Thursday 27 July 2017


The day before yesterday I was picking blackberries on Mitcham Common, just yards from the thunderous main road, when I noticed something rather grey and moth-like fluttering around on the bramble patch. It was only when it (she, in fact) settled on a nearby leaf and folded its wings in a most unmothlike manner that I suddenly realised what it was. To quote myself on an earlier occasion - my friends, it was a Purple Hairstreak! A female, the upperside duller and browner than the male, but the underwing, with those subtle washes of greys, the thin meandering 'hairstreak', the tiny orange 'eyes' and tail, was unmistakable. A glorious surprise.
  Equally unmistakable was the Clouded Yellow that I saw a little later as it flew away from the trees and off over the golf course at high speed. This is a summer visitor that, if it turns up at all, can turn up anywhere (I once spotted one at South Mimms service station), and most years I count myself lucky if I see one at all. Last year I didn't - but that, of course, was the Year of the Hairstreak...
  The blackberries were delicious.

But enough of butterflies and blackberries - I'm off to Oxfordshire tomorrow, then to various parts of Mercia for a few days. There will probably be a brief hiatus. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets

'The common people do not understand poetry, are shy of poetry,  and though they have been taught to admire the true poets of the past are loath to admit that the race is not yet extinct. This is why very little work by living poets has a wide circulation except what is comfortably third-hand and third-rate. The people are not to be blamed: their difficulty is that despite all the charlatans, racketeers and incompetents who have disgraced the poetic profession, an aroma of holiness still clings to the title 'poet', as it does to the titles 'saint' and 'hero', both of which are properly reserved for the dead. It is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that the people are prepared to honour him...'
 They don't write Forewords like that any more. It's the opening of Robert Graves's foreword to the war poet Alun Lewis's posthumous collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (published 1945, the year after the poet's untimely death). I picked it up in a charity shop on my recent visit to Egham. The title is from the Book of Job: 'He [the horse] saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.'
 Alun Lewis is best known for the much anthologised All Day It Has Rained, a poem with something of an Edward Thomas flavour (written, in fact, in Edward Thomas country), and the touching Goodbye, which is in the Ha! Ha! volume. So too is Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape), an extraordinary, death-soaked poem that was the first of Lewis's I ever read:

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Lewis, initially a reluctant soldier (he was a pacifist and joined up as an engineer), inexplicably took a commission in an infantry battalion and was sent to India, then Burma. This gave him the material for many of the poems in his last collection, but the depression that had always dogged him grew worse - perhaps exacerbated by a love affair in India (he was married) - and he died not in combat but by his own hand. He was just 28.

Tuesday 25 July 2017

A Gender-Neutral Post from N.C. Andrew

I hear that male novelists have taken to writing for the women's market - the only fiction market that seems to be thriving - under names that give no indication of their sex, forenames being represented by initials. The wisdom of the market is that women only want to read novels by other women - preferably novels with titles containing the word 'Girl' or, at a pinch, 'Woman'. Among recent titles, Final Girls, The Girl Before and The Woman in the Window were all written by men using 'gender'-neutral names - and so was the big-selling Before I Go to Sleep, a Girl-free title.
  If it's true that women only want to read novels by other women - and, by the same logic, men only want to read men - then it's a dismal lookout. (Me, I seem to greatly prefer women novelists - but then, I'm not in the market for contemporary, or genre, fiction.) It might seem like some kind of payback that male novelists are now having to pass themselves off as women, rather than the other way round. However, I've never really bought the notion that, in the bad old days, women writers could only expect to be taken seriously if they pretended to be men. For one thing, it's a pretence that isn't going to last long; it might be useful in order to get published, but after the first successful publication, the truth will out, and will make no difference. The Brontes were a special case in every way,  and did Mary Ann Evans really have to call herself 'George Eliot' in order to be published and taken seriously? Was there anyone still under the impression she was a man by the time Middlemarch was published? Did any male reader, discovering the subterfuge, fling it aside as a novel fit only for women? Most Victorian women writers of all kinds kept their own names and were taken no less seriously for it.
  All of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels were published under the name 'I. Compton-Burnett'. Was this a serious attempt to pass as a man? Did readers recommend 'the new one by this chap Ian Compton-Burnett'? It seems unlikely.

