Friday 31 March 2017

The Trouble with Nature

Those almond blossoms are all very well, but there's something intrinsically wrong with nature, isn't there? The 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher certainly thought so, and he knew just what it was. 'Nature,' he declared boldly, 'is too green, and badly lit' ('trop verte et mal éclairée').
 I came across this quotation today, and it reminded me rather of Ronald Firbank's equally lofty and absurd 'The world is so badly managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.' One suspects, though, that Boucher probably meant it. He's not a painter I'm drawn to - his frothy Rococo confections  don't appeal - but I'm prepared to forgive the man who could paint the outrageously erotic Mademoiselle O'Murphy (below).

Thursday 30 March 2017

Birthday Blossom

Here, to mark the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh (born on this day in 1853), is something seasonal, beautifully painted and almost jolly. It's one of the studies of almond blossom that he painted in 1888 to celebrate the birth of his nephew, whom his brother Theo named after Vincent.
 The paintings are suffused with the happiness of their occasion and the joy and promise of new life, but are too honest to be merely pretty, or merely jolly. The pink-edged impasto blossom is vividly present, but no more so than the gnarled and knotted branches, their visual counterpoint, sharply outlined and firmly drawn in the manner of the Japanese artists whose work had such a powerful effect on Van Gogh. The blossom will soon be gone, but those assertive branches will live on, jagged, difficult, undeniable. Vincent's moment of happiness too was soon gone, and his troubled life did not have much longer to run - but is that to be read in these bright images of almond trees in flower? Better perhaps just to enjoy them as things of beauty. That they undoubtedly are.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Heady Times

These are heady times for us retroprogressives. At a civilised hour this morning, Theresa May will hand a letter - a letter, remember those? - to our masters in Brussels, informing them that they have delighted us enough and we're intending to head for the exit door, if they could kindly point out where it is, please. It's not quite on a par with Henry VIII extracting us from the clutches of the Papacy, but there have been plenty of historically minded pundits queueing up to draw such reassuring analogies. That's the kind of long perspective we retroprogressives like.
 Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, El Trumpo has decided to restore King Coal to his throne, thereby flabbergasting the carbonistas. In practice, this might not make much difference to anything (including, of course, 'climate change'), but it's a pleasingly retroprogressive gesture - let's hope there are more to come.
 As for the forthcoming negotiations with the Eurocracy, heaven knows where they will lead, if anywhere. A booby-trapped morass might be what lies in wait for us, and our best hope might be that the EU collapses quite soon in an orderly manner, rendering the whole process irrelevant. I fear the Union as at present constituted is like the Hotel California - 'You can check out any time you like, but you never can leave'. However, checking out is the right retroprogressive thing to do. Back to the future, forward to the past!

Monday 27 March 2017

Radio at Walking Pace

One of the best things I've heard on Radio 4 in a while was on yesterday's Broadcasting House - the sound of a rescue greyhound called Billy chattering his teeth in anticipation of his favourite food, pilchards. Since then I've discovered that greyhounds often chatter their teeth when a treat is in the offing - there's plentiful footage on YouTube if you're interested - but this was a great piece of radio. Of 'slow radio', in fact, which is given a little showcase on Broadcasting House every Sunday. The time allotted is far too short to give a real sense of slowness, but at least it's always restful and unstructured, a little oasis of peace in the hubbub. And it's always a joy to listen to.
 Now comes news that Radio 3 is going to give us a proper bit of Slow Radio - the soundtrack of a four-hour, twelve-mile walk in the Black Mountains, beginning in Cwmdu and ending in Hay-on-Wye. The walker will be writer and broadcaster Horatio Clare (not to be confused with Horatio Caine of CSI: Miami), so there will no doubt be an intermittent commentary, but the point of the exercise will be to bring us the sounds of buzzards, ravens and other more musical birds - including, with luck, skylarks - of sheep and ponies, the rustle of grass, the sighing breeze, the soft tramp of Horatio's walking boots. It promises to be rather wonderful - perhaps the best thing since the much lamented Radio Birdsong - and I hope it's the harbinger of more Slow Radio to come.
 As I took a stroll on Epsom Downs this glorious sunny spring morning, I wondered what the soundtrack of my walk might have sounded like. There was birdsong, but not as much as I was hoping for, and dominated by robins and great tits - if any warblers had arrived, they were still tuning up - and distant sounds of cars and of golfers on the course that disfigures so much of these downs. I fear much of the soundtrack would have consisted of my involuntary sounds, tuneless humming, random phrases spoken out loud and occasional exclamations, mostly of pleasure. And there was plenty to take pleasure in - primroses, violets, coltsfoot and celandine, brimstones, commas, peacocks and tortoiseshells, cherry blossom, hawthorn in leaf, blackthorn coming into flower. It wouldn't have made great radio, but oh yes, it was a good walk.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Nature Notes

