Saturday 31 December 2016

2016: The View from Here

New Year's Eve, and I began the day in style by falling out of bed, which I don't recommend (and no, I wasn't drunk) - but now it's time to look back on 2016. Not on world events - dramatic though they've been (I've touched on all that here) - nor on the relentless succession of notable deaths, but on some of the highlights of my year, as reflected on this blog.
 In January - and how long ago it seems - I was in the fine city of Wellington, enjoying the family, encountering new butterflies and birds, and reading Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, Michel Houellebecq's Submission and F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter - also visiting Katherine Mansfield's childhood home.
  Back in Blighty, I enjoyed an exhibition of work by Roland Collins - the start of a good year's gallery haunting that included Pre-Raphaelite drawings at Leighton House, George Shaw's My Back to Nature at the National Gallery, Opus Anglicanum at the V&A, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Edward Ardizzone at the House of Illustration, and Rodin and Dance at the Courtauld - not to mention an art-rich week in Venice in September.
  By contrast, my only visit to the theatre was an experience to forget, though my only visit to the cinema, on the other hand, was an absolute joy - Hail, Caesar!
  It was another good year for church crawling and church monuments (a growing obsession), my travels taking me from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire (and again), CheshireNottinghamshire and a wondrous collection of newly restored monuments in Northamptonshire.
  A spring walking holiday in the Mani - a feast of Byzantine art,  sunshine, butterflies and wild flowers - included a memorable visit to Patrick Leigh Fermor's house.
  The English weather was iffy - much of the spring cool and wet, and early summer bright but cool. However, high summer and early autumn were glorious, and I had a terrific butterfly year - the Year of the Hairstreak - about which I've written already.
  My reading (of books new to me) included Javier Marias (twice), Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them, J.L. Carr's The Battle of Pollock's Crossing, and Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, and I discovered the novelist Elizabeth Jenkins.  
  What else? I followed The Dabbler onto Facebook, made a return visit to a long-ago boyhood haunt, ditched my electric lawn mower and went manual, and invented a new cocktail - the Nigroni.
 As I said, I'm not going to rehearse the year's death toll, but cannot ignore the sad loss of England's greatest poet, Geoffrey Hill. To end on a happier note, though, America's greatest, Richard Wilbur, is still with us. I celebrated his 95th birthday with this.
 A Happy New Year to all my readers - and try not to fall out of bed...

Thursday 29 December 2016


The great cellist Pablo (Pau, if you must) Casals was born on this day 140 years ago.
Casals first encountered the Bach cello suites when, as a boy of 13, he came across a tattered copy of the sheet music for the six suites in a second-hand shop. He studied and practised them daily for the next 13 years before performing them in public for the first time.
The video clip above shows him playing the first suite at the Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa in 1954. Balm for the soul...

Wednesday 28 December 2016

A Puzzle

A few months ago, I put up a link to this piece that I wrote about Dutch flower paintings at the National Gallery. Now a letter - email rather - has come in, asking a question to which I have no answer. So naturally I'm throwing it open to my erudite readers...
 My correspondent points out that, despite the Dutch passion for flowers and flower paintings in the 17th century, the interiors depicted so beautifully in paintings of the period seem never to feature any flowers at all, not so much as a few tulips in a vase.
 Obviously the kind of arrangements depicted in those virtuoso flower paintings were out of the question - but no flowers at all in the house? Or perhaps there were flowers, but for some reason they were omitted by the painters of interiors?
 I can't think of a single Golden Age interior painting with flowers in it, nor can I explain their absence. Has anyone got any ideas?

Tuesday 27 December 2016

A little late

A little late, I know, but it's still Christmastide, and  I heard this beautiful piece of festive music by Schoenberg the other day and it's stayed with me. Enjoy...