Monday 24 July 2017

A Visit to Egham

Egham, an unlovely semi-suburban Surrey town on the opposite side of the Thames from Staines, is the kind of place you wouldn't be inclined to visit without good reason. My reason was, of course, research: St John's church in Egham contains two monuments to members of the Denham family, both of which are well worth the time of any monument man.
 The church, conveniently near the station, stands in a large churchyard, an enclave of old Egham in a town centre that, for the most part, looks much like any other. The church - a big, ugly Georgian rebuild in yellow brick and stone - shows evidence of being a thriving institution with a taste for evangelism (an impression confirmed by its website). It has been much extended and modernised in recent times and is the very model of an urban evangelical church. Though it opens for a couple of hours on Mondays, I fancy this is not for the benefit of antiquarian thrill-seekers like me.
 I entered with trepidation, and was greeted cordially by a man and a woman, neither of whom, to my relief, had the evangelical glint in their eyes. 'I'm here to have a look at the Denham monuments,' I declared breezily. A puzzled silence ensued; they clearly knew of no Denham monuments. 'I'm pretty sure they're in here somewhere,' I persisted, and the woman volunteered to help me find them, after I'd wandered round the body of the church and into the vestry and found no Denham monuments. She took a key and led me into the vestibule and up to the gallery to check the monuments there: nothing. This was odd.
  As we were going down the stairs from the gallery, I looked up at the opposite wall - and there, above us, was Sir John Denham*, rising from the grave in triumph, his shroud still over his head, the tomb beneath him a riot of skeletons and cadavers. 'I'd never noticed that,' said the woman, impressed. After admiring it a while, I set out to find the other Denham monument - could it be...? Yes, it was in exactly the same position on the other staircase to the gallery. A less dramatic affair than Sir John's monument, it portrays his two wives, with a baby and a free-standing miniature child. The design is brilliant, obviously Italian-inspired, and the figures of the two women (especially the one holding the baby) are full of life and wonderfully expressive. It looks like nothing else of its time. According to the Oxford DNB, there is good reason to think it might be by - yes - Epiphanius Evesham. The presence of this monument too was news to my guides, and they seemed glad to have noticed it. It's certainly prettier than Sir John's memorial.
 Visiting churches these days, you rarely meet the likes of the Rev. Henry D'Ascoyne (from Kind Hearts and Coronets) - 'I always say that my West window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of the period' - and that's no bad thing: it can be very tedious being shown round a church by an enthusiast who knows the building and its history in rather too much detail. On the other hand, it does seem odd that often the custodians of our churches, the believers who keep them functioning - even thriving - as places of worship, are often unaware of much of the beauty and interest of their buildings. But at least they are preventing them from falling into disuse, and are keeping Christian worship alive, even if in forms that some of us might find problematic. If we aesthetes, monument men and High Anglican sentimentalists were to take over the job, we surely wouldn't make much of a fist of it.

* Father of the poet.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Augustus Hare:A Spectacularly Unhappy Childhood

