Saturday 30 September 2017

'Last night I saw Lester Maddox...'

Born on this day in 1915 was Lester Maddox, the segregationist Governor of Georgia. Little cause for celebration there, but I'm not one to turn down an opportunity to play a Randy Newman song. You'll recall that Rednecks begins with the lines

'Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass New York Jew*
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too.
Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
And if they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song...

* Dick Cavett, not a Jew.

It's also interesting to note that Maddox – along with George Wallace and most of the segregationist Southern political leaders – was a Democrat. How did the party get from there to the right-on moral high ground in so few decades?

Thursday 28 September 2017

A Pickle

I see it's National Poetry Day again (how soon it comes around...). This year's theme is, er, Freedom. For myself, I'm with Donovan inasmuch as freedom is a word I rarely use*. But, to mark the day, let's hand over to Kay Ryan for a few words on life - this life - what is it, Kay, in a word?

It's a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale:
to be miniature is to be swallowed
by a miniature whale. Zeno knew
the law that we know: no matter
how carefully diminished, a race
can only be half finished with success;
then comes the endless halving of the rest --
the ribbon's stalled approach, the helpless
red-faced urgings of the coach. 

* see, if you must, Colours (1965) 

Spark Again

Having taken a refreshing dip in masculine waters with Donald Westlake, I was soon back with my lady novelists - specifically Muriel Spark. I'd picked up a copy of The Driver's Seat in a local charity shop and, as I hadn't read it before...
 What can I say? It's very short, barely novella length, very strange and, even by Spark's standards, icy cold. It's also an astonishing piece of writing, the kind of thing that only a writer of dazzling talent could bring off (if she does bring it off - many of Spark's most ardent fans, it seems, found this one hard to swallow).
 What is it about? Well, it's impossible to say without giving the plot away - but, as Spark happily does just that by way of opening the third chapter of the book, it hardly matters. Lise, the clearly deranged main character, whom we first meet buying a bizarre selection of garish clothes in a London shop before flying off to some unidentified Mediterranean resort, is a 'murderee' (isn't there one of those in Martin Amis's London Fields? Did he get the idea here?). Lise is setting out to accomplish her own murder. She just needs to find someone to do it...
 We are told almost nothing about Lise, beyond the bare fact that she's worked in the same office for sixteen years - a few hints here and there, but nothing concrete - and must try to work out for ourselves why she is doing this, even as we hang on, pale and aghast, waiting to find out how she will bring it about. Happily there are supporting characters and incidental details - delineated with Spark's characteristic acuity - to diffuse our attention, but it is Lise's unexplained, inexplicable quest that drives the action to its climax.
 The author does not let us into the inner world of anyone in this novel - least of all Lise - but remains outside it all, omniscient but telling us almost nothing.  Perhaps that is the only way to handle these dark materials - and it works, to the extent that it keeps the reader reading, and adds up to something that looks like a satisfying whole, even if it's one you'd really rather not swallow. The New Yorker called The Driver's Seat 'spiny and treacherous', and those adjectives are dead right. It is also, like it or not, a rare piece of virtuoso storytelling.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