Seeing the first butterfly of the year is always a spirit-lifting thrill - and I experienced it quite early this year - but there's also something very special about catching that flash of sky blue that is the first glimpse of a Holly Blue. In a sense, this is also the first butterfly of the year, being the first to have emerged from a pupa, the others - Brimstones, Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals, Commas, Peacocks, Painted Ladies (if you're lucky) - all being awakened hibernators. I saw my first Holly Blues of the year this sunny morning (and my first, rather late, Peacock), so my butterfly year has begun again. So much more to look forward to now...

Yesterday another natural spectacle caught my eye too as I walked down my road. Looking up, I saw a kestrel and a crow in close proximity - the familiar sight of corvid harrying raptor, I thought - but as I carried on watching, it became clear that this was something different, more like an aerial ballet than the usual snappy chase-off. Kestrel and crow were staying unusually close together, seemingly quite relaxed about it, making no more than gestures at aggression. Each was mirroring the other's movements, moving together like a pair of aerial syncrhronised swimmers and giving a strong impression of playful enjoyment. The crow seemed to be imitating the kestrel's wingtip flutters, the kestrel dropping its purposeful style to adopt a crow-like abandon. All the time, I was expecting this aerial display to break down into the usual unseemly scuffle, but it never happened, and gradually kestrel and crow flew off into the distance with every appearance of perfect harmony. Has peace broken out between these normally fierce competitors, I wonder, or was this just an outburst of vernal friskiness?

Friday 24 March 2017

Saint Mug's Day

Born on this day in 1903 was Malcolm Muggeridge. If he's remembered at all now, it is as the rather ridiculous, overexposed figure he became in his latter years, when he was a fixture on the nation's television screens - and, with his contorted features and strangulated vowels, a gift to impressionists. He made a fool of himself over his infatuation with Mother Teresa (see Christopher Hitchens on all that) and there was undoubtedly much of the humbug about him (his sexual habits didn't bear much examination), but there is also much to praise about Muggeridge. Despite his early socialism, he was one of the first to see Soviet Communism for what it was, travelling unofficially in the Ukraine in the Thirties, seeing the famine for himself, and attempting to report on it. Sadly his efforts were trumped by the New York Times' Walter Duranty's whitewash job, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize (Mug subsequently described Duranty as 'the greatest liar I have met in journalism').
 Muggeridge also had a very 'good war', serving with the Intelligence Corps and MI6, working with the Free French forces and winning a Croix de Guerre. In the Fifties, he made a surprisingly good job of being editor of Punch, despite having, by his own account, no sense of humour. It was with the Swinging Sixties, and after his conversion to Christianity, that 'Saint Mug', the ubiquitous moral scourge, took over and, driven (one suspects) as much by vanity as by moral fervour, Muggeridge grew into an often ludicrous caricature of himself.
 And yet, and yet. Looking back to that time when Muggeridge and the even more ridiculous - as it seemed - Mary Whitehouse railed against the excesses of the 'permissive society', it's possible to feel quite nostalgic for a period when matters of morality were discussed at such a high pitch and with such seriousness in the mass media. And it is even possible, in view of subsequent events, to see Muggeridge and Mrs Whitehouse as canaries in the cultural coal mine, sensing the moral nihilism that was soon to become common currency, sweeping away so much in its path. Both these 'moral crusaders' often made fools of themselves by firing off at the wrong targets, but, viewed from here, there is also something rather admirable about their efforts to stem the unstemmable tide.