The other day I took a book from the shelf that I must have reviewed (perhaps for The Listener?) back in 1985 when it came out, but of which I remember very little indeed. It's a biography: Augustus Hare, Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes. I thought I'd have another look at it, by way of a break from my fiction reading.
 Augustus J.C. Hare was one of those Victorian writers who were very successful in their day but soon sank below the horizon as the century turned. He wrote a wide range of popular travel guides - his Walks in Rome was the most successful - as well as biographies of aristocrats (he adored the nobility) and family histories, but he was also an autobiographer on a grand scale. His Story of My Life runs to six fat volumes, supplemented by Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life and letters of his mother in three volumes. No shortage of material for the biographer, and Malcolm Barnes (who also edited an abridged version of the autobiography) makes good use of it.
 What I had remembered of this biography was that Hare had an unhappy childhood. Re-reading it, I realised just how unhappy. Even by the standards of Victorian children born into ultra-evangelical families with sadistic leanings, Hare's was a spectacularly unhappy childhood. Given away, for purely selfish reasons, by his natural mother, young Augustus was raised by his father's sister, Maria, a death-obsessed evangelical who was firmly convinced that children are innately evil and that sin must be driven out of them. The idea was that, by denying a child anything that might give them pleasure, the will could be broken and the child 'saved'. This was mainstream stuff in evangelical circles at the time, and Maria's harshness was softened to some degree by natural affection, so that life with 'Mother', however oppressive, was bearable to Augustus, and even had its pleasures.
  Unfortunately there were others on the scene, whose attitudes to child-rearing made Maria's look like the utmost leniency. Augustus's uncle Julius, the Rector of Herstmonceux, lived nearby and dominated Maria and Augustus's life with his demands, his strictures and his ferocious presence, in which the boy was expected to sit still, in silence, and be totally ignored. But worse was to come after Julius married Esther, a sister of F.D. Maurice, the 'saintly' theologian and Christian Socialist (saintly to Charles Kingsley and many adoring followers, 'puzzle-headed' and 'wrong-headed' to Ruskin). Esther set about tormenting the unhappy Augustus - for his own good, of course - with all but psychopathic relish.
 As well as being made to sleep through the harshest winter weather in a solitary unheated room and (despite his chilblains) wash in the morning in water that was often frozen, he was also forced to eat sauerkraut precisely because its very smell made him sick. On other occasions, delicious puddings would be presented at table, with every display of relish, only to be taken away again intact. Esther also decreed that, on Sundays, Augustus should be locked into the vestry for three hours between services, with only the rats for company. But the climax of her campaign of vicious sadism came when she took Augustus's favourite cat from him and hanged it from the branch of a tree, taking the boy out to see its quivering body.
 When not suffering this brutal domestic regime, Augustus would be enduring a succession of horrendous boarding schools (one run by the father of Francis Kilvert, the diarist) where conditions were so appalling that he longed to be home. In the course of all this, he often, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill, on one occasion being obliged to wear a kind of iron cage over his body for months on end.
 Happily, there were times when more agreeable people entered his life - one of them Walter Savage Landor, with whom Augustus dined regularly when attending a school near Bath, the meals with Landor saving him from starvation. Augustus revelled in the conversation (or monologue) of the old man, who would sit with his white Spitz dog on his head while holding forth. The Hares were phenomenally well connected, and not all of their connections were ecclesiastical - a fact that stood Augustus in good stead in later life when cultivating the aristocracy, with many of whom he could claim some kind of cousinly connection. This was a man who was never happier than when attending a house party at one or other of the stately homes of England.
  That Augustus Hare was capable of happiness at all - that he became a sociable, well-liked and apparently well-adjusted man with a successful career - after such a start in life as he endured is little short of miraculous. Indeed, it's a wonder he survived at all.

Saturday 22 July 2017

The Poetry of Labels

I've just been cleaning the oven with a product that, the label assures me, 'laughs in the face of baked-on food. Without the need for rubbing, scrubbing or agitating, it dissolves stubborn baked-on grease, oil and fat within minutes... Simply sponge or brush on and after five minutes wipe off for [a] gleaming, sparkling oven every time.' The Directions include the soothing injuction, 'Leave to dwell for five minutes.' I like that 'dwell'...
  Needless to say, far from laughing in the face of baked-on food, this cleaner sighed weakly and capitulated. Even with a deal of rubbing, scrubbing and agitating, it left behind a black impasto of rock-hard gunk, from which only the major promontories had been rubbed, scrubbed and agitated away. Not a gleam or a sparkle to be seen, and if there was any laughing, it was the gunk laughing in the face of the puny oven cleaner that promised to much. I covered the bottom of the oven with a patented liner (that also promises much) and hoped for better days.

