Tuesday 31 October 2017

Proust, Vermeer and that 'little patch of yellow wall'

Apart from shared membership of the human race, my father had but one thing in common with Marcel Proust – a fascination with that endlessly absorbing painting, A View of Delft by Jan Vermeer (born on this day in 1632). He – my father, that is – saw it in the Hague some time in the early Sixties and was so impressed that he bought a reproduction of it, which hung in our breakfast room, and in my parents' subsequent homes, for years. It certainly played a major part in my awakening to the power of art.
  Proust saw the View of Delft at the Jeu de Paume in May 1921, in a loan exhibition of Dutch paintings. This shaky excursion from his apartment proved to be his last. It began with a severe attack of dizziness before Proust had even made it down the stairs, but, supported by his friend Vaudoyer, he soldiered on and made it to the Jeu de Paume, where he tottered up to the View of Delft and, after spending a while in contemplation, found himself sufficiently revived to move on to a concurrent Ingres exhibition and lunch at the Ritz before making his way home, still, according to Vaudoyer, 'shaken and alarmed'.
 In The Captive, the last volume of A La Recherche, Proust transfers his Vermeer experience to the writer Bergotte, who, sleepless and ill, ventures out from his home to see the View of Delft on display. Like Proust, he is initially overcome by dizziness, but presses on determinedly. He has read a review of the exhibition that mentions a 'little patch of yellow wall' in the painting that is like 'a priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself'. Bergotte, who thought he knew every inch of the painting, cannot call to mind that little patch – until, in the gallery, he sees it, and with his discovery of it comes the realisation that 'That's how I ought to have written. My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.' Overcome with dizziness again, Bergotte slumps onto a circular settee, from which he shortly rolls unconscious onto the floor, while attendants and visitors rush from all corners to attend to him. He is dead.
 Ever since Proust, there has been much argument over the whereabouts of that 'little patch of yellow wall' on Vermeer's painting. There are three contenders (see above), all in the sunlit area to the right of the picture – but none of this matters; there is more than enough to gaze – and wonder – at in the View of Delft.

Monday 30 October 2017

Hobhouse's History

'A modern blight sees history through a prism (or fog) that distorts much of the past, not because of often obvious absurdities, but because of anachronisms. Contemporary political correctness can only exist after certain conditions have been fulfilled. These conditions did not exist before current technology made them possible. So, to consider the past when these factors could not have been present under the assumption that they were, is naive of students. For teachers it is at best ignorant and, at its worst, close to intellectual fraud.'
 Wise words from Henry Hobhouse in a prefatory note to his Seeds of Wealth (published in 2003, and things have got worse since then). This is a follow-up to Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind, a book full of unexpected connections and startling insights that, once pointed out, seem obvious – and yet change everything. The footnotes alone contain more interest than a shelf full of more pedestrian histories.
 The five plants whose roles in history are examined in Seeds of Change are sugar, tea, cotton, the potato and the cinchoa (the source of quinine). The chapter on sugar alone upturns all the conventional wisdom about the triangular slave trade (though of course that false wisdom still thrives, partly for reasons hinted at in the quotation above).  Hobhouse's chapter on the potato does a similar mythbusting job for the Irish potato famine. The second edition of Seeds of Change added the coca plant to the original five, with similarly eye-opening results.
 Seeds of Wealth takes a similar approach to the earlier work, but focuses on plant products that have made men – and nations – rich, and in doing so have changed the course of history: timber, wine, rubber and tobacco. So far I have read only the chapter on timber, and it's packed with fascinating facts and figures that convincingly demonstrate how British shortage of timber and American superabundance of it dictated the course of both countries' histories over four centuries, bringing about Britain's very early industrial revolution and fuelling the westward march of the States, among many other things...
  Henry Hobhouse was not only a historian but a broadcaster, journalist, farmer and politician. When he died last year, the eulogy at his funeral was spoken by his godson – Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Sunday 29 October 2017

The Hardy Tree and 'human jam'