Monday 26 December 2016

The Death Tape and Post-Fiction

The Death Tape was playing in the pub earlier - well, not tape these days, of course, but it was, as we gradually realised, a compilation of music by all the stars who have died this year in the Great Cull. So far this year, that is - not wise to talk too soon, when they're still dropping like flies: Rick Parfitt and George Michael in the past couple of days, who else before the year's out? George Michael was in the mix so this was a bang up to date compilation, and there were Bowie and Cohen and Prince and the Eagles (for Glenn Frey) and the less obvious likes of Bobby Vee, Merle Haggard, Prince Buster... What a year it's been for deaths - see Mr Appleyard's fine summing-up here.
 And it was an equally big year for Events, a year in which things happened - notably Brexit and Trump - that actually changed the landscape. Predictably enough, neither of these biggies was predicted by any of the pundits, aka 'experts' - the same experts who also unanimously failed to see the 2008 crash coming, and who before that insisted that Britain must join the Euro and, before even that, the ERM. The pundits, of course, carry on as if nothing has happened, seem to have learned nothing, and continue to predict what's in store for us. And the popular rejection of the consensus they represented is characterised as the birth of 'post-truth' (official Word of the Year) politics, a political climate in which facts count for nothing, and instincts and feelings dictate choice.
 There's something in this analysis, but not in the sense that's implied. The representatives of 'post-truth', it seems to me, are those who cling to the comfort blanket of the old exploded certainties, who cannot acknowledge that things have changed, that Brexit and Trump happened, and happened not because people had gone mad but because enough of them had stopped believing in a consensus that no longer reflected the realities of their experience. Who's deluded here? Who's in denial? It seems to me we're now living in 'post-fiction' times, and should be glad of it.
 Meanwhile I look forward to the Correspondents' Look Ahead on Radio 4 on Friday, in which BBC correspondents tell us once more what's not going to happen in the coming year.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Happy Christmas

A happy Christmas to all who browse here, and a prosperous New Year.
(The Holy Family with a Shepherd, painted by Titian around 1510, now one of the glories of the National Gallery.)

Friday 23 December 2016

Harvey: Ducks and more

Browsing sleepily in an anthology last night, I came across this:

(to E.M., who drew them in Holzminden Prison)

From troubles of the world

I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway…

It's the first (and best) part of a poem by Frederick William Harvey, and I half remembered it, probably from other anthologies. It's a lovely piece of work - a vivid sketch deftly drawn (check out the rhyme scheme) - but who was F.W. Harvey?
He was, I discovered, a close friend of Ivor Gurney, whom he met at the King's School, Gloucester, and, like Gurney, he was a 'war poet' of the Great War, but in a far more straightforwardly nostalgic and good-humoured vein (like an upbeat Housman, if such a thing is imaginable - his first collection was called A Gloucestershire Lad at Home and Abroad). Ducks was written while he was a prisoner of war, inspired by a chalk drawing a fellow prisoner had made above his bed. Before being taken prisoner, Harvey had won a DCM for conspicuous gallantry.
After the war, he returned home to work as a lawyer, but his willingness to waive his fees, while making him popular as 'the poor man's solicitor', meant his business never thrived. He continued writing, made radio broadcasts, and was a tireless champion of the Forest of Dean, its people and traditions. As well as 'the Laureate of Gloucestershire', he was also known as 'the Forest Poet'. 'Will' Harvey was hugely popular in his home county, and was clearly an all-round good egg. Look at the picture of him - genial, open, relaxed, full of life, even in uniform. There could hardly be a more striking contrast to his troubled friend Ivor Gurney.
 His poems lend themselves particularly well to music and have been set by a range of composers, from Gurney and Herbert Howells to Johnny Coppin. One of Ivor Gurney's best-known songs, In Flanders, is a setting of a Harvey poem - I hadn't realised. Here are the words -

I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
To see above the Severn plain,
Unscabbarded against the sky,
The blue high blade of Cotswold lie;
The giant clouds go royally
By jagged Malvern with a train
Of shadows. Where the land is low
Like a huge imprisoning O
I hear a heart that's sound and high,
I hear the heart within me cry:
'I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain!
My hills again!' 

- and here is the song.

Wednesday 21 December 2016


The redwings are here! This morning, as I was walking home from the shops, several dozen of them suddenly exploded from a berry-laden holly tree and darted off in all directions, calling to each other with that strange silvery (and sylvan) note, a winter sound. Apart from a few individuals I'd seen in recent weeks, these were my first redwings of the year - a proper foraging party, and I soon realised they were far from alone. All through the afternoon I was spotting bands of redwings, in flight or perched high on trees or gorging on berries. Perhaps we're in for some proper cold winter weather after all - we could certainly do with it.