Thursday 23 March 2017

More than Dutch

Last night I came across (again) this poem by Kay Ryan -

Much of life
is Dutch
in which
legions of
big robust
people crouch
badly cracked
dike systems
by the thumbs
their wide
balloon-pantsed rumps
up-ended to the
northern sun
while, back
in town, little
tulip magnates
stride around.
 Everything about this little poem - even the title - is as Dutch as can be. It could be the description of a scene painted on a Dutch tile or a Delft bowl, and the tone is fittingly comic and naive. Yet it seems to me that the image presented here could have a much wider application.
 Is there not something oddly recognisable in this picture of a world where most lead lives of quiet, good-humoured desperation, stoically holding disaster at bay, while 'back in town' a complacent elite, who know nothing of the ordinary struggles of life, enjoy a wealth founded on unrealities - tulip fever, the derivatives boom, there's little to choose between them (and both are doomed to crash when an altogether different kind of dike bursts, and reality floods in). The divided society so quaintly depicted in Dutch is not that far, it seems to me, from the one that gave us Brexit and the Trump victory, when the big, wide-rumped stavers-off of disaster turned on the little self-regarding magnates of unreality and showed their strength.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

In Deepest England

This ruin, crying out for the John Piper treatment, is the unroofed church of St Mary, Colston Bassett, deep in rural south Nottinghamshire. It is one of several similarly abandoned churches in the Nottinghamshire Wolds, the casualties of depopulation. But one that still stands, complete with roof, is St Andrew, Langar, and inside it is one of the finest monuments of its period in England.
 The interior of this large church is short on atmosphere and charm, thanks to a clunky Victorian restoration and a more recent reordering of the nave, which is now furnished with upholstered chairs in a semicircle facing an altar table to the north; the whole east end is thus rendered liturgically dead. In the north transepts are a couple of Elizabethan tomb chests, monuments to members of the Chaworth family, that might have been placed there specifically to show the difference between run-of-the-mill work and the best - the best being in the south transept, in the form of the Scrope monument.

 Thomas, Lord Scrope, and Philadelphia, his beautifully-named wife, lie side by side, he in armour with a full ruff and the mantle, garter and cap of the Order of the Garter, she in flowing mantle and ruff, her hair swept back from her face. Both have their hands together in prayer and their eyes raised to heaven - conventional attitudes, but they lie as if in life, so convincingly naturalistic is the carving. It is also superbly skilful in rendering the hang of their garments, the details and textures.

 The most extraordinary feature of this monument, though, is the figure of Emanuel Scrope, the son who commissioned it. Represented at about a quarter of the scale of his parents, he kneels at their feet, smartly dressed in Spanish fashion, not mourning but apparently reading a book, while keeping one hand on the hilt of his sword. Once again, the modelling is superb, even if the scale is disconcerting - perhaps it looked less so to Jacobean eyes, accustomed as they were to seeing miniature offspring kneeling beneath their parents on standard Elizabethan tombs. The figure of Emanuel Scrope might be said to represent the transition from hierarchical to naturalistic representation in monumental sculpture (but that's probably pushing it).