The other day I visited, for the first time, Old St Pancras' Church and its graveyard, hard by the great Victorian railway terminus named for the same Roman saint. The church is a Victorian rebuild in that ugliest of revivalist styles, Neo-Norman (the original's bad enough, Neo is ten times worse). However, its wide, uncluttered interior is very pleasing, with a few interesting monuments (including one to the great miniature painter Samuel Cooper) and a faint smell of Anglo-Catholic incense in the air. A numinous space, and wonderfully quiet amid the busyness of North London.
  That quiet is due in large part to the insulating effect of the graveyard that lies all around the church, dotted with grand old plane trees. Among those buried here are Johann Christian Bach, the sculptor John Flaxman and John Polidori, author of The Vampyre. Sir John Soane and his wife lie beneath a gloriously Soanean mausoluem, whose handkerchief-domed roof inspired the design of the red telephone box. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft share a memorial (though their remains were removed to Bournemouth in 1851). When this was the grave of her mother alone, the young Mary was brought to it daily by her father to pay her respects, and it was there, later, that she and Percy Shelley planned their elopement.
 But one of the most striking features of Old St Pancras' churchyard is not a grave but the tree pictured above – the Hardy Tree. In the mid-1860s, young Thomas Hardy, who was training to be an architect under the eminent Arthur Blomfield, had to supervise the excavation and clearing of a large part of the churchyard to make room for the expansion of the railway and its terminus. This grisly job involved dealing with a jumbled mass of coffins and human remains and removing hundreds of headstones. Hardy, it is said, had the bright idea of arranging many of these redundant stones in circles resting against the bole of a young ash tree. Now, in an effect Hardy would surely have relished, the tree's gnarled roots, growing out year after year, have begun to engulf and absorb the stones – an image of life and death inextricably intertwined.
 Some years later, when he was back in Dorset and an established writer, Hardy noticed that the graveyard of Wimborne Minster had been levelled and its headstones rearranged. Around the same time, he met Arthur Blomfield again, who reminded him how the two of them had worked on clearing Old St Pancras' churchyard, on one occasion finding a coffin that contained a skeleton with an extra skull. This train of associations inspired Hardy's first poem in several years, one full of macabre humour – The Levelled Churchyard
"O passenger, pray list and catch 
   Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
   Of wrenched memorial stones! 

"We late-lamented, resting here, 
   Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
   'I know not which I am!' 

"The wicked people have annexed 
   The verses on the good; 
A roaring drunkard sports the text 
   Teetotal Tommy should! 

"Where we are huddled none can trace, 
   And if our names remain, 
They pave some path or p-ing place 
   Where we have never lain! 

"There's not a modest maiden elf 
   But dreads the final Trumpet, 
Lest half of her should rise herself, 
   And half some local strumpet! 

"From restorations of Thy fane, 
   From smoothings of Thy sward, 
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane 
   Deliver us O Lord! Amen!"

The railway runs just the other side of the high wall in the background of the photograph.

Friday 27 October 2017

Thought for the Day

'If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all.'

William Morris

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Drawn in Colour

Today I dropped in on the National Gallery to have a look at Drawn in Colour, a lovely exhibition of the twenty-odd Degas pastel drawings and paintings that were collected by the Glasgow ship owner Sir William Burrell and are normally on display in the Burrell Collection in that fair city. This is the first time they have left Scotland together, and happily they will be at the National until next May. You'd be mad to miss them.
 The pastels are of course sensationally good, especially the later ones that show Degas's technique becoming increasingly bold (as in Dancers on a Bench, above). The brilliant Jockeys in the Rain (below), with its slashing diagonals, is one of the stars of the show, and there are several of those extraordinary nude studies of women washing themselves that some people find disturbingly voyeuristic. To me, they seem no more than a life-drawing extension of Degas's predilection for painting people utterly absorbed in their own worlds, as if the painter is an unnoticed presence who has just happened upon them, and has no interest but to draw them as best he can – which is quite preternaturally well.
 More than anything, I loved the pictures of the life – mostly the backstage life – of ballet dancers and would-be ballet dancers. The painting at the top of this post, The Rehearsal, one Degas's earliest ballet pictures, is in oils, and it's quite ravishing, a tour de force of composition, lighting and colour, with a crop that's bold even for Degas. Looking at these pictures, which manage to convey at once the beauty of ballet and the painful, exhausting physical slog of it, put me in mind – inevitably, in the month of his death – of Richard Wilbur's great ekphrastic poem, L'Etoile. The picture that inspired it is not in this exhibition (it's in the Musée d'Orsay), but here it is...
A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Islington and the Universe

So, it's official – the worst place in the UK to be a woman is, er, Islington. That was one of the findings of a big survey commissioned by Radio 4's Woman's Hour, which applied various criteria – housing affordability, personal wellbeing, safety, crime, education, etc – to every part of the UK and ran the figures. The two best places to be a woman were both rather nice parts of lowland Scotland – East Dumbartonshire and East Renfrewshire – with prosperous West Oxfordshire coming in third. And there, right down at the bottom, was that jewel of North London – Islington (379th of 380 in personal wellbeing and 369th in crime). As a confirmed South Londoner who could never understand why anyone in their right mind would wish to live North of the river (unless it was in the pleasanter parts of Kensington or Hampstead),  I am unsurprised and, I must admit, rather gratified by this result. Heaven knows what those fine people at Woman's Hour (a continuation of the Guardian woman's page by other means) must make of it. Trendy, vibrant, diverse Islington, home to so many right-thinking PC feminists, turns out to be the worst place in the UK to be a woman. Can such things be?