A Face from the Past

This face, I feel sure, is going to haunt me for a long time. It is that of Sir Adrian Scrope (died 1623) as carved by - who else? - Epiphanius Evesham for Scrope's monument in the remote Lincolnshire church of St Leonard, South Cockerington.
 Sir Adrian (of whose life almost nothing is known) reclines on one elbow, the hand of his other arm on his breast, his head raised as if listening intently to something, or lost in thought. His sword lies beside him, his helm behind, his gauntlets under one armoured knee. He wears a fine collar and a sash that still retains a little colour. On two beautifully carved panels below him on the tomb chest his sons and daughters are artfully arranged. The tomb is of alabaster, but Sir Adrian's effigy is of grey limestone, and has been knocked about a bit, as is so often the case with these monuments, great works of art though they are.
 What is remarkable - indeed unnerving - about this effigy is how extraordinarily real it seems, how completely natural and unforced the pose is. When you enter the church, it really does look as if some visitor has decided to rest awhile on a tomb chest. And then, when you look at that face,  when you look into those eyes - or rather try to; the eyes are always elsewhere - it is absolutely like looking at the face of a living person, of a person who has lived. What is that face saying? Is it telling us anything, or is that gaze purely inward?
 This is certainly a man facing the end of his life, not one newly awakened at the general resurrection of the dead, though a similar pose was often used in resurrection monuments. Indeed that semi-recumbent pose was, sadly, to become standard for a host of intensely relaxed aristos on a host of overblown Baroque tombs. But there is nothing relaxed about Sir Adrian, and nothing overblown about his monument. Indeed there's nothing really Baroque about it - that face, in particular, could have been carved at any time. There is something universal about it. Perhaps, when we look at it, we are ultimately looking at ourselves.

Monday 25 September 2017

In His Country

The landscapes of the Lincolnshire Wolds - rolling wooded hills and farmland dotted with sleepy little villages - are among the most beautiful in the land. They are also among the least appreciated and visited: the roads are almost eerily quiet, and people of any description are few and far between - which is great news for those of us who do appreciate the beauty of these wolds. Even better, all the churches that can be opened are indeed open - a rare pleasure for the church-crawler in these times.
 I was there at the weekend, with my cousin, on a little tour of 'Tennyson country', the cluster of villages centred on Somersby, where the poet grew up, a child of the rectory (and of the deeply troubled rector, who descended into insanity in his later life). There is no plaque on the rectory, nor any indication that this was the house where one of England's greatest and most popular poets spent his formative years. Outside the church, an information board gives a pretty good summary of Tennyson's Somersby life, but you would not otherwise know that this tiny village was the heart of 'Tennyson country'; this is not exactly an over-promoted attraction. As a happy result, it can still be enjoyed in blessed peace and quiet.
 Somersby church is typical of the Wolds churches - stone-built, compact, unpretentious, with a sturdy West tower and a degree of Victorian restoration. The airy whitewashed interior is peaceful and numinous. Against one wall there's a display case containing a couple of the poet's churchwarden pipes and one of his quill pens - and, under the tower, the great man's brooding bust, by Thomas Woolner, stares at nothing.
 If there is to be a 'Tennyson country', this is just as it should be - a half-forgotten land lost in a very special, very local kind of enchantment.

Thursday 21 September 2017

The Japanese have a word for it...

And the word is Tsundoku. It describes a phenomenon that will be familiar to any book buyer - buying books that are destined to spend the rest of their lives standing neglected and unread on the groaning shelves. We are all guilty - though I like to think I'm a lot less so than I once was. Good to know there's a word for it anyway.

Meanwhile, I must report that I'm off again, to Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, where the hunt for Epiphanius Evesham monuments continues...

A Nigel Writes

It seems the once proud name of Nigel is dying out - see, for example, this wittily titled piece from the Guardian. The writer - a Nigel himself - gets most of the notable Niges in there (including Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit), but unaccountably omits Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and my own hero and role model Nigel Molesworth [above].
 For myself, I owe my moniker - which, like most Nigels, I've never liked - to a combination of my mother's transparent snobbishness and my father's enthusiasm for the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, a couple of which feature the adventures of Sir Nigel and the White Company. He might also have been thinking of the great locomotive engineer Sir Nigel Gresley - I'd like to think so.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Johnson and Johnson

Good to hear Boris Johnson describing the current Cabinet as 'a nest of singing birds' (in the full knowledge that 'nest of vipers' would be nearer the mark). The phrase might ring a bell with readers of Boswell's life of another eminent Johnson. After looking back on his days at Pembroke College, Oxford - days when he was 'mad and violent, being miserably poor and thus opposed to all authority' - Johnson rejoices that his old college has produced so many eminent men. 'Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds."'
 Before Johnson - both Johnsons - the phrase was widely used to describe England in the reign of Elizabeth. Widely and, it seems, aptly. John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, noted in 1560 that sometimes at St Paul Cross there would be six thousand people singing together (surely an exaggeration, but even so). Before the sermon, the congregation would always sing a psalm, with choir and organ, all making glorious music together. 'I was so transported,' wrote Jewel, 'that there was no room left in my whole body, mind or spirit for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.'

