Sunday 30 April 2017

The Homeric Bus

Last night I had a convoluted dream, apparently set in grimy North London circa 1970, but also - such is the way of dreams - in the present day. I've forgotten everything about this dream (cheers of relief all round) except for one detail. In the course of events, two double-decker buses went past, and each of them bore a wraparound poster carrying a quotation from Homer. The word 'Homer' was emblazoned on the front of the bus, above the driver's cab, while the quotation unfolded along the side wall of the upper deck. The graphics were not in the best of taste - rather along the lines of the Biblical quotations displayed outside fundamentalist churches - and I was unable to read either quotation (one from the Iliad, one from the Odyssey). But I was impressed by what I took to be a splendid initiative - Homer on buses! It certainly beats the notorious 'atheist bus' of 2008.
I made a mental note to mention it on the blog. And now I have.

'An Explosion of Freshness' in the Face of Death

This painting of lilacs and roses - 'an explosion of freshness, quivering in the crystal vase where the painter's imagination had placed them,' in the words of Edmond Bazire - was one of the two last completed works of Edouard Manet, painted just weeks before his death on this day in 1883.
  Manet died, like so many in his time, of complications of syphilis. He had a gangrenous leg amputated below the knee in the hope of a cure, but this only postponed the inevitable. However, he retained his good humour and ready wit to the end. One of his last visitors, Gaston Latouche, left an account of the dying Manet:
'Death came slowly, but it came. The last time I saw poor Manet, he had undergone the painful operation on his leg that we all remember. I can still see his fine head silhouetted against the white pillow that emphasised the ashen colour his face had assumed, already invaded by the shadows of death.
 I stayed with him only a few moments; he was supposed to avoid fatigue. We said little - I tried to keep a smile on my lips for his sake, and I felt the sobs tightening my throat. Yet Manet managed to laugh, and to make me laugh - I, who had promised to cheer up the dear companion, to whom I was so deeply devoted. I left without finding a word to say, pressing Madame Manet's hands and those of the good Leenhoff [Leon Leenhoff, Mme Manet's 'brother', in fact her son, either by Manet or possibly Manet's father].
 Two days later Manet died.'

Thursday 27 April 2017

Mugwumps Old and Young

This deeply dull election campaign has become a tad livelier thanks to our old friend Boris Johnson, who has lobbed a few verbal firecrackers the way of Jeremy Corbyn. In the course of pointing out, quite rightly, that a JC government would be a serious national security worry, Boris describes the Labour leader, mildly, as a 'benign Islingtonian herbivore' and, more vigorously, as a 'mutton-headed old mugwump'. Now, this is noun seldom heard on this side of the Atlantic except in a Harry Potter context. Politically, it means an independent who stands apart from, and even against, his own party - which was certainly true of JC before, thanks to a badly misfiring joke, he found himself leading it. However, it's unlikely Boris had that angle in mind - or even the Harry Potter angle. More likely he just went for a word that sounded silly and sat well with 'mutton-headed'.
 Self-described Mugwumps were the short-lived Sixties combo of that name, which has its place in the complex archaeology of the Mamas and Papas and the Lovin' Spoonful, since Cass and Denny of the former and Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian of the latter were involved. One LP was released, after the band had broken up, and I once owned it, but I have to say that, despite all the talent involved, it is really of curiosity value only. This track is about as good as it gets...

Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Assistant

I've just finished a novel I'd been meaning to read for some while - Bernard Malamud's The Assistant - and it's left me moved, shaken, and quite convinced that I have encountered a true modern classic.
 Malamud's second novel, The Assistant is set in a poor district of New York, where Morris Bober, a Jewish grocer (who, importantly, has lost a young son) lives with his wife and daughter, and struggles to keep his failing business going. His life hits a new low when his store is raided by two holdupniks, one of whom hits him ferociously over the head. While he is still recovering, a mysterious young man begins to haunt the store, offering to work, for nothing, as an assistant. Morris, against his wife's objections, takes him on, and the grocery's fortunes begin to improve. But who is the young man? Can Morris trust him? And what will happen when he begins to fall in love with Morris's daughter?
 This seems at first like a familiar narrative structure, but in Malamud's hands it serves as the framework for a fascinating and profound moral drama, one in which nothing is simple and everything is difficult. The unfolding events, expertly unwound through a process of revelation and concealment, are never predictable and the ground is never firm beneath our feet - which is to say that this novel feels a lot like life itself. The main characters are, like the story, many-layered - they draw us into their lives, eager to find out more, to know them, though they are ultimately unknowable, even to themselves. None is more compelling than Frank Alpine, 'the assistant', the young man at the centre of the novel, a man set on a terribly difficult path of redemption, one from which he is all too liable to stray, but which is the only thing that can save him from himself - and in saving himself, he might save others.
 This is a wholly convincing tale of suffering and penance, love and forgiveness, the all but impossible making of a new life. It exerts an unshakable grip and feels, from beginning to end, like a classic. I suspect Malamud is better known and more highly valued in the States than over here. I'd previously only read one of his novels - the rather atypical A New Life - but I'll surely be reading more now. Recommendations welcome.

Monday 24 April 2017


I know the Wandle, my local river - biologically dead in my boyhood - is now very much alive, with enough life in it to support kingfishers, egrets and a large population of herons. Even so, I was amazed and delighted to see, this morning, way upriver, a decent-sized brown trout - maybe a foot long - swimming in the shallow water, and even rising to snap at something, before retreating into the shadows of the riverbank undergrowth. For some reason, it put me in mind of a piece of music... Any excuse for enjoying this joyful performance again.

Sunday 23 April 2017


As soon as I was safely out of the country, Theresa May cheekily called a snap election - a development not unnoticed by the walking party. One of our number declared authoritatively that she was obliged to do this in order to deal with right-wing 'troublemakers' in her party who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that didn't precisely meet their demands (he didn't explain how the security of an increased majority would encourage them to pipe down - and I fear by 'troublemaker' he meant anyone who actually wants the UK out of the EU). He also predicted a mighty surge in support for the Lib Dems - who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that involved, er, Brexit - under their wildly charismatic leader, Tim Thingy. Well, from where they are, the only way is up of course, but it's not likely to make any real difference, is it - unless our friend was looking forward to an unholy alliance of Lib Dems, Scot Nats and others somehow thwarting Brexit. Now there's a depressing thought. Old Nige will call the election result in due course. Meanwhile I hope not to be returning to this subject very often.

Back from Greece...

And mountainous it was - we were walking in the Taygetos range, climbing endlessly along zig-zagging mule tracks, in places reduced to a rubble of rocks, scree and boulders, then at last descending equally endlessly through similarly challenging terrain. But we all survived, without so much as a twisted ankle - and, by golly, it was worth the exertion. The views were immense and dramatic, upwards to the snow-capped peaks of the principal mountains of the range, downwards into immensely deep canyons and river valleys, and all around to rocky and wooded bluffs, flower-covered slopes, distant glimpses of the wide Spartan plain...
 As for the wildlife - the walk began with a yard-long head-to-tail crocodile of Pine Processionary Moth larvae making its wiggly way across the car park of the inn where we stopped en route to our base in Mystras (their huge cocoons were hanging from the trees like grubby plastic bags). On our last afternoon we heard a cuckoo calling in the wooded valleys below us, and on the first day we spotted two wild tortoises resting in the undergrowth. Wild flowers were everywhere - cyclamen and red anemones, muscari (grape hyacinths) and blue pimpernel, sea squill and giant fennel, Judas trees and acacias in full flower, and orchids, orchids galore: I must have seen at least half a dozen spectacular species new to me, and some of the commoner ones were gloriously abundant (there's one in the foreground below).
 All this, and butterflies too - swallowtails both Greek and English, clouded yellows in profusion, small coppers and brown arguses, several species of orange tips and blues, and a number of Greek browns I couldn't name. I must have seen the best part of thirty species in all - it was, when the sun was out (which was more than half the time), butterfly heaven.
 We made no literary pilgrimages this time, but I can report that Patrick Leigh Fermor's house remains just as it was a year ago. Nothing has been put into storage, and no concrete progress made towards the projected Leigh Fermor museum house. This is no great surprise.