Friday 21 July 2017

Round the Corner Smith

Born on this day in 1863 was Charles Aubrey Smith, who, as C. Aubrey Smith, enjoyed a very successful film career playing Hollywood's idea of the 'archetypal Englishman' in a string of films from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Before that, he had tried his hand as a gold prospector in South Africa, where he succumbed to pneumonia and was pronounced dead by doctors. He also had a successful career as a cricketer, playing for Sussex and once leading England to victory in what turned out to be a Test match against South Africa (no one was quite sure at the time). He was chiefly a fast bowler, bamboozling the batsman with his long, curved run-up that began somewhere around deep mid-off. As he reached the wicket, 'Round the Corner Smith' would suddenly appear from behind the umpire, often with unnerving effect.
  In Hollywood, Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, which he ruled with a rod of iron, expecting any English actors in the vicinity to turn out and play. The pitch was of imported English turf, and the HCC games afforded much amusement to the locals. Once, while fielding at slip, Smith dropped a tricky catch and sent his English butler to fetch his glasses, which he duly did - on a silver salver. Smith put them on, and promptly dropped a sitter, at which he whipped off his glasses and growled, 'Damn fool brought my reading glasses.'
  When in England, Smith would often visit Lord's. Once a member spotted him in the pavilion and remarked to another member, 'That chap looks familiar.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.'

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

Natural Burial

Today a lonely impulse of delight led me to visit, for the first time, a 'natural burial ground'. I'd heard that it's alive with butterflies this summer, and that alone would have been enough reason, but I was also interested to see what a 'natural burial site' looks like, or indeed is.
 Alive with butterflies it certainly was - meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, skippers and (common) blues in abundance, plus brown arguses, small coppers, late marbled whites, commas, peacocks, etc. And what it looked like was not a burial ground but a large wildflower meadow, with young woodland and a lake - nothing above ground to show that this is a burial place, except perhaps the minimum-impact glass pavilion. There's a reason for this, I discovered: no vertical memorials or markers are allowed, except for trees (native species only - quite right too). The whole idea of 'natural burial' is to be reabsorbed into the earth as soon as is naturally possible, leaving no lasting mark on the landscape (stone markers, even if horizontal, are not allowed).
 I was rather attracted by the idea, I must admit. Earth to earth, taking our place in the cycle of nature. Of course I have my own ideas about the kind of ceremony I would like to send me on my way, but as for the actual disposal of the body - or rather the ashes - I'd be quite happy for it/them to go this way, returning to the earth in surroundings like these, amid wild flowers and butterflies.
  It's a feeling that, I suspect, is in the ascendant, and natural burial is certainly becoming increasingly popular. The difficult idea of bodily resurrection no longer seems to make much sense to many people; the body surely belongs to nature and will return to it, whatever the fate of the soul. So why not recognise the fact, and help it on its way? Especially if it can be done in a dignified manner in such pleasant and appropriate surroundings.
 And yet, as a monument man, a wanderer in churchyards and reader of epitaphs, I cannot help but feel a strong nostalgia for the times when the dead were memorialised in enduring ways, when fine craftsmanship, even great art, was employed to that end, leaving a rich and glorious legacy of church monuments and (in a smaller way) carved stones and epitaphs.
 In the parish church a few hundred yards away from the natural burial ground, there's a grave board that reads
'In memory of Alfred Lemon, who died May 2nd 1851, aged 14 years.
When missing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And feel that death is gain.'
 Not great verse, not a great epitaph, but a genuine expression of grief and hope that has come down to us across more than a century and a half. With natural burial there will be no such survivals - nothing, after a short while, to mark the life, the death, the loss. Does this matter? Probably not, in an age when we seem to have lost the art of memorialising the dead, when even the urge to do so seems weak. And yet...

Monday 17 July 2017

In Lucem: A Mystery

Strolling in one of my local parks the other day - a park I've known for nearly 60 years, and of which I thought I knew every inch - I was astonished to happen on something entirely new to me. It wasn't exactly hidden away either, but in the lawn by the boating lake, near the grand herbaceous border and just yards from the lakeside path - how on earth had I missed it for so long? This was a park I played in as a boy, it's adjacent to the grammar school I attended for seven years, I've walked there more times than I could possibly compute - and yet I'd somehow missed this.
  What was it? Good question. It was - and is - a small engraved stone tablet overlooking a miniature pool of water, the lowest point of a shallow V-shaped dip in the ground, into which a narrow brick path leads and from the other side of which it emerges. The whole thing is barely ten yards wide/long.
  It is, I have discovered, a remnant of the fernery that was part of the once famous garden that was incorporated into the park when the council bought the land. Why and how this curious feature survived I have no idea - can it really have been there all through my long years of walking in this park and failing to notice it?
  And what about the motto engraved on the stone? In lucem lucrum, ludum. I can see that it's something to do with light, profit and game/play - but what does it mean? And what can it possibly have to do with the cultivation of ferns? Any ideas?