Dead Letters

While I was in Derbyshire, the cousin and I dropped in on a rather unusual book sale. Unusual in that it was taking place in a private house, what was being sold off was the bulk of the late householder's personal library, and every single book was priced at 25p. The house was one of those old town houses that look quite modest from the street but go back and back, and up and up, and round and round in a warren of rooms and a maze of corridors. And almost every room and every corridor was lined with books, often from floor to ceiling - there were more books here than in Patrick Leigh Fermor's library. More and, for the most part, very different, with fiction and poetry barely present and a heavy emphasis on Ideas - scientific, sociological, historical, philosophical, economic, theological and spiritual. This was a Thinking Man's library (there were even some volumes from the Thinker's Library) and browsing the shelves was an education in how fast Ideas date and become dead letters.
 Who now would choose to read the magisterial pronouncements of H.G. Wells or Julian Huxley, G.B. Shaw or Arnold Toynbee, to say nothing of lesser, more completely forgotten, luminaries? Science books have perhaps the shortest shelf-life of all, though economics and sociology run it close. If it's eternal verities you're after (and if there are such things), you had far better seek them in works of imagination than in those of the intellect. Indeed I would maintain that all a person really needs to know (aside from technical matters) is to be found in Shakespeare. Nothing is quite so dead as the library of a Thinking Man who is essentially a follower of intellectual fashion.
 I could no doubt have made many useful - and at 25p absurdly cheap - purchases, but this vast library was too much for me. In the end, as we weren't going to be allowed out without buying something, I took a little volume of English epitaphs, while my cousin settled for a dog-themed parody of Schott's Miscellany and a useful dictionary of confusing words and meanings.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Two Windows

Sorry, a bit of a hiatus there - put it down to much busyness of one kind and another, and its reverse, a restful (offline) weekend in Derbyshire with my cousin. No notable church monuments this time, but highlights included two villages with particularly handsome main streets - King's Newton and Winster - and one major Norman parish church, Melbourne (just round the corner from King's Newton). Major or not - and rich in antiquarian interest it undoubtedly is - this church reminded me of how rebarbative and godless Norman architecture can be. The heavy gloom of the interior was deeply dispiriting: this was conqueror's architecture - on a small scale, but still oppressive, redolent of power without glory or grace. Happily the setting, with the grand surprise of an extensive lake just around the corner from the church - and a pleasant tea room among the outbuildings of Melbourne Hall - restored the spirits.
 A much more pleasing church, though in every way 'minor', was St John's in Winster, remodelled twice in the 19th century to end up as a double aisle with a colonnade down the middle and arches thrown diagonally to the chancel. This works surprisingly well, creating an airy, cheering and distinctive interior - which proved impossible to capture in a photograph, so I've headed this post with the church's notable window, a little gem by Burne-Jones that's tucked away in the chancel. And below is the upper half of a much larger, more assertive nave window which at first struck me as too jagged and geometric for my taste, but which grew on me the longer I looked at it. The drawing of Christ's features is, I think, particularly fine, and the whole design is full of drama. I've been quite unable to find out who designed this window, so if anyone has any information, please let me know...

Friday 16 December 2016

Advent Music

In my early days at grammar school, we had a French master who was fond of mnemonics as an aid to learning. One such was 'Advent', an acronym (I think) for verbs that take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense. 'What does Advent remind us of?' he barked one morning. Up went a hand: 'The coming of Our Lord, sir.' A correct answer of course, but not quite what the French master had in mind...
 At this time of year, with the pre-Xmas frenzy under way and every shop and public space piping 'Christmas music' non-stop, it's as well to be reminded that this is indeed the season of Advent. Radio 3's Rob Cowan is doing stirling work each morning, playing music that Bach wrote for Advent. Today's chorale, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake) from BWV140, was so sublimely beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks. Here it is, conducted by Tom Koopman... And here is the version Cowan played, conducted by Karl Richter at a stately pace and in a more 'romantic' style. Compare and contrast if you like - or just enjoy them both and marvel at the greatness of Bach.