 Sadly, this remarkable monument is beginning to fall apart as a result of damp. Two panels of the chest tomb have had to be removed, the marble columns of the canopy are in poor shape, and the transept in which it stands has the air of a workshop crossed with a lumber room. A full restoration will get under way when the money has been found, but meanwhile the Scrope monument stands as a sad example of how little we value the products of what was arguably the golden age of English sculpture. That work of such astonishing quality should turn up in remote parish churches seems little short of miraculous, and is certainly one of the things that make church-crawling in England so richly rewarding.
 Emanuel Scrope went on to father an illegitimate daughter who, in the absence of a legal heir, inherited and married into the Howe family, who in due course produced Admiral Howe, one of our great naval heroes; he is interred and memorialised in the church along with other Howes. Their family home, Langar Hall, is next to the church and is now a rather lovely country house restaurant and hotel.
 Langar was also the scene of the grim early years of the novelist Samuel Butler, so vividly described in The Way of All Flesh. His father was rector here and young Samuel grew up in the oppressively evangelical atmosphere of the rectory, dominated by the father with whom he was locked in a relationship of mutual loathing. Letting bygones be bygones, the church now has a display of photographs - some of them taken by Butler - documenting the life of this notable son of Langar.
 Such an obscure place, so many claims to fame. Truly England is fathomless.

Thursday 16 March 2017

No Problem

'At last Elphinstone replied. "I have no problem." He said the word "problem" with sardonic emphasis to make clear he knew it for an Americanism.'
[Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus]
 Oh dear, not another Americanism - they're everywhere, and people were probably noticing them rather more in the postwar period in which The Transit of Venus is set. (Elphinstone, by the way, is an unattractive incidental character - just the kind of prig to shudder at an Americanism.)
 The other day I had an email from my friend Susan in snowy New York, remarking on my recent use of the phrase 'meet up with' - undoubtedly some kind of Americanism (building on 'met with') - and asking if I knew when it crossed the Atlantic. I guessed it has probably been in general use here since the 70s or thereabouts, and it does seem to me to be marginally useful in suggesting a meeting that has been prearranged. Oddly, however, to Susan's American ears it suggests the opposite, whereas a plain 'met' suggests something arranged. No doubt we would be better off all round if we just stuck to 'met'.
 While I was at it, I thought I'd update Susan on a few recent developments in English English which I don't think we can blame our American cousins for.
 The drift from 'different from' to the incorrect 'different to' and the frankly appalling 'different than' has recently accelerated to the point where the battle has been decisively lost, at least in spoken English (though some of us are still prone to shout 'from' at the radio).
 I'm not sure where the habit of beginning answers to questions with the word 'So' came from - perhaps it is an Americanism? - but it has spread very fast and is to be heard with depressing frequency on any radio or TV programme involving the asking of questions. Perhaps it is no worse than the equally meaningless 'Well', but it has the annoying implication that the answer being given is somehow self-evident and need only be spelt out to the dimwit questioner.
 Another recent development tends to pass unremarked, even though it results in people saying the exact opposite of what they mean. In its classic form this kind of misspeaking (?Americanism) results in statements such as 'His contribution to the arts cannot be understated'. No one seems to notice.
 Perhaps the most bizarre recent development, though, is the double 'is', which I've noted before, back when (?Americanism) I thought it was a fleeting phenomenon that would soon disappear. Alas it hasn't and all the time one hears usages such as 'the reason is is' or 'the point is is'. I guess it buys the speaker another tiny beat of thinking time, having already no doubt made use of 'So', or perhaps it's a curious way of emphasising the little word 'is'.
 So, the answer is is that American English is different than English English to an extent that cannot be understated.
 Please feel free to add your own linguistic bugbears to this short list.
 Meanwhile, I'm off to the midlands for a few days, with some fine church monuments in my sights.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Elegy Land