Sunday 16 July 2017

My Problem with Pugin

Over the weekend, in the course of my researches, I found myself in the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, a place I'd never visited before. I was greatly impressed by the magnificent location - harbour, cliffs, wide sandy beaches facing the sunny South, panoramic views of sea, sky and town (largely free of high-rise disfigurement) from the end of the harbour wall - and the fine Regency and Victorian terraces, crescents and squares that rise above the shore. No wonder this was such a popular watering place in Victorian times - so popular that in places every other building has a blue plaque commemorating some eminent Victorian's sojourn.  Today Ramsgate is clearly poised to be the next Margate - i.e. to be discovered, colonised and revitalised by arty/hipsterish London types - but it seems to be a slow process. What it needs perhaps is a new art gallery along the lines of Margate's Turner...
  What it has got, as its prime architectural/devotional attraction, is Pugin's church (now a shrine) of St Augustine, to which I naturally bent my steps. Lacking the spire that Pugin intended, the church has a rather dumpy aspect from outside, and the dark flint from which it is built does nothing for its beauty - but the glory of this church is, everyone says, its interior, the architect's masterpiece, the church he built for himself, with his own money, exactly as he wanted it. I entered with high hopes of an overwhelming aesthetic experience - but I'm sorry to say that, to my disappointment, I felt little more than a cool admiration for Pugin's architectural brilliance and ingenuity, and for the fine craftsmanship on display.
 The church, for me, lacked anything of the truly numinous, and I found the sheer relentlessness of its earnestly 'correct', highly detailed Gothic oppressive and rather distasteful.  What is the point of a Gothic revival that simply reproduces the Gothic in an age to which it is essentially alien (well, in as much as Gothic is ever alien to the incorrigibly anti-classical, anti-modernist English imagination)? As Heraclitus pointed out long ago, you cannot step twice into the same river; it will have flowed away. The re-creation of a supposedly authentic Gothic style - as against the reimagining and development of it for another age - is essentially an arid exercise, whatever the passion that might have fired it, and at St Augustine's, I'm afraid, it feels like it. Or rather it felt like it for me. I almost preferred Ramsgate's other Gothic revival church, St George's, where the Gothic is superficial, purely decorative, essentially Georgian, but somehow more fitting. Certainly more Anglican. Maybe that's my problem, my Anglican soul.  

Thursday 13 July 2017

'A genuine interest in all the details'

Recently a quotation from William Morris caught my eye: 'The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.'
 Naturally one is chary of any statement beginning with those words; most are no more than pious nostrums. But in this case, I think Morris was really on to something. In my experience of bored, unhappy and world-weary people, I've found that they nearly all have one thing in common - they don't at all closely notice the detail of the world around them or take any real interest in it. Their minds are on, as it were, higher things and bigger pictures - a recipe for unhappiness if ever there was one. 'Short views,' as Sidney Smith counselled his depressed lady friend. The shorter and more concentrated the better - close attention to what is there, leading ultimately perhaps to that long-sought goal of 'living in the moment', at least getting somewhere near it. Paying attention is, it seems to me (and to many others), one of the three essentials of living a reasonably happy and balanced life in this world (the other two being something like humility, gratitude, a sense of perspective, and gusto, enjoying what can be enjoyed, taking pleasure in the things at hand. These two ultimately derive from the third, paying attention, so it is in that sense the most important.)
 I'm deeply suspicious of 'research findings', unless they confirm what is already known or intuited or belongs in the realm of 'common sense'. So I was glad recently to come across some research investigating why some people regard themselves as 'lucky' and others as 'unlucky' - what distinguishes the two types? The key finding was that the 'lucky' were those who paid attention and were alert to what was around them, while the 'unlucky' paid only partial and selective attention, their attention being more inwardly directed, and missed much of what was going on (thereby missing opportunities to turn their 'luck').
 If paying attention can be extended into 'taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life', so much the better (though there's a snag perhaps in the word 'genuine' - can a genuine interest be acquired or must it be innate? I think it's probably the former.) An interest in such details means that your chances of ever being bored are dramatically lowered, as these details are all around you all the time (especially in this digital age). It also means, usefully, that you'll always have something to talk about with those people - the majority - whose minds are not on higher things and bigger pictures (though, in my case, a large blank spot containing most sport, all cars, high-tech gadgets and other 'man stuff' can be a problem in male company).
 The more we take an interest in the detail of the world around us, the more richly interesting and involving it becomes - the more you see, the more you see there is to see (to paraphrase John Sebastian). The specific is invariably more interesting than the generic, and it is more present; we experience the world through its specifics. Who could be bored when there are swifts flying? 'Smell the roses' is not a bad injunction - pause, experience this one specific thing; that is living. But before I turn into a latter-day Donovan offering a gift from a flower to a garden, I'd better stop. Only adding that a genuine interest in all the detail of daily life is certainly invaluable to any blog writer.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Technical note