Monday 17 April 2017

Easter Monday

It's been wonderful spending so much time with the grandchildren and their parents, but the undeniable downside is that the brain turns mushier than ever, exhaustion sets in daily, and blogging, among other things, must take a back seat for a while. Hence the sparsity of recent posts here.
  And tomorrow, at a preposterously early hour, I'm flying off to Greece with my walking friends for a few days in a decidedly mountainous part of the Peloponnese.
  I'll leave you with an after-Easter poem by Kay Ryan that takes its title from Wallace Stevens' Of Mere Being...

The Palm at the End of the Mind

After fulfilling everything
one two three he came back again
free, no more prophecy requiring
that he enter the city just this way,
no more set-up treacheries.
It was the day after Easter. He adored
the eggshell litter and the cellophane
caught in the grass. Each door he passed
swung with its own business, all the
witnesses along his route of pain
again distracted by fear of loss
or hope of gain. It was wonderful
to be a man, bewildered by
so many flowers, the rush
and ebb of hours, his own
ambiguous gestures - his
whole heart exposed, then
taking cover.

Sunday 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday

And here, to mark Easter Sunday, is another treasure of the National Gallery, Titian's early masterpiece Noli Me Tangere. Here, as described in John's gospel (my current bedside reading), is the moment when the risen Jesus, having announced himself to Mary Magdalene by speaking her name, warns her to 'touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father'.
  A brilliant showpiece for the young Titian's prodigious skill in figure painting and landscape, this picture was originally conceived as a more straightforward composition, with Jesus in a less dramatically expressive pose - and wearing a gardener's hat (as in my favourite Resurrection painting - Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb in the Queen's Gallery, below).
  Happy Easter Day, everyone!

Friday 14 April 2017

Good Friday

This Good Friday morning, with perfect timing, I stumbled on a piece on Raphael's Crucifixion (known as the Mond Crucifixion) that I'd all but forgotten writing. It was on The Dabbler six years ago, and here's the link...

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Other Men's Flowers

Here's a link to the excellent Freddie's Flowers blog, where I have left a small bouquet of flower poems...

Tuesday 11 April 2017

A New World

When I saw the huge black glass facade of something called 'Poundworld' on the high street, I thought it was unlikely that this was going to be an Ezra Pound theme park - but what was it? Surely an establishment on such a scale couldn't be filled with stuff selling for a quid, could it? Especially as it was only a few doors away from a perfectly satisfactory Poundland...
 Reader (contain your excitement), it was! This was Poundworld indeed - a world packed full of quid-priced stuff. And I have to say it was one of the most depressing interiors I've ever set foot in - a vast, warehouse-like space with draining overhead strip lighting that reduced such colour as there was to a lifeless grey and induced a feeling like the prelude to a migraine attack. It was rather like a Soviet-era supermarket, except that the shelves, far from being empty, were piled high with stuff - stuff that seemed to be much the same as the stuff in any other pound shop, just displayed in greater quantities.  By the time I'd reached the far end, I was losing the will to live, and could only turn and head as fast as I could back towards the entrance, weaving my way through the browsing throng. The place was clearly doing a roaring trade, the checkout queue stretching away into the grey distance. I've no idea why - novelty perhaps? But then I've no idea about many features of this mystifying modern world.
 Relieved to be out again in the fresh air and natural light, I strolled a few doors down the street and glanced almost fondly into the old familiar Poundland.

Sunday 9 April 2017

'What couldn't possibly happen to us had happened...'