Tuesday 19 September 2017

A Departure

I thought I'd take a break from the likes of Elizabeth Jenkins and Ivy Compton-Burnett and read something completely different - a crime novel. I'd come across something online about the American crime writer Donald E. Westlake and particularly liked the sound of his posthumously published The Comedy Is Over. I duly bought a copy, complete with garish dust jacket (which I promptly disposed of), and began to read...
 I was, of course, instantly hooked - Westlake really knows what he's doing (he's been described as 'the writer's writer's writer') and loses no time reeling the reader in.  The Comedy Is Over introduces us straight away to the character at the centre of the action - Koo Davis, a wise-cracking old-school comedian whose style and CV resemble Bob Hope's. The time is the late Seventies, and Davis is back on top after a career wobble when he found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the Vietnam war. Now he has his own high-rating TV show - from the set of which he is suddenly, shockingly kidnapped.
 Koo's kidnappers are a bunch of sad but dangerous leftovers from the heady days of 'revolutionary' action, and they don't seem to realise that times have changed, leaving them behind - like Davis after Vietnam, but with no route to a comeback. Their inept attempt to secure the release of ten 'political prisoners' in return for Koo Davis ends in farce, and the gang become increasingly desperate, as does Koo's plight...
 Westlake draws us into Davis's ordeal by taking us into his head and by describing his situation so deftly that we're right there with him, in first one and then another California modernist 'safe house'. And he makes him likeable, despite his many human flaws - and funny, with his unstoppable flow of one-liners. Not many crime novels are as full of gags as this one. Nor, I think, are they likely to include a sex scene in which the male participant recites a passage from Pope's Essay on Man while in flagrante.
 I've got a feeling I might be reading more Westlake in future.

Monday 18 September 2017


A few places ahead of us in the queue for the London-bound EuroStar was a familiar figure - none other than Frank Field, one of our most intelligent and honourable MPs (there aren't many of them - they should be treasured). He was conversing amiably with his travelling companion as we all shuffled along, clearing security and heading for the train...

  Later, at St Pancras, as I was making my way along one of those endless tiled corridors to the Victoria Line, I found myself behind a short, rotund superannuated hippy with an impressively dense tail of matted hair hanging from his nape and an unmistakably cannabinoid smell emanating from his baggy t-shirt. From his gait, I got the impression of a genial soul, still truckin' after all these years. As I overtook him, he called out: 'Hey, aren't you...? Oh no' [scrutinising my face] 'you're not.'
'No, I'm not,' I replied. 'Are you?'
'No,' he replied, chuckling by now, 'I'm not either.'
'I often wish I was,' I said as I picked up speed, and we bade each other a cheery farewell.
I liked him, He had something of The Fugs about him, or Fat Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Quite took me back...

 Then, at Victoria, as I got off the Tube, there was Frank Field again, walking towards me. I gave him a conspiratorial smile, but I don't think he noticed.

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Off gallivanting again

I'm going to be in Holland (Maastricht and environs) for a few days, so there may be a hiatus...