To change the subject, I can't resist linking to this story, which Bryan A tweeted earlier. Yes, the universe shouldn't exist! I feel this is almost as startling – and oddly pleasing – as the Islington finding.

Monday 23 October 2017

Bridges v Hopkins

Born on this day in 1844 was the poet Robert Bridges, whose greatest contribution to English literature was his collecting and eventual publication of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The two men met at Oxford and were lifelong friends thereafter. However, they were a very odd couple, in most respects as different from each other as chalk and cheese – Bridges firmly anti-Catholic and conservative in all things, including poetry, and Hopkins devoutly Catholic and open to currents of thought and ways of writing verse that were quite repugnant to Bridges. The relationship between the two friends, who undoubtedly had a deep affection for each other, would be better understood if Bridges hadn't, after Hopkins' death, had all his (Bridges') letters to him returned and destroyed (though one survived).
 Bridges clearly did not understand or appreciate his friend's poetry, and was reluctant to publish it (a reluctance endorsed by his fellow poet Coventry Patmore). He might have been right to hesitate, as Hopkins' verse, if published in quantity in the 1880s or 1890s, could well have been dismissed as the most outlandish experimentation. When eight of his poems were published in an anthology in 1893 (five years after Hopkins' death), Bridges included a note on the poet, which ended uninvitingly:

'Poems as far removed as his come to be from the ordinary simplicity of grammar and meter, had they no other drawback, could never be popular, for they have this plain fault, that, aiming at an unattainable perfection of language, they not only sacrifice simplicity, but very often, among verses of the rarest beauty, show a neglect of those canons of taste which seem common to all poetry.'

 Even when Bridges finally brought out a proper edition of Hopkins's poems in 1918, he attached a minatory preface that could scarcely have been more negative:

'Apart from faults of taste, which, few as they numerically are, yet affect my liking and more repel my sympathy than do all the rude shocks of his purely artistic wantonness – apart from these, there are definite faults of style which a reader must have courage to face, and must in some measure condone before he can discover the great beauties.'

Well, cheers, Bob – thanks for that ringing endorsement...
 Since then, of course, the whirligig of time has brought in its revenges: Robert Bridges, one-time Poet Laureate, survives only in a few anthology pieces (like this one), while Hopkins is regarded as one of the great (or, at the very least, 'major minor') English poets.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Blindingly Obvious

A cliché, by definition – my definition anyway – is a phrase that has been so overused it has lost its meaning. A classic example is the oft-used 'blindingly obvious'. This means, or rather meant, so obvious that it was no longer apparent, could no longer be seen. Nowadays it is used to mean merely very obvious. This is a shame, as some things are indeed blindingly obvious – so obvious that no one, apparently, sees them.
  I think there's a case in point in the current brouhaha over alleged 'social apartheid' being practised by Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is of course risible nonsense: the only admissions policy in operation is what it has always been – to select the best applicants. Not necessarily those with the best grades (these two universities wisely rely more on their own entrance exams), but those who will be best suited to the peculiar conditions of an Oxbridge education. That is still what is happening; what has changed is that the state schools are, for various reasons, not providing enough such applicants. So there is, inevitably, an apparent bias towards 'privileged' applicants from private schools.
 When I was at Cambridge, the proportion of entrants from state schools was nearing fifty per cent (I think in my college it was already over that mark). That rising trend would have continued but for one thing – and this is where the 'blindingly obvious' comes in – the abolition of the grammar schools. Whatever the faults of the old grammar / secondary modern system, the grammar school was an astonishingly effective engine of social mobility, propelling unprecedentedly large numbers of bright but 'deprived' children into good universities and top jobs (five consecutive state-educated Prime Ministers in the grammar school era). It was a social ladder like no other, and the imposition of 'comprehensive' education kicked it away, with the result that a far lower proportion of state-school pupils are now equipped for studying at the elite universities (and even those that are often receive no encouragement or preparation from their schools). Instead of bleating about 'social apartheid', the politicians should seriously consider the state of public education and do something serious about it. They might, for example, ponder the fact that this is the only developed country where school leavers are less literate and numerate than their grandparents. How did that happen?