I have written much about Edward Thomas on this blog, but, looking back, I realise that I have never marked the anniversary of his death. And this year it is the centenary of that sad loss to English poetry - and something more terrible to his family and others who loved him.
 In her autobiography, Myfanwy Thomas, Edward's younger daughter, then just six years old, describes her anxieties after her father left for the war -

After saying good-bye to my father, every night for weeks I prayed for his safety on the ship, which seemed to me the most dangerous part of going to war. I imagined huge waves dashing against a small tug-boat, which mounted to the crest and then slithered down. My eyes screwed up tightly could not dispel this terrifying picture. The only prayer I knew was one which Joan Farjeon, Joe's daughter, had taught me. The prayer was a puzzle but I did not like to ask Mother about it; we were not a praying family. But seeing Joan kneel by her bed enchanted me and I became a regular kneeler.

Then, when the dreaded news came -

On that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. "No answer" came like a croak, and the boy rode away.
Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother's sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.
The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron [her sister Bronwen] had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire on a rage of tears - for what couldn't possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea?

 It was long believed that Thomas died without a mark on his body, killed by the concussive wave of a passing shell. However, in a letter discovered recently in an American archive, his commanding officer wrote that he was 'shot clean through the chest'. His widow was tactfully spared this fact - the slightest softening of a blow that plunged her into unbearable grief and a shattering 'breakdown'.
 Robert Frost, who described Thomas as 'the only brother I ever had', knew him for just four years, but his loving friendship and encouragement made a poet - ultimately a great poet - of Thomas. Three years after his friend's death, Frost wrote To E.T. -

I slumbered with your poems on my breast 
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through 
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb 
To see, if in a dream they brought of you, 

I might not have the chance I missed in life 
Through some delay, and call you to your face 
First soldier, and then poet, and then both, 
Who died a soldier-poet of your race. 

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain 
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained— 
And one thing more that was not then to say: 
The Victory for what it lost and gained. 

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire 
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day 
The war seemed over more for you than me, 
But now for me than you—the other way. 

How over, though, for even me who knew 
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 
If I was not to speak of it to you 
And see you pleased once more with words of mine? 

Friday 7 April 2017


Born on this day in 1613 was Gerrit Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, and one of Leiden's finest. He's under-represented in the National Gallery, but this beautifully executed Portait of a Man (surely a self-portrait?) hangs there.

Thursday 6 April 2017

Poet Voice

With a tip of the hat to both Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on this interesting study of 'Poet Voice', the curious affliction that overcomes so many poets or 'poets' when called upon to read their works aloud. The author of the piece identifies several forms of Poet Voice - for the two principal modes, check out the links to Andy Hamilton's imitation and to 'Switch', the spoof Spoken Word poet in Cardinal Burns. In the video clip, the American poet Louise Gluck demonstrates the standard literary form of Poet Voice all too perfectly - but over here it has a rather different sound. Overwhelmingly it's the sound of Liverpool (blame McGough, Patten and co.), of Yorkshire (blame Hughes), of nowhere south of the Midlands - London poets are generally obliged to adopt a cockney Spoken Word/ rap mode if they are to have any credibility, or to make it onto the airwaves.
 Radio 4 is infested with contemporary verse, usually spoken by its creators, invariably adopting standard Poet Voice or, in the more 'banging' programmes, loud Spoken Word voice. Most of the work is dismal enough already, but the liberal adoption of these voices makes it pretty much unlistenable. The prime offender (at least in category one) is Paul Farley, a Liverpudlian who adopts full-on Poet Voice not only to read his poems but also to present his programmes: check out The Echo Chamber, a show that has surely done more than any other to put listeners off the whole business of contemporary verse.
 It need not be like this. It's perfectly possible to read poems without adopting a 'special' voice, as Philip Larkin showed. He read as if his business was to put across his work as directly and straightforwardly as he could, not to proclaim 'I am a Poet and this is Poetry'. I'm not sure that poets' (or indeed actors') readings ever add anything very useful to what is on the page, but at least Larkin - unlike so many of today's practitioners - didn't make matters worse.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Nuntium Retroprogressivum