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A Visit to the Library

Yesterday my researches took me to my borough's 'award-winning' central library. It was, as ever, a bewildering experience: what had once been an easy to understand, easy to use library, with plenty of books arranged along conventional lines, is now a bizarre assemblage of largely unpeopled and unstaffed open spaces with gimmicky names - Page One, Media Too - and precious few books in evidence. Only on the upper levels of the building do things begin to get a little more recognisable - the children's library is little changed, and on the next level up is something that resembles the library as it was, complete with a (now apparently unstaffed) reference library. But even here there are large mysterious cubes bearing the names of primary colours and painted accordingly - are they intended as some kind of easy-to-understand classification system? If so, without an explanation of what the colours signify, they do not get us very far. Happily, on the shelves, the familiar Dewey decimal system still reigns supreme. And, happily, the library still has a handsome set of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was the object of my quest.
 Whenever I am in this library building, I take a look at a display case on one of the landings, which contains an open copy of the borough's printed Book of Remembrance. This lists the names and addresses of civilians killed by bombing during the Hitler war, their ages, and when and where they died. This chronicle of loss - often of entire families to one bomb - makes sad and sobering reading, and offers a salutary perspective on our present times. It seems almost inconceivable that, in living memory, ordinary people in a borough some miles from the centre of London went about their lives under relentless bombardment from the skies, knowing that each night could be their last. Against that, the perceived threats and dangers of our present world seem small beer indeed, and the self-obsessed psychobabble,  offence-seeking, virtue-signalling and grievance-mongering of our times look like the behaviour of thin-skinned moral infants who have never had real jeopardy and real calamity to deal with.

Saturday 9 September 2017

The Test and the Encounter

I spent yesterday in a social whirl worthy (almost) of Jeffrey Archer in the heyday of his legendary blog. First I met Bryan A at Lord's, where we enjoyed 20 minutes of the morning session before the rain swept in. As it looked serious, we repaired to a café to ponder our next move - which was to head for the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Having lunched at leisure, we strolled along to the National Portrait Gallery and had a look around their current exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, of which more below. As we emerged from the gallery, the weather was evidently clearing, so it was back to Lord's, where play had resumed. And so it was that - surrounded by a tiresome (but perfectly pleasant) gang of food-fighting, drink-spilling hoorays - we witnessed cricketing history when Jimmy Anderson clean-bowled the Windies' Kieran Powell to claim his 500th Test wicket. Something to tell the grandchildren - though they will neither care nor understand. Hey ho.
  But to The Encounter. It's a lovely little exhibition, just 48 portrait drawings and studies, ranging in date from the 15th to the 17th century and taking in such big names as Leonardo (a figure drawing), Dürer, Rembrandt (only a sheet of little figure studies, but fascinating to examine) and Hans Holbein the Younger. It's Holbein's portrait of John Godsalve [above] that greets you as you go in, and is arguably the star of the show. An unusually finished drawing in coloured chalks, ink and body colour with white heightening, it's beautifully executed, with all of Holbein's almost uncanny skill on show.
 Godsalve was a minor government official, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell and, some years after this portrait was drawn, Member of Parliament for Norwich. The portrait shows him as he was when Holbein first met him - a young man on the rise, meeting the artist's gaze with a look that is at once diffident and direct, anxious and sly, and surely speaks volumes about the precarious nature of life on the margins of the Tudor court. Holbein so valued this portrait that he kept it in his possession all his life, perhaps using it as an advertisement to show potential patrons what he was capable of. It's a stunning piece of work (on loan, like many others in the exhibition, from the Royal Collection).
  The poster boy for The Encounter is Giulio Pedrizzano, a lutensist, as portrayed by Annibale Carracci in a dashing little pen and ink drawing, fizzing with energy, that perfectly captures the intense, almost ferocious gaze of the sitter. Every bit as arresting and immediate as the Caracci, but much more highly finished, is a coloured drawing titled Middle-Aged Man with Curly Hair, attributed to Nicolas Lagneau, a 17th-century French artist better know for caricatures and grotesques.
His Middle-Aged Man [right] is no caricature, but a minutely detailed, closely observed study of the lived-in face of a man who stares out at the world with a kind of defiant resignation, and absolutely no illusions.
 Another gem attributed to a minor artist is a captivating drawing in black and red chalk, Young Girl Looking to Her Right [below], thought to be by Leendert van der Cooghen, an amateur painter active in Haarlem during the Dutch Golden Age. This drawing is executed with the utmost delicacy, and perfectly captures the youthful beauty - the 'bloom' - and the physical awkwardness of a girl poised between childhood and adulthood.
 The Encounter is on until 22 October, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the art of portrait drawing.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Buster, Stan and Ollie