Friday 20 October 2017

Frits Thaulow

Today is the 170th birthday of the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow, who settled in France in the 1890s and was for several years an ornament of Dieppe society. He and his Amazonian wife Alexandra presided over a hospitable household to which all were welcome – including Oscar Wilde, at a time when he was being ostentatiously cut by le tout Dieppe (with a few noble exceptions).
  The Thaulows also befriended Aubrey Beardsley and the young Australian painter Charles Conder, an alcoholic with a severe case of nostalgie de la boue. The Thaulows, seeking to keep him safe and occupied, insisted that he move in with them and paint murals on the walls of their villa. Alexandra also commissioned him to decorate some plain white evening gowns for her, as he was particularly skilled at painting on silk. John Rothenstein, who of course was there, remembered how ''visitors were enchanted at the sight of this Brynhilde, dressed in white silk, standing majestic in her drawing room, while Conder fluttered round her, brush in hand, until the white silk was no more, but coloured like a field of flowers'.
 Alexandra was also one of the daring Dieppe ladies who took up the fashionable pastime of bicycling. 'With her enormous thighs encase in knee-breeches,' writes Simona Pakenham (in Sixty Miles from England), 'she mounted her "iron steed" and went for trips to Arques on a tandem, sometimes carrying the diminutive figure of John Rothenstein, who came on holiday visits to Conder, behind her.' If only Max Beerbohm (another ornament of Dieppe society) had been there to draw that...
 The painting above is Jacques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of Frits Thaulow somehow managing to paint en famille and en plein air, while smoking a cigarette. Thaulow's own paintings were quieter affairs, documenting his love of the Norman countryside, its pastures and old farm buildings, trees, rivers and millponds. The play of light – especially declining light – on water particularly fascinated him, and he became known as a specialist in watery scenes, like the one below. Not a great painter perhaps, but a very good one – and, by all accounts, a rather fine human being.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Red House

Here's something I wrote for those nice people at Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. It's about that remarkable survival, Red House in Bexleyheath...

Wednesday 18 October 2017

'One of the great works of art of England'

I spent most of yesterday making a long day trip – much longer than it should have been, thanks to various train and taxi problems – into Suffolk. My destination was St Andrew's church in the village of Bramfield. It's a pretty and interesting church – detached Norman round tower, thatched roof, a splendid late medieval screen (detail below) – but I was there to see Nicholas Stone's great monument to Arthur Coke and his wife, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth, 'Christianly and peaceably', in 1627.
 It's an almost stark monument, in black and white marble, with virtually no ornamentation, and the kneeling figure of Arthur Coke, against the wall, is stern and stiff. All the interest lies in the alabaster effigy of mother and child, she reclining at peace with the babe in her arms. It's a piece of work so exquisitely carved that Sacheverell Sitwell describes the rendering of the mother's full sleeve, the pillows under her head and the coverlet over her body as 'worthy of Bernini'. He is right – and he barely exaggerates in declaring that 'This is one of the great works of art of England'. The same could be said, in my view, of a good many of the best church monuments of the early 17th-century golden age. It's a shame we have to travel so far and so long to see them. But it's worth it.

Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Wilbur RIP

This link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog alerted me to the sad news that the great American poet Richard Wilbur has died. He lived a long (96 years), productive and largely very happy life, which ended peacefully – and yet the news hits hard, I think because of what died with him: a surely unrepeatable combination of technical perfection, deep poetic knowledge and respect for tradition, wit and elegance, reticence and grace. Truly we shall not see his like again.
 I've posted many of Wilbur's poems here over the years (as a quick search will confirm). How to mark his death? Surely with this, perhaps his greatest, the poem that even Randall Jarrell (who had mixed feelings about Wilbur's work) called 'one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written' – A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra...

Under the bronze crown 
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat, 
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down 

            Past spattered mosses, breaks 
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills 
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes 

            A scrim or summery tent 
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose 
Collapse of water, its effortless descent 

            And flatteries of spray, 
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, 
      Watching, about his shaggy knees, 
The goatish innocence of his babes at play; 

            His fauness all the while 
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh 
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile 

            Bent on the sand floor 
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come 
      And go in swift reticulum, 
More addling to the eye than wine, and more 

            Interminable to thought 
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not 

            More intricately expressed 
In the plain fountains that Maderna set 
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed, 
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill 

            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine 
      Illumined version of itself, decline, 
And patter on the stones its own applause? 