Wednesday 14 December 2016


Sad news today of the death of Shirley Hazzard, one of the finest writers of the latter half of the last century. I remember the first time I read The Transit of Venus, thinking, right through from the opening pages to the end, I have never read anything like this before, this is quite extraordinary - and deeply moving, in ways far beyond the scope of most modern novelists. The Bay of Noon, though slighter, I found almost as impressive, particularly in its exploration of love and nuances of feeling - Hazzard could discriminate as finely as Henry James, but without the agonised circumlocution. She also had a strong sense of place (perhaps a product of her own transnational life), and she could turn a phrase - I remember noting many down as I read her, in a notebook that was later, sadly, lost. Her other major work, The Great Fire, is quite as extraordinary (and often as moving) as The Transit of Venus, though I was not as entirely convinced as I was by the earlier work. What it does show is a willingness, and an ability, to explore a subject unfashionable in modern fiction: goodness. Goodness and love were Hazzard's themes - eternal themes - and her works will surely live on.
 Oddly, I'd been thinking of re-reading The Transit of Venus. I shall now.

Monday 12 December 2016

Talking of Beauty: Helen Frankenthaler

The American painter Helen Frankenthaler - of whom it would have been good to see a lot more in the RA's Abstract Expressionism exhibition - was born on this day in 1928. A brilliant colourist, she worked in various styles over six decades, never ceasing to experiment and never losing sight of the essential aim - beauty.
 How old-fashioned, how alien to the modern art world, that word now sounds. Indeed, in her own time, Frankenthaler's work was written off by some as being 'merely beautiful'. Merely? Merely?! What else is art for if not to be beautiful?
 Helen Frankenthaler summed up her own thoughts on painting thus:
'A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks laboured and overworked, and you can read in it—well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that—there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-laboured efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.' 
 One really beautiful wrist motion synchronised with head and heart - is there a better description of the act of painting when it's going really, really well, when it's on the road to beauty?

Sunday 11 December 2016

Still European and Lovin' It...

It's wonderful what Facebook comes up with in its attempts to pique my interest or get me spending. Communications from the ineffable Stirling Gravitas continue to, er, trickle in  - but today comes this ad for every Eurosceptic's must-have Christmas gift. How well they know me...

Saturday 10 December 2016

Hirpling On

'As briskly as his bird-like legs allowed, the Reverend Unwin hirpled back to his study...'
 The quotation is from The Winner of Sorrow, a remarkable novel about the poet William Cowper, which I'm reading on the recommendation of Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence. Written by the Irish poet Brian Lynch, it's a wonderful read, and I'll no doubt be writing more about it when I've reached the end. But to the hirple...
 This verb means 'to walk with a limp, to hobble'. It's a fine word, one that I'd never come across before. Its origins are in Old Norse, passing into Scots and Northern English usage, and apparently best preserved in Ulster Scots. None of which fits the milieu of The Winner of Sorrow, but who's complaining? It's always a pleasure to come across a new and expressive word.
 Here it is cleverly used (and cleverly rhymed) to describe the gait of a cricket in an Ulster-Scots poem, Address to a Cricket by Sarah Leech:

'You cheer my heart wi' hamely strain,
or shrill toned chirple,
as cozie roun' the warm hearth stane,
you nightly hirple.'

Thursday 8 December 2016

Hats Off

This is one of those Thursday mornings when I feel like taking off my hat to Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 symposium In Our Time, perhaps even waving it in the airToday's subject was Harriet Martineau, of whom I knew next to nothing apart from her supposed last words, 'I see no reason why the existence of Harriet Martineau should be perpetuated.' From In Our Time, I learnt a great deal about this extraordinary woman, and, along the way, about Unitarianism, Necessitarianism and other intellectual movements of her time. (You can hear the shortened repeat tonight, or listen on the BBC iPlayer.)
  Only on In Our Time, only on Radio 4.
  I see every reason why the existence of In Our Time should be perpetuated.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Two thirds of a century later...