I just saw this extraordinary photograph of Buster Keaton with Laurel and Hardy in the early Thirties; it was flashed on screen in the course of a documentary about Hal Roach. The picture is all too eloquent of Keaton's sad career slump. He looks like a man staring into the abyss, while Stan and Ollie look like, well, Stan and Ollie, living forever in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

'The little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work..'

There are some landscapes, by reputation spectacularly beautiful, that somehow leave me cold and a little uneasy. It took me a while to realise what these landscapes have in common: it's the absence of all tangible signs of human habitation and activity. The fact is that I prefer landscapes inhabited and adorned by humanity, with an easy balance between the landscape and the buildings and settlements that sit naturally in it. The ideal setting (for me) is among gently rolling hills, with valleys and folds, farms and villages, patterns of field and wood. Not for me the desolation of an unpeopled landscape. And not, it seems, for John Ruskin, who begins The Two Paths by recounting the pain he felt in passing through such landscapes during a long holiday in the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1857:

'As I passed, last summer, for the first time, through the North of Scotland, it seemed to me that there was a peculiar painfulness in its scenery, caused by the non-manifestation of the powers of human art. I had never travelled in, nor even heard or conceived of, such a country before; nor, though I had passed much of my life amidst mountain scenery in the South, was I before aware how much of its charm depended on the little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work, which are mingled with the beauty of the Alps, or spared by their desolation...'

 Ruskin goes on to compare what buildings there are in these Scottish wastes most unfavourably with the cottages and ruins that dot the Alpine scene. He continues:

'While these conditions of Scottish scenery affected me very painfully, it being the first time in my life that I had been in any country possessing no valuable monuments or examples of art, they also forced me into the consideration of one or two difficult questions respecting the effect of art on the human mind' - difficult questions that are considered at length in the remainder of the book.

 On the 1857 Highland holiday, Ruskin (then aged 38) was, like some sulky schoolboy,  reluctantly and resentfully accompanying his 'Papa and Mamma', as he recalls in notes that might in part explain his pained reaction to the Scottish scenery around him:

'My mother wants me to see the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls of Kilmorock. I consent sulkily to be taken to Scotland with that object. Papa and mamma, wistfully watching the effect on my mind, show their Scotland to me. I see, on my own quest, Craig-Ellachie, and the Lachin-y-Gair forests, and finally reach the Bay of Cromarty and Falls of Kilmorock, doubtless now the extreme point of my northern discoveries on the round earth. I admit, generously, the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls to be worth coming all that way to see; but beg papa and mamma to observe that it is twenty miles’ walk, in bogs, to the top of Ben Wyvis, that the town of Dingwall is not like Milan or Venice, - and that I think we have seen enough of Scotland.'

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Not Screened Off

Visiting St Etheldreda's, Hatfield, yesterday, I was delighted to find that the Salisbury Chapel in that fine church was not screened off but open to all. That made it possible to see (and photograph) from every angle this magnificent monument to the First Earl of Salisbury, with its superb statues of the Four Cardinal Virtues by Maximilian Colt, a Flemish sculptor who rose to become the King's Master Carver (the King being James I). Behind the statues and below the black marble slab on which the Earl lies in effigy is a skeleton, unadorned, on a rush mat. Memento mori.