            If that is what men are 
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre, 

            Spangled, and plunging house? 
They are at rest in fulness of desire 
      For what is given, they do not tire 
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse 

            And riddled pool below, 
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety. 
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow 

            Before the wealthy gate 
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss— 
That land of tolerable flowers, that state 

            As near and far as grass 
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land 
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

Not an Ex-Parrot

I always enjoy stories of supposedly extinct species being rediscovered – partly because they are in themselves good news, and partly because they suggest we are often rather too liberal in our diagnoses of extinction. The world is bigger – and stranger – than we imagine (stranger than we can imagine, according to Arthur Eddington), and we often underestimate the resilience and staying power of nature.
  Here is the latest news of an Australian bird that was thought to have been extinct for a century – the mysterious Night Parrot. It's hardly surprising that this parrot should have disappeared from view for so long: not only is it nocturnal, it is also a very reluctant flier that prefers to keep to the ground, skulking in thickets of Spinifex grass. At least its call has now been identified, which should make matters easier...
 By the way, the piece I've linked to contains the cherishable phrase 'Spinifex knoll'. Not one you often come across.

Saturday 14 October 2017

English Messiahs

So there I was the other day, in one of my regular charity shops, when I spotted a book with the more than intriguing title English Messiahs. Opening it to have a look, I discovered that it was an account, by one Ronald Matthews, of six English religious pretenders who had claimed to be either the Messiah, or the harbinger – or potential mother – thereof, or, in one worrying case, God Almighty's nephew. It was published in 1936, and the author is careful to exclude the obviously insane or the obviously fraudulent – which still leaves him with plenty of Messiahs to choose from. There is something about Protestantism, the author suggests, that tends to encourage individuals who believe they have this particular kind of special destiny...
  Matthews' first case study is a fascinating and sad one – the story of the 'Quaker Jesus', James Nayler. He seems to have been a decently and sanely devout man, a prominent and effective Quaker, who suffered some kind of brainstorm that left him identifying rather too strongly with Jesus. As a result, he allowed a group of female followers to become dangerously devoted to him (he had a decidedly Jesus-like look to him). In the end, they insisted on leading him into Bristol on horseback, chanting 'Holy! Holy! Holy!', in what looked like a blasphemous re-enactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested, his case was discussed at length in Parliament, and he was duly punished for blasphemy by being pilloried and flogged, then having his tongue bored with a hot iron and his forehead branded with the letter 'B'. This was followed by two years' hard labour. He emerged from prison physically broken but with his mental equilibrium restored. Nayler died shortly after being robbed and left near death in a field in Huntingdonshire. As I said, a sad story.
 There is some sadness too in the case of the much better known Joanna Southcott, the remarkably popular 'prophetess' who, in her sixties, announced that she was going to give birth to 'Shiloh', the new Messiah. Instead of doing so, she died, surrounded by fanatical believers who were probably more convinced of her mystical pregnancy than she was. These believers were hard put to accept that Southcott was dead (despite the evidence of her decomposing body) or that she had never been pregnant, and even when they had finally swallowed these facts, many of them remained devout 'Southcottians'.
  Indeed the long afterlife of this particular nonsense is its most remarkable feature. I remember seeing notices in the papers as recently as the 1970s, proclaiming that 'War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box.' This was a sealed wooden box left by Southcott with instructions that it be opened at a time of national crisis in the presence of 24 Bishops – on which Christ would immediately return to Earth and eternal peace would reign. In 1927 the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have X-rayed the box and found it to contain such odds and ends as a rusty pistol, a lottery ticket and a nightcap. However, Southcottians declared that Price's box was not the real one, which was held at a secret location known only to them.
  Those notices in the papers were placed by the Panacea Society, the last incarnation of Southcottianism, founded in 1919 in Bedford. In the 1930s there were some 70 Southcottians in Bedford, and the Society owned several buildings in the town, one of them, known as The Ark, set aside for the use of the Messiah following the Second Coming. They also had allotments, and believed that Bedford was the original site of the Garden of Eden – a quite wonderful flight of fancy, as anyone who's visited Bedford will appreciate.
 Though the Panacea Society no longer exists as a religious community, there is still a charitable trust – and, amazingly, a Panacea Museum that is open to the public and boasts an impressive 4.7 rating on Trip Advisor. Next time I'm in Bedford (for the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery), I must drop in.

Thursday 12 October 2017

The late Jeremy and Other Snails

News of the demise of Jeremy the lefty love triangle snail got me thinking about snails in general. Though they're a plague and a bane in the garden, I've always had a soft spot for them, and have fond memories of my daughter, when very young, entertaining herself with (surprisingly pacey) snail races.
 Thom Gunn's fine poem, Considering the Snail, I have posted before. Here, for a very different take on the subject, is Marianne Moore's To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.
The citations in the Author's Notes are not very accurate, but let's not get pedantic. What fascinates Moore is the snail's 'contractility', as exemplified by its 'occipital horn'. A century and more earlier, Keats, reading Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, was similarly enchanted by the snail's 'tender horns', as he writes in a letter (from Box Hill) to John Hamilton Reynolds –

'He [Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know where he talks about "cockled Snails"--well, in one of these sonnets, he says--the chap slips into--no! I lie! this is in the Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind. 

