What a man...

Sunday 6 November 2016

The Battle of Pollocks Crossing

Although I've written a good deal about J.L. Carr, the Card of Kettering, on this blog (try a search in the box above), there are several of his books I've never read. So, when I spotted a copy of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (Penguin paperback, with a rather lurid cover) on the shelves of a local charity shop, I snapped it up. I've just finished it now, and a hugely enjoyable read it was.
 The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is the novel inspired by Carr's unlikely spell as a schoolteacher in the prairie town of Huron, South Dakota. That was in the late Thirties, and Carr sets his novel a decade earlier, when farming was in a state of collapse as the good earth turned to dust, and the banks and corporations foreclosed on ruined families. This is no Steinbeckian social-realist tragedy, though; it's a richly funny comedy, with the horrors of the agricultural depression forming a dark backcloth to the comic action - at least until everything comes together in the luridly dramatic climax.
 The story is ingeniously framed within the present-day recollections of the elderly George Gidner, who at the start of the novel is angrily refusing to return to Palisades, South Dakota, the scene of his traumatic experiences of half a century earlier. The old Gidner appears intermittently throughout, and at times the narrative, which is mostly in the third person, slips into the first. The viewpoint is largely the young George Gidner's, but parts of the story are necessarily told from outside - as when, at the beginning, Gidner lands the teaching position in Palisades, courtesy of the Anglo-American Goodwill League, who are glad to be shot of a posting that no one wanted.
 The initially idealistic Gidner, a Yorkshire lad, thinks the experience will make him a Different Man, and so it does, but not in any way he might have envisaged. By the time the train finally delivers him at Palisades, a prairie outpost of mind-numbing tedium, the process of disillusionment is already under way, and he finds little to slow it down as he gets to know the town and its inhabitants (and as he finds out about American teaching methods - all crackpot theories, endless questionnaires and rigidly prescribed readings).
 Facing the prospect of struggling to survive on a tiny stipend, Gidner is taken under the wing of the town's banker, storekeeper and number one character Henry Farewell (stress on the first syllable), who rents him a room in his rooming-house. Farewell is an old-fashioned Anglophile with a library of 18th-century English classics, and lively memories of his own stay in England as a young man. He bombards young Gidner with anachronistic questions about life in England, and regales him with memories of his own sojourn there, when he settled in a country inn with a notably pneumatic landlady. Farewell's orotund account of his 'discovery' of England runs in counterpoint to George's equally eccentric 'discovery' of America - in the course of which he decides, just as J.L. Carr did, to write a history of the place he has found himself in and its people. But events overtake that project, along with everything else, as the enigmatic Farewell plays his last hand...
 The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is a short novel, coming in at under 180 pages, and a quick read (even for the likes of slow-reading me), the rich and characterful dialogue carrying things merrily along. A colourful cast of small-town characters - each of them presenting some new conundrum to the hapless Gidner - keep the wry comedy bubbling, even as, towards the end, George realises just how little he knows of what is really going on in Palisades, and in Henry Farewell's head. This is a highly distinctive work, one that could only have been written by J.L. Carr - and yet it could hardly be more different from his masterpiece, A Month in the Country. If you come across it, do give it a try.

Friday 4 November 2016

Peter York Meets the Hipsters

I've always rather liked Peter York, perhaps for his old-fashioned mannerly air, his lightly worn sense of his own absurdity - and his enduring insistence on dressing properly. He is one of very few men who can get away with a double-breasted jacket and breast-pocket handkerchief. Just.
 He was back on TV last night, stylish as ever (though walking with a strange half-crouching gait - back problems perhaps). His subject was that bizarre contemporary phenomenon, the 'hipster'. Hipsters are everything York isn't. No 'authenticity' for him, thank you - 'I am one of the most inauthentic people on earth'. No artisan beer either - 'I am the most non-beer-drinking man possible'. Looking on bemused as young hipsters at the wildly trendy Cereal Killer Cafe tucked in to branded breakfast cereals from around the world, York correctly identified hipsterdom as a 'post-post-modern phenomenon'. Even the irony now comes in quotation marks, if it exists at all (it would surely be very hard to remain a hipster for long if you had a well developed sense of irony, or indeed absurdity).
 Visiting Williamsburg, NYC, supposed birthplace of modern hipsterdom, York finds it gentrified and theme-parked out of recognition, but a chap in a barber's chair hands him a neatly deflating definition of the hipster: 'A person in the creative class about to become a yuppie.' As someone else says, estate agents follow where the hipsters lead...
 What is at the core of hipsterdom, York asks? Is it simply a big-bearded, man-bunned, lumberjack-shirted vacuum, or is it all about 'an organic, agrarian take on modern life'? York doesn't seem convinced as he watches various artisanal 'craftsmen' going about their business of taking something simple like bread or coffee or beer and adding so much alleged 'value' that only their fellow hipsters can afford it. Perhaps, York suggests, it's all about 'micro-connoisseurship' - cultivating an ultra-refined sensibility about very small things. Hipsters are 'curating' their lives, curating their environment ('Everything is curated,' says design critic Oliver Wainwright). Perhaps these hipsters are doing nothing more than 'having a nice life'. Oh dear.
 Along the way, York notes that hipsterdom is pretty much a men-only phenomenon. It's hard to identify hipster girls (when not accompanied by male hipsters), if only because of their understandable reluctance to sport a joke-shop beard and 'ironic' work clothes. Oddly, most of the hipster men York spoke to were reluctant to accept the label 'hipster', despite all the evidence of their archetypal hipsterdom. Perhaps even hipsters suspect that really there's nothing there, just a nice life. Well, they might as well enjoy it while it lasts (before another bunch of bearded men take over in their East End strongholds?).
 'We're all a bit hipster now,' York concluded gamely. Not you, Peter, not you.