Elizabeth Jenkins and the Jensen Owners' Club

I have just finished another Elizabeth Jenkins novel - her last in fact - A Silent Joy, published in 1992 when she was 86 years old. Set in 1957, among a still prosperous and servant-served upper middle class, it's a lumpy piece of work, and I probably wouldn't have finished it if I weren't on a mission.
 A Silent Joy is a rather schematic study of three kinds of love - the deep, disinterested affection of an elderly retired judge for the young daughter of a dead friend; the naked lust of said friend's widow for a dodgy wheeler-dealer; and the sweetly conventional love of a young couple (older daughter of said friend and cousin of another friend) who, in the course of the novel, get married. It is also a portrayal of the dire effects of easy divorce - in 1957! What would she have made of the situation today?
 The character development is uneven, with some of the above seriously underdrawn. In addition there's an equally uneven collection of minor characters - some well rounded, others more like caricatures inspired by Elizabeth Jenkins' (entirely laudable) loathing of 'progressive' ideas. Still, as with all of Miss Jenkins' novel, there's always something there that keeps you reading, some scenes and moments when thing come fully alive and she shows just how good she can be.
 The source of the title is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - a marginal note in Part IV, about the moon and the stars 'that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest and their native country and their own natural home, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.'
 A Silent Joy has the distinction of being the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel - perhaps the only literary novel by anyone? - to earn a notice in the newsletter of the Jensen Owners' Club. Here it is, with apologies for the white on black...

Despite appearances, this was no Mills & Boon pot-boiler but the prize-winning final book (1992) in the six decade long career of this noted author and biographer. Despite being in her late eighties when she wrote this account of life in 1950s London, she had the intelligence to put her hero in a Jensen:

 Neil had now bought a car, a Jensen 541 'R' and this was the first time he had driven Phyll in it. She had always known he was besotted with machinery, but until this morning she'd never realised that he regarded cars as if they were people. 

 Tom Mercer had been out on the drive with Neil, examining the wonders and beauties of the Jensen; now he came indoors. 

If you do come across a copy of this book, snap it up as it is collectable!

Monday 4 September 2017

'Be the tree your sleep awaits'

Sad news that John Ashbery has died, at the consolingly grand old age of 90. A giant figure, he was and remained hugely divisive, some regarding his work as one of the great achievements of American poetry, others dismissing it as a corpus of largely incomprehensible ramblings.
 My own relationship with Ashbery's poetry began in my youth as a total, fascinated immersion  - no other contemporary verse seeped to deeply into my being as his - and the fascination lasted at least until the wonderful Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. After that, I gradually began to take less and less interest, as Ashbery became more and more prolific, not to say prolix. I remain susceptible to the sheer music of his poetry, but if I ever read him now, it is to those early, relatively spare poems that I return. Poems like this early Sonnet -

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.
       His pain is the servant’s alive.

Saturday 2 September 2017

Screened Off

I was walking yesterday, with friends, in the outer reaches of Betjeman's Metroland, along the valley of the Chess, a beautifully clear chalk stream, from Chesham to Rickmansworth. On the route was Chenies, where the parish church contains a magnificent collection of monuments to members of the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford. Naturally I was looking forward to seeing these, but better informed members of the party warned me not to get too excited, as all the monuments are in the Bedford Chapel, which is screened off from the rest of the church and the entrance to which is more or less permanently locked. The screen is of foliate wrought iron, so it is possible to squint through into the gloom and get a rough idea of what these splendid tombs look like from one particular angle - or even poke a camera through and take a picture - but essentially this chapel is out of bounds, an outpost of the Bedford estate rather than an integral part of the parish church. I could only put my face against the screen, see what I could see, and imagine what it would be like to walk among those magnificent tombs.
 This depressing situation is certainly not unique to Chenies - I've peered through many a screen at many a closed-off family chapel, and at least one other collection of monuments of national importance, the Spencer tombs at Great Brington in Northamptonshire, is similarly closed off from the church it stands in. Why should this ever be the case? It might have made some kind of sense once, but surely not now. If monuments are in a parish church, they should be as accessible as any other part of that church - especially if they are its principal glory. The great assembly of Rutland monuments at Bottesford - probably the greatest in the land - inhabits the parish church in a perfectly natural and appropriate way, with no screens and no separation, and surely that should be the model. Take down those screens!