Audi-- As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'

If Keats identifies with the snail's contractile sensitivity, William Cowper, considering the snail, also admires its self-contained, 'hermit-like' life, the creature's complete identity with its home perhaps reflecting something of Cowper's desperate need for home, for a safe place that offered him enough stability and security to be able to engage with the world – and retreat from it –

'To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 
Its master.' 

Wednesday 11 October 2017

His Country Again

Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway,
      The tender blossom flutter down,
      Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away;
Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
      Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
      And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air;
Unloved, by many a sandy bar,
      The brook shall babble down the plain,
      At noon or when the lesser wain
Is twisting round the polar star;
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
      And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
      Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
Till from the garden and the wild
      A fresh association blow,
      And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger's child;
As year by year the labourer tills
      His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
      And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.

Inspired, or reminded, by my recent visit to Somersby, I've been rereading In Memoriam. It's a poem imbued not only with overwhelming grief but a powerful sense of place and the passing seasons. In the lines above, these elements intermingle beautifully as Tennyson contemplates leaving the family home, the rectory in Somersby. 'The brook' is of course the one that gave its name to a narrative poem by Tennyson and, more famously, to the lyric embedded in it - 'I come from haunts of coot and hern...' The present-day brook, down the road from the rectory, is a shadow of its former self, no longer babbling down the plain but rather trickling steadily. But the poem lives on – as does In Memoriam.

Tuesday 10 October 2017


Today two broadcasting legends celebrate their 94th birthdays – motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who is now 'semi-retired', and cravat hero Nicholas Parsons, who is still indefatigably working. He has presented every single edition of Radio 4's Just a Minute since its birth 50 years ago, and is still doing a splendid job as chairman, straight man and comic in his own right.
 Parsons made his film debut a full 70 years ago (in Master of Bankdam, adapted from Thomas Armstrong's big bestseller The Crowthers of Bankdam) and his stage debut a couple of years before that. And he was a relatively late starter, having spent five years working as an engineering apprentice on Clydebank and studying mechanical engineering. Truly a legend.

Monday 9 October 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

I've been reading Willa Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940. Like her early tales of prairie life, it's a novel of bittersweet nostalgic retrospect – but this time the nostalgia is for Cather's childhood years in West Virginia, before her father moved the family to Nebraska. In fact the nostalgia is for a period before she was even born, before the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves. Though slave ownership was the exception rather than the rule in West Virginia, Cather's central character, the Sapphira of the title, owns slaves, family slaves whom she brought with her when she followed her husband to West Virginia.
 Sapphira, who at the time we meet her is a dropsical invalid, is a domineering, deeply flawed character who yet has a compelling charm and something truly lovable about her – rather like Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy. Her treatment of her slaves is for the most part benignly maternalistic – until she begins to form dark suspicions about one of them, Nancy, the 'slave girl' of the title. It is those suspicions that drive the narrative of the novel – though 'drive' is too strong a word (as is 'narrative' almost). This is a novel whose interest lies chiefly in its richly layered characterisation – always Cather's strongest point – and its strong sense of place and community. The action proceeds, rather fitfully, in a series of episodes or tableaux, the narrative divided not into chapters but 'Parts', though each part is no longer than a normal chapter.
 The story is told by what seems to be an omniscient narrator, with a particular insight into the characters and events. It is not until the Epilogue and a sudden switch into first person that we discover who the narrator is – a discovery that throws new light onto what has gone before.
 Sapphira and the Slave Girl is so liberally sprinkled  with such now taboo words as 'nigger' and 'darkie' that it is unlikely to turn up on any present-day curriculum. Indeed Cather's attitude to the Peculiar Institution is at least partly indulgent – but in this, as in other areas, she skirts sentimentality with her usual finesse. This is not one of her best novels, but her particular magic – the mysterious power that lies behind the plain surface of her words – is still present. That magic makes even a second-rank Cather a more rewarding read than the first-rank productions of many other novelists of her time. 

Sunday 8 October 2017

Douglas's End, Zog's Smoking

Wandering around in Birmingham's botanical gardens yesterday, I came across a board carrying a little background information about the plant hunter David Douglas, after whom the Douglas Fir is named. The intrepid Douglas, who introduced some 240 plants to Britain, travelled widely in the wilds of North America, and met his end, at the age of 35, in Hawaii. Climbing in the mountains, he became snow blind and fell into a pit trap, where he was gored to death by a wild bull. (At least, that's the version of his death given on the Birmingham board. Wikipedia offers a more nuanced account of Douglas's mysterious end.) 