This ludicrous monument to the poet Thomas Gray stands in 'Gray's Field', adjacent to Stoke Poges churchyard, the hallowed plot that inspired his most famous poem, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that quintessentially English masterpiece. Rather surprisingly, the churchyard is only a short taxi ride north from Slough railway station (a miraculously unspoilt GWR original, which Betjeman would surely have spared from those friendly bombs).
 Stoke Poges is isolated from Slough by a zone of large expensive houses in large gardens, which soon give way to something more like proper country, where the parkland of several grand houses has been preserved (some of it, alas, as a golf course) - and in the midst of all that, surrounded by dense evergreens, lies the church of St Giles in its legendary churchyard.
 First impressions - and let's be honest, second and last impressions - were not propitious. In its modern incarnation, this is not a churchyard to inspire poetry, or anything much else. It has a tidy, well-kept, municipal air, with lots of monotonously green grass and a rather sparse scattering of monuments and headstones, few of them of any antiquity (an exception is pictured below), most being modern or Victorian and more or less ugly. This is no longer a place 'where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap' - far from it - and there are probably half a dozen churchyards within a few miles of Stoke Poges that have more atmosphere and more of interest (come to that, the churchyard of my own Surrey suburban parish has more).
 The 'rugged elms' have of course gone the way of the lowing herd and the plodding ploughman, no drowsy tinklings lull the distant fold, but the setting still feels countrified rather than urban. Red kites circle overhead (they wouldn't have been there in Gray's time), harried by crows. The hum of traffic is not obtrusive. The church still stands, jumbled and irregular, built variously of flint, puddingstone, clunch and brick, picturesque and, as they say, 'not without a degree of antiquarian interest'  - also genealogical interest, as members of the Penn family are buried here, including a son of William Penn himself. Gray's tomb, which he shares with his beloved mother and aunt, is marked by a simple slab, vastly more appropriate than the grandiose monument in 'Gray's Field'.
 Sadly, almost everything that made Stoke Poges the churchyard of Gray's elegy is now lost - which is perhaps not surprising given the lapse of time. But Stoke Poges as it is now also embodies another, larger loss - of the old ways of dealing with death, of mourning and memorialising the dead. Right next to the churchyard are the Memorial Gardens - an extensive, manicured park with tarmac paths that lead the visitor to each delineated zone: rose garden, rock and water garden, parterre, oak dell, pergola, colonnade, and the less elegantly named scattering lawn where ashes may be dispersed.
 These gardens, which date back to the Thirties, are a product of the age of cremation and, if nothing else, a tribute to its efficiency. Little memorial plaques line every neat flower bed and identify each of the hundreds (thousands?) of memorial flowering shrubs and saplings. Huge numbers are remembered here - far more than would fit in a graveyard of comparable size - and they are remembered as they and their loved ones would no doubt wish to be, as an element in a pretty and well laid-out public garden, a pleasant place to visit of a Sunday afternoon and perhaps shed a tear.
 It works, and everybody seems to like it - and yet it's hard, as you walk its immaculate paths, not to sense the loss of the earthy intimacy with the dead, the intense awareness of their presence and their claims on the living, that animates Gray's elegy. It would be impossible here to think such thoughts as Gray did - even more impossible, indeed, than it would be in the present-day churchyard.
 But here is one stone that would have been there, new-carved, in Gray's day...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

Monday 13 March 2017

Ein anderer Mott ist Tot

Just a year on from the death of Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin, I discover - from Radio 4's excellent obituary programme Last Word - that the band's bassist (and founding member) Pete Overend Watts has also gone to join the great jam session in the sky. In fact, he died back in January, so Last Word was a bit slow off the mark here.
 Watts, who could belt out a humdinging bass line with the best of them, embraced the band's glam rock image with gusto, wearing platform shoes so high that roadies had to get him back on his feet if he fell over on stage. However, when the music career ended, he was happy to shun the limelight, dabbling in antique dealing, gentlemen's hairdressing (briefly) and, with more enthusiasm, carp fishing. He also developed a taste for long-distance walking, despite a professed dislike of any kind of pedestrian activity. A couple of years ago, he wrote a book, The Man who Hated Walking, recounting his adventures on the Southwest Coast Path. Watts even attempted to walk from Land's End to John O' Groats, but couldn't stick to the route, at one point taking a massive diversion into the Peak District, simply because he realised he'd never been there before.
 The obituaries - Last Word included - have focused on All the Young Dudes (which made a heap more money for Bowie than for Mott) as 'the defining anthem of its era', etc. Well, I beg to differ: when it comes to defining anthems - not only of 'its era' but of the whole era of rock 'n'  roll - surely it's got to be All the Way from Memphis. I'd say it belongs in any list of the ten (or maybe twenty) definitive rock 'n' roll belters - you know, the list that begins with Elvis's That's Alright Mama and continues with... Well, what would you include?
 While you're thinking (or not), here, once again, is All the Way from Memphis. Enjoy.