I've been having very frustrating problems with my temperamental internet connection - hence recent sparsity of posting. I'm hoping it will settle down now and online life will resume its even tenor...

Back to Ivy

'"No one can speak in this house without meaning too much," said Nigel.'

  Yes, I've been reading Ivy Compton-Burnett again, in whose fictional houses - all essentially the same house - no one can speak without meaning too much, without subtexts of things meant but unspoken seething dangerously near the surface.
  This time I was feeding my ICB addiction with A Father and His Fate, published in 1957 and one of the shorter, funnier and more readable novels in the oeuvre. The theme is similar to The Present and the Past (the clue’s in the title), which I also read quite recently.

‘“It is the future we must think of,” said Constance [in A Father and His Fate]. “It is useless to pursue the past.”
  “It is needless,” said Audrey. “It will pursue us.”’

  Miles Mowbray, the monster at the centre of A Father and His Fate, is, as ICB’s male monsters go, a relatively benign one, a pompous, grandiloquent and absurd figure (whose absurdity is constantly being pointed up by his sharp-witted nephews Nigel and Rufus). However, when fate presents him with the opportunity – or appears to – he steps in briskly to steal his nephew’s fiancée, his junior by decades, and propose to marry her.
  This, or something very like it, actually happened in my own family, when my much-married and philoprogenitive great-grandfather stole his son’s fiancée and married her, fathering several more children. Miles Mowbray’s plans, however, are thwarted when the past makes an unexpected reappearance in the present. Unexpected, that is, by everyone except the reader, who will have seen it all coming; Ivy’s plots are nothing if not flimsy. She is the perfect exemplar of the Aristotelian distinction between plot and action: her plots are perfunctory to the point of absurdity, but the action of her novels – which unfolds almost entirely through the dialogue – is rich, complex, layered and dense with meaning. Yes, too much meaning.


Sunday 9 July 2017

Common Day

On Bookham Common this morning, the Purple Emperor hunters were out in force - unlike the Purple Emperors, which were clearly not going to bother flying unless things got a good deal sunnier, if then. The Emperors are notoriously a law to themselves, at times charging around in the oak canopy like the butterfly equivalent of those young men who race Lamborghinis around Knightsbridge, at other times - most - disappearing completely, and at yet others flaunting themselves at ground level in all manner of unlikely circumstances, feeding greedily on the most disgusting things they can find or soaking up the sun on someone's parked car (see the extraordinary Purple Empire blog, passim) -
 And just as I was writing that, I looked up and saw that Countryfile (I only had it on for the weather, honest) was showing the latest Emperor's Breakfast, a tempting collation of fermented fish, stinking cheese and black pudding laid out by the Purple Empire's Matthew Oates and fellow Emperor obsessive Neil Hulme. It did the trick, drawing down an Emperor or two from the canopy to savour what was on offer, and dear old John Craven made off with a piece of the stinking cheese with which to 'surprise' his fellow presenter as they signed off. How we roared.
 No Emperors for me, of course, on Bookham Common, but I wasn't seriously expecting any. The second most showy of our butterflies, the Silver-Washed Fritillary, was out in force - too many to count - and I had the pleasure of seeing half a dozen or so of my favourite, the subtly beautiful White Admiral. And then I had the curious experience of rescuing a Ringlet from the trumpet of a Greater Bindweed. The poor thing had somehow got itself jammed at the narrowest point, perhaps going that bit too far in quest of nectar. It was quite still and I thought it was most likely dead, but when I carefully slit the trumpet and peeled it back, the Ringlet began to flutter weakly and, after a few seconds, flew off and settled on a leaf to recover from its ordeal. My good deed for the day.