Here we are again - my birthday. Today I (and, of course, my old pal Tom Waits) achieve the age of 67. With two thirds of a century behind me, I feel immensely glad (most of the time) to be here, and immensely grateful for my good fortune in all its many and wondrous forms.
My late Uncle, in his old age, would remark feelingly, 'I wish I was 67 again.' I don't know if that age had some particular significance for him, but as far as I am concerned, I'm certainly happy to be 67.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Over-achievement: Clive James at Cambridge

After finishing Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead, I found myself wondering what to follow it with as my main bedtime read - something more easeful, less substantial, less brilliant than Nicolson's great work. As so often, charity-shop serendipity came to my aid when I spotted May Week Was in June, the third volume of Clive James's Unreliable Memoirs, on the carousel in the Sue Ryder shop. Having read and enjoyed the first two volumes years ago, I thought this would be just the thing.
 In a way, I was right; it was certainly readable (James knows how to keep you turning the pages) and pretty undemanding. And it covers James's Cambridge years, though little about his frenetically active time there chimes with my own student experience (if I ever wrote a similarly themed memoir it would be called Stark Insensibility, or perhaps The Torpid Years, and it would be very slim). James had left, trailing clouds of glory, the year before I arrived, having written for or edited all the Cambridge magazines, virtually taken over Footlights, captained Pembroke on University Challenge, gained a 2:1 and embarked on a Ph.D, learnt several languages, written many poems, read everything (except, he claims, what was on the curriculum), watched all the worthwhile movies known to man (and worked on a film), kept a voluminous journal, spent a lot of time in Florence, wooed and wed, made himself known to everyone of any consequence, and had long pieces published in the New Statesman.
 In the face of all this over-achievement, James's compulsive self-deprecation can lose its charm - and indeed its credibility: you don't get to do all that if you're the kind of hopeless slacker and stumblebum arriviste James portrays himself as. Similarly the characteristic Jamesian mix of flip comedy and high seriousness here doesn't quite gel, making for a lumpy read - and the habit of mixing real names and pseudonyms ('Romaine Rand' for Germaine Greer, 'Dave Dalziel' for Bruce Beresford, etc) becomes tiresome, as do some of the supposedly comic characters (like the American who is forever saying 'Blow it out your ass'). At times the self-deprecation falters and James shows signs of believing rather too strongly in the merits of his - and others' - Footlights productions. Some passages even read like a stagestruck showbiz memoir - the last thing you'd expect, or want, from Clive James.
 However, for all that, May Week Was in June was a good bedside read, enjoyable enough (James is almost incapable of writing dully), with some genuinely funny moments and some acute observations. Even if the self-deprecation is laid on with a trowel, some of it shows genuine insight into his compulsions and shortcomings. Near the end, he looks back and observes himself as his Cambridge days come to a close: '... he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.' A passage like that makes you glad that, for all his gifts and achievements and charm, you're not Clive James.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Well, Well

Yesterday morning - fine, bright and crisp - I took a stroll across Ashtead Common and onto Epsom Common, where I began noticing, every now and then, small signboards pointing the way to 'Epsom Well'. I decided to follow them and see what they led to, envisaging the usual grille-covered hole in the ground and a few sorry bricks, nothing to see here. But the signs eventually led off the Common and into a warren of curving, bungalow-and-semi-lined streets - a kind of suburban mandala, at the centre of which was... Epsom Well.
 There it was, a wellhead of undistinguished modern design (erected 1989) surrounded by circular paving, with a few brick steps leading up to it, the whole surrounded by Fifties bungalows, outside one of which a man was doggedly hanging up his Christmas lights. This, incredibly, was the well (long dry) around which England's first spa had grown up. To quote the inscription around the wellhead: 'The Epsom Well, the medicinal waters that in the the 17th century made Epsom the first spa town in England, a great resort and famous throughout Europe.'
 As I took in the curious scene - the titivated remnant of the historic well set in its bungaloid circus - something about it rang a bell. Yes, Iain Sinclair in London Orbital describes being led reluctantly to it (by the painter Laurence 'Renchi' Bicknell) in the course of his M25 circumambulation, and being duly underwhelmed. A tad harshly, he describes the 'new' Old Well as having 'a touch of the fishing leprechaun about it'. The Old Well, he concludes, is a case of 'lost heritage' - and, to be sure, it is hard, standing on that spot, to sense any connection with the well that made Epsom famous and launched the great fashion for 'taking the waters'.
 These waters were in demand because they contained a great deal of Magnesium Sulphate - 'Epsom salts' - reputedly health-giving, undoubtedly purgative in the quantities imbibed at the Epsom well. Visitors were encouraged to down as much as 15 or 16 pints of the often murky water, then walk on the Common until obliged to dart into the bushes. Men and women retired separately for this purpose, and locals could earn a few pennies acting as lookouts to preserve their privacy.
 As with many subsequent spas, there was something about Epsom that seems to have encouraged gaming, philandering and over-indulgence. Thomas Shadwell (immortalised in Poets' Corner and as the butt of Dryden's satirical barbs) had a hit with Epsom Wells, a stage comedy about the goings-on at the spa. As Sinclair drily remarks, 'The combination of bodily purging with amorous adventure, gaming houses and gluttony was perfectly suited to the English love of 'Carry On' humour. Farts, gropes, excursions.'
 Epsom may have been the first English spa, but its glory days were not long. Despite the digging of new wells in the town, Epsom had fallen out of fashion by the mid-18th century as the waters began to fail, Epsom salts became available (no need to drink the water) and other spa towns, with more attractive facilities, grew up around the country. But it was not the end of Epsom, which continued to thrive as a healthy and relatively civilised place quite close to London (with excellent horse-racing on the Downs) and is still a pleasant small town today. All's well that ends well, you might say.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Larkin again: 'Something people do'