Saturday 11 March 2017

Leaves of Ranmore

A warm day in the Southeast today, with lots of hazy sun and only the lightest of breezes. It felt very much like the first day of spring, so naturally I headed for the Surrey hills as fast as Southern Rail would carry me (which was not terribly fast, but I got there).
 With my usual excessive early-season optimism, I was hoping to find butterflies, and there were certainly plenty of Brimstones flying as I started my walk. But in the event that was it, apart from a couple of Tortoiseshells (I think) passing overhead, engaged in  a high-speed aerial dogfight. Happily I'd  already seen a Tortoiseshell earlier in the day, flying in dazed circles before finally settling on the slab-paved former front garden of a house just down the road. My annual reminder of just how astonishingly beautiful these familiar fliers are.
  My walk took me to Ranmore Common, with its landmark church - the extraordinary octagonal tower can be seen for miles around. It's an assertive church, rather harsh and over-crisp - maybe it needs another century or two to bed in. The work of George Gilbert Scott, it's not pretty, but has a lot of nice detail, especially the leafy capitals - a great one for foliation was G.G., and exuberant stuff it is. The picture above is of the entrance porch - and sadly that door was locked (though the interior, as I remember it, is more, er, striking than beautiful). And below is the other side of the porch (I know - try to contain your excitement).
  Anyway, it was a glorious feeling to be back walking in my favourite haunts at the start of the year, with all the summer and its butterflies to come. And along the way I saw a pair of Marsh/Willow Tits, a bird I haven't seen in these parts in donkey's years.

Thursday 9 March 2017

Good Gunn

I spent years ignoring, or dismissing, Thom Gunn. As a young idiot poseur at Cambridge, I naturally dismissed him as (a) a representative of an earlier Cambridge generation, (b) a one-time associate of Ted Hughes, and (c) a formalist whose work was insufficiently free-form and obscure to be taken seriously.
 As the years went by, I shed my juvenile prejudices, came to value formalism very highly, and, when I came across the odd Thom Gunn poem, I began to warm to him (I've even put a couple up on this blog). Then, in the TLS anthology, A Century of Poems, which I've written about here more than once, I came across this fine, bleak poem that reimagines in modern terms the grey tedium and unease of the afterlife described by Homer:

Death's Door

Of course the dead outnumber us
 - How their recruiting armies grow!
My mother archaic now as Minos,
She who died forty years ago

After their processing, the dead
Sit down in groups and watch TV,
In which they must be interested,
For on it they watch you and me.

These four, who though they never met
Died in one month, sit side by side
Together in front of the same set
And all without a TV Guide.

Arms round each other's shoulders loosely,
Although they can feel nothing, who
When they unlearned their pain so sprucely
Let go of all sensation too.

Thus they watch friend and relative
And life here as they think it is
- In black and white, repetitive
As situation comedies.

With both delight and tears at first
They greet each programme on death's stations.
But in the end lose interest,
Their boredom turning to impatience.

'He misses me? He must be kidding
- This week he's sleeping with a cop.'
'All she reads now is Little Gidding.'
'They're getting old. I wish they'd stop.'

The habit of companionship
Lapses - they break themselves of touch:
Edging apart at arm and hip
Till separated on the couch.

They woo amnesia, look away
As if they were not yet elsewhere,
But when snow blurs the picture they,
Turned, give it a belonging stare.

Snow blows out toward them, till their seat
Filling with flakes becomes instead
Snow-bank, snow-landscape, and in that
They find themselves with all the dead,

Where passive light from snow-crust shows them
Both Minos circling and my mother.
Yet none of the recruits now knows them,
Nor do they recognise each other.