Saturday 8 July 2017

The Real Thing

Yesterday I was walking, with walker friends, in deepest Kent. Our objective - mine, anyway - was the little church at Otterden, an unpromising Georgian box (the private chapel of the 'big house', Otterden Place) which contains a range of fine monuments, including one by our old friend Epiphanius Evesham.
  It's not a church to visit casually, being almost permanently locked; but, by prior arrangement, the key - a large and serious key - can be had from the occupants of the big house. First impressions of the church interior are little better than those of the exterior - until you notice the monuments against the North and South walls. Three of these amount to a neat summary of English monumental art in the Jacobean period, ranging in quality from good to better to best: two standard forms competently executed and one work of art of a quite new kind. The earliest of these three, which memorialises William Lewin, has two recumbent effigies, man and wife, lying atop a tomb chest, with numerous offspring lined up along the base. Everything is straight off the production line and there is no real individual life in any of the figures. More interesting is a wall monument of a decade later that follows another standard pattern - man and wife praying, facing each other, at a prayer desk (with a daughter kneeling behind the mother). More unusually, there is a baby in a canopied cot separately figured on a shelf below. The modelling of the figures is rather better, but still pretty stiff and lifeless. Both of these monuments might shine more brightly in another church, one where they were not so entirely overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Otterden's third Jacobean monument - the Evesham*.
  Sir Justinian Lewin, who died in 1620, is shown lying in his armour, his body not in repose but stiffened in death. His grieving wife kneels at the side of the chest on which he lies, her chin on her hand, her eyes, full of sorrow, gazing at his face. This is powerful - and original - enough, but there is still more emotion in the stricken, bewildered face of the child who kneels beside her, tugging at her skirt, desperate to be comforted. This is monumental art at its most convincingly expressive; there is nothing stylised or artificial or about this portrayal of grief - as with Evesham's Lynsted monument, this is the real thing.

  Sir Justinian, who was a gentleman of the privy chamber to James I, was the second son of William Lewin, and therefore has the rare distinction of appearing on two of the church's monuments - as a generic child on his father's and as a fully individual dead man on his own.
  One more thing about Otterden: in 1729, in the grounds of Otterden Place, the Rev. Granville Wheler, the house's then owner, and Stephen Gray succeeded in transmitting electrical current for an unprecedented 860ft along a length of oiled thread. You can read more about that here...

* The monument is unsigned, but is confidently (and surely rightly) attributed to Epiphanius Evesham - whose else could it be?

Thursday 6 July 2017

Your Chance to See Philip Larkin's Knickers

As I was nodding off last night, I had the strange experience of hearing Philip Larkin chatting with his mother. This was on some late news programme, and they were playing a recording Larkin had made himself on a reel-to-reel tape recorder - a recording that was now part of a big new Larkin archive exhibition at the University of Hull.
  The chat between Larkin and his mother was easy and affectionate, and they obviously got on well with each other - but the inevitable editorial line was to claim that this was an astonishing revelation: was this not the poet who wrote that 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad'? Oh dear - poor Larkin, to have ended up forever associated with that notorious line above all others. Note to the literal-minded: there are such things as personas, voices... It might have been more apposite to quote a poem like the tender, clear-sighted Mother, Summer, I -

My mother, who hates thunder storms, 
Holds up each summer day and shakes 
It out suspiciously, lest swarms 
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there; 
But when the August weather breaks 
And rains begin, and brittle frost 
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air, 
Her worried summer look is lost, 

And I her son, though summer-born 
And summer-loving, none the less 
Am easier when the leaves are gone. 
Too often summer days appear 
Emblems of perfect happiness 
I can't confront: I must await 
A time less bold, less rich, less clear: 
An autumn more appropriate.