Thursday 3 November 2016

England's Elegy - and an American Heir

Being given to wandering around in churchyards, especially country ones, I am all too aware that I walk in the long shadow of Thomas Gray's great Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It is impossible to wander in such places without some residual memory of this most English of poems, one that has seeped into the English cultural bloodstream more thoroughly than any other single poem, and is surely more widely loved and read than any other verse of its time. Even those who haven't read a poem since childhood (maybe not even then) will have those resonant phrases and twilit images lingering in their heads somewhere -  the tolling curfew bell, the lowing herd, the solemn stillness, the flowers born to blush unseen, the mute inglorious Milton, gem of purest ray serene, far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife, the paths of glory lead but to the grave, etc, etc.
 There is something quintessentially English about both the setting and the mood of the poem. The English love of countryside - in particular the humanised countryside represented by the rural village - shines through, along with an equally English, slightly sentimental, slightly romanticised view of the organic nature of village life, and the notion that the socially lowly might have greatness in them, and that fame and glory have shaky, very human foundations. In the end, high or low, we are all dead.  The time - the end of the day - and its attendant mood of wistfully reflective melancholy are very much to English taste. The light is low and fading, outlines are soft, sounds are stilled - that is the way we English, in our more poetic moods, like it. We also have an innate distrust of excessive smoothness and perfection - and Gray's Elegy obliges by being formally imperfect, with its inconclusive argument and tacked-on final section. It isn't even, in classical terms, an elegy (if that's what you want, see Milton's Lycidas) - but it has the elegiac mood, in spades. The poem is deeply infused with Gray's lingering grief for his friend Richard West, whose death elicited a heartbroken sonnet.
 The poetic legacy of Gray's Elegy is long-lasting and deep. Leaving aside contemporary imitations and Shelley's dreadful A Summer Evening Churchyard, the influence is clear in Tennyson's In Memoriam and in Browning's very different Love Among the Ruins; Hardy's graveyard poems are clearly in the tradition; and there are echoes of Gray in Eliot's Four Quartets, especially Little Gidding.
 And then there is Richard Wilbur. His fine three-part meditation This Pleasing Anxious Being takes its title, and more, from the Elegy - but it was Wilbur's In A Churchyard that sent me back to Gray and set me on this train of thought. Here it is - a poem that addresses Thomas Gray directly (and in his own cross-rhymed quatrains), quotes the Elegy directly, and reworks its themes, playing a differently-angled light on its images and thoughts, to brilliant effect. Gray's Elegy lives on...

That flower unseen, that gem of purest ray, 
Bright thoughts uncut by men: 
Strange that you need but speak them, Thomas Gray, 
And the mind skips and dives beyond its ken, 

Finding at once the wild supposed bloom, 
Or in the imagined cave 
Some pulse of crystal staving off the gloom
As covertly as phosphorus in a grave.

Void notions proper to a buried head! 
Beneath these tombstones here 
Unseenness fills the sockets of the dead, 
Whatever to their souls may now appear; 

And who but those unfathomably deaf
Who quiet all this ground
Could catch, within the ear's diminished clef, 
A music innocent of time and sound? 

What do the living hear, then, when the bell
Hangs plumb within the tower
Of the still church, and still their thoughts compel
Pure tollings that intend no mortal hour? 

As when a ferry for the shore of death
Glides looming toward the dock, 
Her engines cut, her spirits bating breath
As the ranked pilings narrow toward the shock, 

So memory and expectation set 
Some pulseless clangor free
Of circumstance, and charm us to forget 
This twilight crumbling in the churchyard tree, 

Those swifts or swallows which do not pertain, 
Scuffed voices in the drive, 
That light flicked on behind the vestry pane, 
Till, unperplexed from all that is alive, 

It shadows all our thought, balked imminence
Of uncommitted sound, 
And still would tower at the sill of sense
Were not, as now, its honed abeyance crowned

With a mauled boom of summons far more strange
Than any stroke unheard, 
Which breaks again with unimagined range
Through all reverberations of the word, 

Pooling the mystery of things that are, 
The buzz of prayer said, 
The scent of grass, the earliest-blooming star, 
These unseen gravestones, and the darker dead.  

Tuesday 1 November 2016

'It will not always be like this...'

November already - All Saints' Day - and yesterday's mellow sunlight is followed by still air and lingering mist, a grey day. Each, in its way, perfectly autumnal.
Autumn has always felt to me like a time of promise and opening up - of life to new turns (perhaps a hangover from the turning of the academic year) and of the mind to quiet reflection, on what is opening up and what is being lost, on what is there and how it will inevitably be lost and gone.
R.S. Thomas said it all  in 10 short lines in his beautiful poem A Day in Autumn:

It will not always be like this, 
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute, 
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

(Note how every line runs over its ending, except the first and seventh: 'pause a minute.')