Talking of Larkin, on this day in 1973 he signed off on one of his last long poems, Show Saturday (which was the last poem selected for High Windows, put in, on the poet's insistence, to add more substance). This is Larkin playing it straight with a solidly built, richly descriptive pastoral - no trace here of the Larkin of This Be the Verse or Annus Mirabilis or, say, The Life with a Hole in It. Show Saturday is in the gentler, more wistful, even affectionate mode of The Whitsun Weddings or Here or To the Sea. It was inspired by a visit to the Bellingham Show in Northumberland, and unfolds in long, slightly laboured lines, many of them enjambed, even between stanzas, to disguise the ABACBDCD rhyme scheme. As so often with Larkin, it ends beautifully...

Grey day for the Show, but cars jam the narrow lanes.
Inside, on the field, judging has started: dogs
(Set their legs back, hold out their tails) and ponies (manes
Repeatedly smoothed, to calm heads); over there, sheep
(Cheviot and Blackface); by the hedge, squealing logs
(Chain Saw Competition). Each has its own keen crowd.
In the main arena, more judges meet by the jeep:
The jumping’s on next. Announcements, splutteringly loud,

Clash with the quack of man with pound notes round his hat
And a lit-up board. There’s more than just animals:
Bead-stalls, balloon-men, a Bank; a beer-marquee that
Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
And another, jackets. Folks sit about on bales
Like great straw dice. For each scene is linked by spaces
Not given to anything much, where kids scrap, freed,
While their owners stare different ways with incurious faces.

The wrestling starts, late; a wide ring of people; then cars;
Then trees; then pale sky. Two young men in acrobats’ tights
And embroidered trunks hug each other; rock over the grass,
Stiff-legged, in a two-man scrum. One falls: they shake hands.
Two more start, one grey-haired: he wins, though. They’re not so much fights
As long immobile strainings that end in unbalance
With one on his back, unharmed, while the other stands
Smoothing his hair. Bit there are other talents –

The long high tent of growing and making, wired-off
Wood tables past which crowds shuffle, eyeing the scrubbed spaced
Extrusions of earth: blanch leeks like church candles, six pods of
Broad beans (one split open), dark shining-leafed cabbages – rows
Of single supreme versions, followed (on laced
Paper mats) by dairy and kitchen; four brown eggs, four white eggs,
Four plain scones, four dropped scones, pure excellences that enclose
A recession of skills. And, after them, lambing sticks, rugs,

Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done,
But less than the honeycombs. Outside, the jumping’s over.
The young ones thunder their ponies in competition
Twice round the ring; the trick races, Musical Stalls,
Sliding off, riding bareback, the ponies dragged to and fro for
Bewildering requirements, not minding. But now, in the background,
Like shifting scenery, horse-boxes move; each crawls
Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound

For far-off farms. The pound-note man decamps.
The car park has thinned. They’re loading jumps on a truck.
Back now to private addresses, gates and lamps
In high stone one-street villages, empty at dusk,
And side roads of small towns (sports finals stuck
In front doors, allotments reaching down to the railway);
Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk
Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday –

The men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women,
Children all saddle-swank, mugfaced middleaged wives
Glaring at jellies, husbands on leave from the garden
Watchful as weasels, car-tuning curt-haired sons –
Back now, all of them, to their local lives:
To names on vans, and business calendars
Hung up in kitchens; back to loud occasions
In the Corn Exchange, to market days in bars,

To winter coming, as the dismantled Show
Itself dies back into the area of work.
Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time’s rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.