The exhibition in which the allegedly surprising recording features is Larkin: New Eyes Each Year, and it certainly does promise to take the visitor 'almost unnervingly close' to the poet. Was ever a poet's life so comprehensively archived? Did he really mean for everything he left behind in his house - from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, from lawnmowers to knickers, from knitted rabbits to a statuette of Hitler (a gift from his father) - to be preserved and displayed? He took care to destroy his diaries (believed to be largely pornographic), so presumably he was content for the rest to be archived, if that was what the Larkin industry wanted. Perhaps he could see the funny side of all his preserved ties, duly archived, hanging solemnly on display...
  If nothing else, an exhibition this intimate shows that, as Auden wrote of Yeats, he was 'silly like us'. Or, as Jake Balokowsky, Larkin's imagined biographer, puts it, he was just 'One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys'.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Great and the Good

Having been hugely impressed by The Assistant, I've continued my reading of Bernard Malamud with the obvious next (or perhaps first) step, The Fixer. This was the author's most successful novel, winning not only a National Book Award but also a Pulitzer. There was a film version, starring Alan Bates, and The Fixer even turned up in Don Draper's hands in an episode of Mad Man (fifth season, At The Catfish Ball, fact fans).
  I read The Fixer in an edition furnished with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer, largely devoted to distinguishing between good books and great books (which took me back to my schooldays, when I made just such a distinction while discussing Beethoven's symphonies with a teacher - No 5 best, No 9 greatest, I opined). Anyway, Foer identifies The Fixer as a great book because, like all great novels, it reminds us that 'We must do something'. Really? Must we? Don't great novels rather remind us, in the fullest, most immediate and intimate way, what it is to be human in this world, what it feels like, what it means? Something like that, and by that measure I'd rate The Assistant a richer work of fiction than The Fixer.
  The Fixer (to some extent a fictionalisation of a real-life case) tells the story of Jakov Bok, a Jewish handyman who in Kiev on 1911 finds himself falsely charged with the ritual murder of a Christian boy - the old blood libel - and imprisoned awaiting a trial that may never come. We are left in no doubt of the violent endemic antisemitism of Tsarist Russia (early on, a chatty Russian casually advocates the Final Solution) and the brutality and degradation of prison life. Malamud draws us with wonderful skill into Bok's world as he undergoes a succession of misfortunes and hideous torments and remains, by sheer force of will, unbroken and determined to live long enough to prove his innocence.
 The author's problem is to maintain tension as things go from bad to worse to yet worse and Bok's life becomes a relentless catalogue of sufferings. Malamud succeeds, by a skilful deployment of events (few though they are) and clever modulations of pace and voice, of rising and falling hope, from the depths of despair to dreams of freedom, from placid acceptance to the borders of madness. He inhabits Bok's mind completely, and thereby ensure that we do too. I was gripped throughout, avidly turning the pages, but increasingly uneasy as those pages got fewer and the problem of an ending became ever more acute. How could this story possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion? Well, I'm not sure it does - but it's the right ending, perhaps the only possible ending.
  The Fixer is a wonderful piece of writing - a masterpiece of a kind - but for me it just doesn't have the deep multiple resonances of The Assistant, a book that strikes me on reflection as the nearest thing to a great novel I have discovered in quite some while.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Est. 1591

Pictured above is Whitehall, a rather wonderful survival in the Surrey suburban village of Cheam. This historic house is now undergoing a big refurbishment, and as a result much of it is enclosed by hoardings. They bear the name of the company doing the building work - 'R. Durtnell & Sons, Est. 1591'.
 Yes, established 1591 - that's the kind of vintage you don't often come across in these times, when 'Est. 2011' is considered an index of probity and long standing. But how reliable is that 'Est. 1591'? Is the present company really that old? The answer is emphatically yes: this is a family firm that has come down from father to son through 13 generations, and is still based in its original home town, Brasted in Kent. One of the Durtnells' first buildings was Poundsbridge Manor [below], built by John and Brian Durtnall (as it was then spelt) in 1593. When the house was hit by a stray bomb in the Second World War, R. Durtnell & Sons were called in to rebuild the damaged parts, and the Manor is still in splendid shape, a highly desirable (and phenomenally expensive) private house.
  It's good to know that a company of similar vintage to the house is at work on restoring Whitehall.