Then, this morning, I discovered that King Zog of Albania (born on this day in 1895) was probably, at his peak, the world's heaviest smoker, getting through more than 200 a day. He also survived something like 55 assassination attempts, on one occasion defending himself with his own pistol, making him the only head of state to have personally exchanged fire with a would-be assassin.

Friday 6 October 2017

The Lost Words?

This looks like a fine book – which, as the review says, should be made available in a cheaper edition if it is to reach the intended audience. But in what sense are these words – words like blackberry, buttercup, kingfisher, acorn, bluebell, conker, wren – 'lost'? They have been dropped from a children's dictionary whose very limited remit is simply to reflect current usage. By that criterion, their omission was probably justified, though I'm always suspicious of the publicity-seeking stunts of dictionary publishers these days. 'Lost words', though? The words will only be lost if the things described are (if then – words can have long afterlives), and there is no sign of any of these common natural phenomena disappearing.
 The problem is that children today typically have less everyday contact with the natural world than they did in the days when they – we – were free to roam at large. But even in the city, nature is everywhere, even on the pavement (the asphalt can indeed be botanised), let alone in parks and gardens and along streets, many of which are still tree-lined, even in the very centre of town. Indeed the suburbs are now richer, in terms of natural diversity, than much of the intensively-farmed countryside. All that is needed is for children's attention to be drawn to this ever-present nature, and if the parents aren't doing that (especially when children are very young and eager to soak up all the knowledge they can get), then the schools should be – it's one of the most useful things they could do.
 Happily my (adorable) granddaughter, who has just started school, has already been out on at least one organised nature walk in a nearby park. Not that she needed it, as she's grown up well aware of what blackberries, buttercups, acorns, bluebells, conkers and the rest are – these are certainly not 'lost words' for her, and I'm sure she's not the only one. But schools should certainly be doing more of this sort of thing – right through to secondary level (as was standard when I was at school). It would be good for the children's health and wellbeing, expand their knowledge of the world, and make them more aware of what is around them. If there's no room on the timetable, why not drop 'physical education' in favour of nature walks? Far more beneficial than running around on a muddy field or jumping over a vaulting horse. Horse? Another 'lost word'?

Thursday 5 October 2017

The Whirligig of Time

I was half-listening to Radio 4 just now – David Cannadine talking about Prime Ministers' Props – when I caught a familiar sound pumping away under the words. Blow me down if it wasn't the Velvet Underground's White Light / White Heat! My mind looped back half a century...
  When I was first at university, I would occasionally inflict my presence on the 'college disco'. Of the stack of singles that made up the playlist, only one was deemed cool and transgressive enough for us poseurs to request – White Light / White Heat. Not that we intended to dance – dear me, no. The thing was to take a seat, assume a languid pose and make no response whatever – not so much as a tapping finger – to the juddering, amphetamine-fuelled beat of the music. This was not easy, but as a demonstration of the art of cool it seemed well worth the effort. The pose could be broken only to ask the DJ to turn up the volume (if it was possible by this stage to make yourself heard). Yes indeed – like the young Sam Johnson, I spent my university years in a condition best characterised as one of 'stark insensibility'.
  Why was White Light / White Heat being played under Prime Ministers' Props? It was triggered, alas, by Harold Wilson's talk of the 'white heat of the technological revolution' – what radio producer could resist such a cue? The principal subject of the programme, however, was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who once said that if he wanted to work out an economic problem, he would do it with matchsticks. Guess which early Status Quo single was chosen to accompany every mention of matchsticks...?

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Sargent at Dulwich

Yesterday I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see their exhibition of Sargent watercolours (it ends on Sunday and the final weekend's likely to be a bit of a scrum). This is a popular exhibition, and it's not hard to see why: Sargent's watercolours are a joy to look at, technically brilliant, easy on the eye and full of sunlight – (to quote Lord Clark of Civilisation) what could be more agreeable? Painted en plein air, they are the products of Sargent's leisure and travels, of his time off from the gruelling production-line process of portrait painting, and, for all their virtuosity, feel relaxed and effortless. Anyone who has tried their hand at watercolour can only gaze in awe at Sargent's jaw-dropping mastery of the medium.
 The pictures, painted in Venice, around the Med, in the Alps and various parts of France, Italy and Spain, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, show a continuing preoccupation with painting effects of light on water and stone, of reflected light from water onto stone, of strong sun and complex shadow, and the particular problems of rendering light and shade on white material against white paper (as in the dress of the poster girl, Lady with Umbrella, above left).