They have been so superbly trained
Into the perfect discipline
Of an archaic host, and weaned
From memory briefly barracked in.

Reading this led me to buy Gunn's late collection The Man with Night Sweats, in which it is the penultimate poem. The best part of the collection, written during the plague years of the Aids epidemic, is suffused with death and mourning, and includes such beautifully controlled, intensely moving poems as Lament and Still Life. Here Gunn's formalism finds an occasion worthy of it - worthier than the hard-core gay sex and drugs that were so often his theme.
 The best poems in The Man with Night Sweats prove yet again that, far from falsifying or constraining emotion, strict form skilfully handled can enrich and intensify it - and never more so than when the subject is death. (Consider Bishop King's Exequy - and Peter Porter's, Ben Jonson's On My First Son, Gray's sonnet on the death of Richard West, Tennyson's In Memoriam... )
 I'm glad I've finally discovered how good Thom Gunn could be, when the occasion found him.

Wednesday 8 March 2017


Here's a lovely bit of pianistic enchantment from Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, playing one of the Canciones y Danzas of Federico Mompou, a Catalan composer I only recently became aware of. This piece is so simple, so delicate, but so rich in beauty...

Tuesday 7 March 2017


Over on the rather fine website of Pooky (lighting and interiors for the quality), I'm leading a guided tour of Spencer House, if you're interested...

Monday 6 March 2017

Ivy on the Shelf

'"My dear, good girls!" said Miles Mowbray. "My three dear daughters! To think I have ever felt dissatisfied with you and wished I had a son! I blush for the lack in me, that led me to such a feeling. I feel the blood mount to my face, as I think of it. I would not change one of you for all the sons in the world. I would not barter you for all its gold. And I am not much of a person for wealth and ease..."'
 My run of charity-shop good luck shows no sign of abating. The other day I found, sitting on the same spot on the same shelf in the same shop where I so recently found Loitering with Intent loitering with intent, not one but two Ivy Compton-Burnetts, side by side, both first editions in good condition, though without dust-wrappers. Not that it would make much difference to their market value if they were wrapped and in mint condition - nobody wants ICB nowadays, apart from the little band of devotees/addicts among whom I number myself. I'd been getting faint withdrawal symptoms, so was glad to find fresh supplies in the shape of two titles I hadn't read: The Mighty and Their Fall (1961) and A Father and His Fate (1957), from which the inviting opening words are quoted above.
 It might be a while before I read them, as I have a bit of a queue of novels waiting to be read - and at present I'm engaged in rereading Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which is not one to hurry through. On this second reading, I'm finding it every bit as impressive as before, if not more so. There is such depth in the characters, such skill in the unfolding of the complex, multilayered tale, such moral seriousness, such involving and moving verisimilitude - all the traditional virtues of the novel at its best, deployed with masterly skill. If there's one novel from the latter half of the 20th century that deserves to survive, this is probably it.
 But predicting the survival of any book or writer is a mug's game. Here, for example, are some contemporary assessments of Ivy Compton-Burnett: 'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...' [Norman Shrapnel]. 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence' [David Holloway].
'P.H. Newby's assertion that she is the only writer since Joyce who is likely to be read one hundred years from now is as safe a statement as any contemporary could risk.' [Frank Baldanza].

 And now you can find first editions of her works on the shelves of a charity shop, priced at £1.99. Which, oddly enough, was also the price I paid for another first edition by another wildly unfashionable novelist, Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Come to think, it was in the same shop. 