Friday 2 December 2016

Larkin in the Corner

Philip Larkin rightly took his place in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey today, his memorial tablet set in place close to Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence (whom he revered, for reasons best known to himself). He is also immediately below Edward Lear and very close to Lewis Carroll, so in illustrious and eccentrically mixed company.
 He is also, of course, among a good many poets whose names were expected to live for ever but have wellnigh disappeared - Thomas May, William Mason, Christopher Anstey, John Philips (no, not that one), William Gifford, to name a few. Not that it matters; Poets' Corner was a haphazard growth, never really planned, and standards have definitely tightened over the years - so much so that Larkin had a long wait for his place (a great deal longer than his bête noire Ted Hughes). But this was not owing to doubts about his poetic abilities; it was rather a by-product of the deeply silly hysteria provoked by the publication of Anthony Thwaite's edition of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography. That, happily, has now died down and a more nuanced assessment of Larkin the man has prevailed, along with a growing realisation that as a poet he was indeed the real thing. To quote Auden on a couple of other poets with bad reputations...
'Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.'
  And besides, Larkin has become a genuinely popular poet. His popularity might rest on the unequal tripod of This Be the Verse, Annus Mirabilis and An Arundel Tomb (whose last two lines inevitably supply the inscription on Larkin's tablet), but it is real enough, and many continue to read far beyond the greatest hits. If anyone deserves a place in Poets' Corner, it is Larkin. His poetry will surely live on.

Rodin and Dance

Yesterday I visited the Courtauld Gallery - always a pleasure (what a great gallery it is) - to take a look at Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement. This is a fascinating, tightly focused exhibition that traces the course of the great sculptor's late-life fascination with dance in various forms, some of them bordering on acrobatics. There are sketches - some more finished than others, some coloured in with blots of watercolour, others dashed off with pencil on paper in a few suggestive lines - and there are ranks of little terracotta models, few of them finished, most just quickly moulded (but eloquent) working models. All this work is the fragmentary record of a hugely ambitious, unfinished project whose ultimate aim was to capture movement, in its most intense and fluid form - dance - in the most static of media, sculpture.
 Happily I toured this exhibition with my cousin, who is a dancer and better able than I to appreciate the finer points, decipher what is actually going on in some of the more confusing sketches (is that an arm or a leg?) and to spot the occasional lapse from the merely difficult to the anatomically impossible. Rodin was constantly adjusting these sketches, sometimes using movable paper cut-outs or creating sets of slightly varying copies of the same drawing. Some of the sketches show the same pose from different angles, and some are so ambiguous that Rodin helpfully labelled the bottom of the drawing 'bas'. This way up.
 Rodin took his inspiration from many sources - not, primarily,  classical ballet (the preserve of Degas) but modern dance, acrobatic dancing and traditional Cambodian dance. The last fired Rodin's imagination when the national dance troupe visited France - there's a striking photograph of the elderly artist sketching them from life - and modern dance came Rodin's way via Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; there are sketches of Nijinsky himself in the strange angular poses of the Faun. The principal muse of Rodin's dance project, however, was a Parisian dancer and acrobat called Alda Moreno, whose extraordinarily flexible body we see photographed in an arty nude mag as well as in sketch after sketch, model after model by the fascinated Rodin.
 This quite small-scale exhibition inhabits the kind of cosy space that encourages visitors to chat about what they're looking at, usually making cheery comments along the lines of 'I wouldn't like to try that' or 'Could you do that?' What everyone tries to ignore is that most of these drawings depict naked bodies, often posed in positions that leave no doubt that the women are women and the men men. The pudenda femina and their male analogues follow you round the room, as it were. No wonder nude ballet never caught on.