 In Venice, Sargent paints at water level, from a gondola, fascinated by the effects of light where stone and water meet, by the play of light on the underside of bridges and the hulls of boats. There are no grand panoramas or conventional postcard views of the city; Sargent's engagement is intimate and detailed, the rapt attention of an artist rather than a tourist. He doesn't paint a palazzo – he paints one corner of it, from water level – and when, elsewhere in Italy, he paints a grand Baroque fountain he ignores the statue at the centre in favour of studying the meeting of stone and water at the edge of its pool. Most of these paintings could be classed as studies rather than finished works – but when studies are of this quality, the distinction hardly matters. Sargent himself lined his walls not with oils but with these watercolours, which no doubt also served as happy reminders of his travels and leisure time (others on show in the exhibition – rather less successful – are from Sargent's time as a war artist, and there are a few portrait studies of male nudes).

 Walking around the exhibition – which is of manageable size, around 90 works – I realised I'd seen some of these pictures before, at the Royal Academy's Sargent and the Sea exhibition back  in 2010 (including The One I'd Have Stolen). This time, the one I'd have stolen (theoretically, Your Honour) was the Spanish Fountain (above right), as perfect a study of sunlight on water and stone as anyone ever painted in watercolour. This is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition, and I'm glad I made it – just.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Tom Petty

Sad news that Tom Petty has died, and at only 66. He did some great work, especially in creative collaboration with other musicians. A couple of touching details struck me in his obits...
 At the age of 11, Petty (who had had a difficult childhood) met Elvis Presley and shook his hand - and 'That was the end of doing anything other than music in my life.'
 Last year, after playing a set of 40th anniversary gigs with the Heartbreakers, he told Rolling Stone, 'I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can. I don't want to spend my life on the road.' One of the good guys. RIP.

Monday 2 October 2017

'A pip of life amid a mort of tails'

Today is the birthday of that great poet and successful insurance executive Wallace Stevens – 138 today. How to mark the day? With a poem, of course – but which? I got my inspiration when I was taking a stroll early this evening, looked up and saw a squadron of parakeets flying over, on the way to their roosting grounds...

The Bird with the Coppery Keen Claws

Above the forest of the parakeets,
A parakeet of parakeets prevails,
A pip of life amid a mort of tails.

(The rudiments of tropics are around,
Aloe of ivory, pear of rusty rind.)
His lids are white because his eyes are blind.

He is not paradise of parakeets,
Of his gold ether, golden alguazil,
Except because he broods there and is still.

Panache upon panache, his tails deploy
Upward and outward, in green-vented forms,
His tip a drop of water full of storms.

But though the turbulent tinges undulate
As his pure intellect applies its laws,
He moves not on his coppery, keen claws.

He munches a dry shell while he exerts
His will, yet never ceases, perfect cock,
To flare, in the sun-pallor of his rock.

Next time I see the parakeets I shall relish the image of a 'parakeet of parakeets' brooding over them, exerting his will as he munches a dry shell...

Sunday 1 October 2017

Last Night I Saw W.H. Auden...

He was the subject of a BBC2 documentary, Stop All the Clocks: W.H. Auden in an Age of Anxiety, an attempt to – guess what – 'explore the contemporary relevance' of Auden's poetry. Ah well - that's the kind of pitch you'd have to make to get a programme on a dead white poet onto a mainstream BBC channel. And it wasn't at all bad.
 Predictably, there was a lot of dubious stuff linking Auden's September 1, 1939 ('I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-Second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low, dishonest decade...') with the terrorist atrocity of 9/11. Equally predictably, much was made of Funeral Blues and its famous appearance in that terrible film Four Weddings and a Funeral (where John Hannah managed to turn what always struck me a serio-comic five-finger exercise into a heartbroken expression of grief).
  Funeral Blues gave Auden's now posthumous fame a new lease of life – surely a good thing. But one of the interesting features of the documentary was its frequent reminders of just how famous the poet was, internationally, in his later life. He even appeared on Parkinson, for heaven's sake – smoking like a chimney and discoursing about poetry. Would any poet make it on to a popular chat show today? Hardly...
 And there was extraordinary footage of Auden and Chester Kalman at their quaint little cottage at Kirchstetten in Austria (where Auden was buried). We see the poet suavely, almost ingratiatingly,  giving interviews in German, and – more alarmingly – driving a VW Beetle, not a good idea for a man who lived on benzedrine and alcohol (indeed he had to give it up shortly after the footage was taken). At one point, Igor Stravinsky came on to declare that 'Auden has been in Austria too long now. After all, we can't afford to give our best poet to the Germans.'  Quite.
 The programme ended, fittingly, with another poem Auden wrote in 1939 - the great elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats... 'In the deserts of the heart/ Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.'