The news from Cambridge today is that a development of new houses has been emblazoned with graffiti - in Latin. Dog Latin anyway, so it's probably not the work of classicists (I'm assuming they still have to know Latin, but I'm probably behind the times there).
 In my day, graffiti of a provocative nature was everywhere, most of it the work of various anarchist groups who were all over the place in those rebellious times. Blake was popular, I remember - 'The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,' etc - and the likes of Antonin Artaud ('Jet of Blood')  and countless 'revolutionaries' now forgotten, at least by me. At that time, of course, Cambridge was a very different city, essentially an impoverished and declining provincial town with a very wealthy (and widely resented) university in its midst. Now it's an extremely prosperous city, made rich by high-tech industries, and with house prices to match. It seems the town's resentment now is against the housing developers and their allies who are turning most of the city into a big-money zone where the locals can't afford to live. It makes you quite nostalgic for the run-down, low-rent grubbiness of Cambridge as it was half a century ago. Half a century! Eheu fugaces labuntur anni... [Enough with the Latin - Ed.]

Monday 3 April 2017

And More

Just now, things seem to be conspiring to bear me back into the past - specifically to that golden period when I first arrived, as a nine-year-old boy, in the suburban demiparadise that is still, after various wanderings, my home. I was listening to Radio 3 this morning when Schubert's lovely song Hark! Hark! The Lark came on, beautifully performed by Ailish Tynan with Iain Burnside on the piano. This took me straight back to music lessons at my primary school when, with Mr Rutland at the piano, we children would raise our voices to sing this song, and Haydn's Creation's Hymn and Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds and other stirring and joyful classics. Actually, I wasn't raising my voice much at all, but I was listening - and Hark! Hark! The Lark was one of the very first songs that awakened the love of music in me - a love that has, in various forms, been part of my life ever since. Hark! Hark! sent me to the record shop to buy what I think was my first record - a Music for Pleasure EP of Die Forelle, sung by the Vienna Boys' Choir (price 6s 8d).  This happened in an unremarkable state primary school - would a pupil of today hear such music at the age of nine? I very much doubt it. But then it seems to me, looking back, that we came out of that fifty-to-a-class primary school rather better educated, in some ways, than today's graduates. Times change.


Our daughter and the grandsons, now aged four and two, are over from New Zealand - and who wouldn't head for England now that April's there? As usual, she has brought fine weather with her, and yesterday was a quite glorious April day - the elms (such as they are), lime trees and hornbeams in tiny leaf, horse chestnut parasols just opening, blackthorn and wild cherry in flower, the first cuckoo flowers showing above the grass, green alkanet briefly a thing of beauty, white comfrey and honesty in flower, early bluebells and cow parsley umbels, speedwell and violets, even the dandelions a glorious spectacle in their first flush. In the gardens, magnolia trees are flowering as amazingly as ever, and any day now wisteria, lilac and spring clematis will follow. What a time to be in England...
  We all spent the afternoon in the local park where I (and Mrs N, separately) had played and explored and (in my case) climbed trees six decades ago. The boys had no interest in the children's playground (which wasn't there in our day) but were fascinated by the grassy slopes and curving old-brick walls of what had been, in the eighteenth century, an ornamental canal with a grandly conceived grotto at its end, of which only the brick structure of 'caves' and tunnels (now blocked off) were completed. The house for which this landscape was laid out never got built, but these remnants of the grand plan have happily survived. Climbing the slopes and rolling down them, jumping off the walls, crawling into the one open tunnel - the boys relished it all, just as their grandparents, and their mother, had in their childhoods. These continuities, the fruits of staying so long 'rooted in one dear perpetual place', are to be treasured. And, to cap it all, as we were larking about by the grotto, the first orange-tip butterfly of the year wandered past.
  There were more to come today as I took a walk on another boyhood haunt, Wilderness Island (which really was a wilderness in my day) - not only orange tips but my first speckled woods of the year, a profusion of them, and peacocks, commas, holly blues, brimstones, a red admiral and a tortoiseshell. In England - now!