Sunday 5 March 2017

Tiepolo Time

Looking back through the years (nearly nine of them now), I see that Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is almost as regular a birthday boy on this blog as Edouard Manet (23rd January). Well, any excuse for a dash of Venetian colour, especially at this time of year.
 Tiepolo was born on this day in 1696, and I shan't repeat what I've written about him on earlier posts (a quick search will bring them up). The image above is Pax et Justitia, a typically brilliant creation, illusionistically perfect, full of light, space and singing colour. It is part of Tiepolo's decorative scheme for the monastery complex on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a former leper colony in the Venetian lagoon that became an important site of the Armenian diaspora and a great centre of learning.
 Byron spent six months on the island, studying Armenian - 'the language to speak to God'. His visit is fondly remembered - he must have been on his best behaviour. Among later visitors was a young revolutionary called Joseph Stalin, who lodged at the monastery in 1907 and worked as a bell-ringer while on his way through Italy to Switzerland to meet up with Lenin. Now there's an image to savour - young Stalin tugging on the bell ropes of San Lazzaro...
 And here's another - Tiepolo's wonderfully sensuous take on Daphne and Apollo.

Friday 3 March 2017

The Audacity of The Hope

Good news from the Yorkshire Dales, where a village pub that had been closed and was taken over and saved by the villagers has gone from defunct hostelry to winner of CAMRA's National Pub of the Year.  The George and Dragon also functions as a village shop and library, and has a community allotment attached, and free internet access - all the kind of things that keep a village alive. But note also what is absent - muzak, gaming machines, phoney decor, gastropub pretensions, all the things that make drinking in many modern pubs such an unpleasant experience. What a good pub like the George and Dragon offers is a place where you can sit quietly and comfortably, talk - and hear what you're saying - meet people (if you want to) and drink good beer or whatever else takes your fancy.
  In the suburban village where I live, a closed-down pub was brought back from the dead in similar fashion - bought by the locals and reopened as just such a neighbourhood pub as the George and Dragon (though without the library, shop and allotments - we already have those). It is now so successful that it's sometimes impossible to find a seat - but other than that, it's wellnigh perfect.
  This surefire retroprogressive formula is not rocket science (nor is it likely to involve rocket salad). It simply offers the kind of pub that most people who are past their noise-loving youth prefer to drink in - and yet such pubs are hard to find, not least in the London area. One such, by some miracle, survives in Kensington, of all places - the Uxbridge Arms, described by Bryan Appleyard as 'the best pub in the world', and apparently under threat of being sold off. I hope the well-heeled regulars heed the example of the George and Dragon and The Hope (my rescued local) and engineer a buy-out. Then they can preserve this wonderful pub just as it is - perfect.

Wednesday 1 March 2017


March at last, and today is the birthday of America's greatest living poet, Richard Wilbur - 96 today. Here's a poem he wrote to celebrate a fellow poet's birthday -

For K.R. On Her Sixtieth Birthday

Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark,
Who round with grace this dusky arc
Of the grand tour which souls must take.

You who have sounded William Blake,
And the still pool, to Plato's mark,
Blow out the candles of your cake.
They will not leave you in the dark.

Yet, for your friends' benighted sake,
Detain your upward-flying spark;
Get us that wish, though like the lark
You whet your wings till dawn shall break:
Blow out the candles of your cake. 

In an interview (when he was a mere 87), Wilbur recalled how he came to write this birthday poem:

'That’s a sort of funny story. I had known briefly the English poet Kathleen Raine, who, as the poem sort of mentions, was not only a poet but was devoted to William Blake, and there were certain people she liked to expound. She was having a birthday; somebody wrote me from England saying that Kathleen’s having a sixtieth birthday, and we want to give her a party and we want to have lots of poems of greeting and celebration, of congratulation, and so will you write one? I remember that it came to me in the middle of the night that I ought to write something to her in the form of a rondeau, but perhaps the initial line that occurred to me proposed that. In any case, I was pleased to wake up and write a poem in the middle of the night, which doesn’t usually happen to me. And before I sent it off to this fellow in England, I got a letter from Kathleen Raine saying so-and-so has been a terrible busy-body, and he’s making people write poems for my birthday and I don’t want you to bother. But I sent it to him and said, “I think I’ve written a good poem and so I’m not going to suppress it.”'

Happy birthday, Mr Wilbur. Somehow the world feels that bit better for your still being in it.